Plant nursery returns to its roots
by Andrea Ruse
At first glance, the half dozen “fruit salad” trees lining the northeast corner of the plant nursery at Sepulveda Boulevard and Second Street in Manhattan Beach look ordinary.
But upon closer inspection, there is something strange and fascinating about them.
Owner Jon Bell, who last month opened Deep Roots Nursery — formerly Annie’s Garden — gently thumbs over the small green leaves of a seedling and turns over the tag hanging off one of its branches.
Desert Gold peaches.
His hand moves down the same tree’s slender trunk, grabbing the tag attached to its next brown limb.
Florida Pride peaches.
The next branch’s tag says Eva’s Pride peaches will one day bloom, and the next indicates the advent of May’s Pride peaches.
All from the same plant.
“The fruit salad trees are still new to most people that come in,” Bell, 28, says. “I love getting reactions from people. Their minds are blown by these trees. It’s pretty cool.”
Bell, who has spent nearly half his life working at the corner nursery, said that even completely different fruits — such as peaches, plums, apricots and nectarines — can grow on a single tree.
“We’re trying to find cool, different things,” he says. “We have lots of things people have never seen before, and we definitely stand out. There are literally several thousand plants here to choose from.”
The Deeper the Roots
The store was called Bob’s Nursery when Bell started working there in 1997, and by that time it was already widely known and respected in the community. Bob Brock bought the business, formerly Manhattan Nursery, in 1970 and renamed it.
“Bob ran a really good business,” said Bell, who grew up in Manhattan Beach. “It was a community institution. That’s what we’re trying to get back to.”
At 15, Bell started working for Brock, a friend of his parents.
“It was a bare bones nursery back then,” Bell said. “And I had an easy in. I started sweeping floors and huffing bags of dirt.”
A Mira Costa student at the time, Bell hardly imagined that 13 years later he’d own the three-quarter acre lot. Admittedly, he hardly noticed plants at all, at first.
“One day, I was helping someone out and Bob asked me for a bag of baby tears,” Bell said. “I didn’t know what they were and he was pretty upset with me.”
After that, Bell started paying attention. He learned which plants grow best in coastal areas and the benefits of organic pest control. Suddenly, the proper care of orchids and the fact that May is the prime time for fuchsias became interesting.
“Every day you learn something new,” he said. “I never knew there was so much variety. After awhile, I got the bug.”
Over the next three years, Bell worked with Brock, absorbing plant knowledge the way soil soaks up water.
“I learned everything by doing it,” Bell said. “Through osmosis and getting my hands dirty.”
He gained recognition in the community as an authority on gardening and landscape advice, teaching classes on everything from growing herbs to water-wise plants to potting and blooming.
“There are many people here that want the knowledge and experience that Jon brings,” said resident and long-time customer Jeff Wallin.
In 2000, Brock retired and sold the business to two women who changed the company’s name to Annie’s Garden. Bell, customers and employees said that over the next decade they watched the slow digging up of the roots Brock had grown in the community.
“It became notoriously overpriced, and alienated a lot of people who had been coming here for decades,” Bell said. “We watched lots of people go over the years — people we used to see once a month, to every six months, to haven’t seen them in a year or two.”
“Things changed,” Wallin said. “It wasn’t the nursery that Bob had.”
Nonetheless, Bell remained a fixture of the store and was promoted to carry-out handler, sales associate, buyer, garden designer and, in 2006, general manager.
Last September, the owners put the nursery up for sale and closed its doors shortly after. By that time, the back lot had become overgrown with waist-high weeds, according to Bell.
“At that point, I’d been thinking about buying it, when I saw there would be no turning back and it would close,” he said. “I didn’t want to go back to another boss, so I started putting together a business plan and looking for money.”
Bell’s parents ultimately financed the venture, after two investors backed out and he was denied a loan.
“It’s family-owned,” Bell said. “We all have a stake in it, but the reins are mine.”
Bell puts in 14 hour days, seven days a week, working with dedicated family and staff to return the nursery to the way it was when his green-thumbed mentor, Brock, oversaw the operation.
This month, Bell and company celebrated the grand opening of Deep Roots, named apropos of the nursery’s longstanding community ties.
One of the first changes Bell made was lowering prices to compete with box stores.
“I’m living in a shoebox to give people better prices and higher quality,” said Bell, who now lives in Redondo Beach.
Bell chopped down weeds and converted the overgrown junk heap in the back into a lush, shaded garden area with crafted wood beams and plants spilling over from every angle. He also improved the less glamorous side of the business, expanding the nursery’s line of fertilizers and organic pesticides, which he said most residents insist on using instead of chemicals.
A full-service florist shop offers a wide variety of traditional and unique arrangements, as well as coral, starfish, barnacles, sea urchin shells, and beach glass.
“John has it back to the way Bob had it,” Wallin said.
He who plants a tree
Bell looks over some of the nursery’s more exotic plants — Japanese maples, Chinese lanterns, and astramaris — while discussing plans in coming months to add a full range of services, including landscape design, installation, maintenance, gardening classes and troubleshooting.
“The biggest mistake people make is overwatering,” he says. “If it’s still wet, don’t water it.”
The nursery’s staff of 12 employees offers years of collective knowledge to customers, whether growing their first fruit salad tree or simply trying to understand which plant varieties grow best in the South Bay.
“We don’t know everything, but we know which plants succeed in this area,” longtime employee C.J. Lash said. “These are coastal plants for coastal people.”
Bell works with a couple dozen suppliers to bring in a large and varied selection of indoor, outdoor, traditional, organic and native plants. Customers who don’t immediately find what they are looking for can place catalogue orders.
“From top to bottom, my quality is consistently good,” Bell says.
Plants bearing all kinds of fruits, vegetables and herbs — including citrus and stone fruits, avocados, artichokes, eggplant, pumpkin, rhubarb and basil — are displayed in a neatly kept outdoor garden.
Bell highly suggests customers grow their own produce.
“The cat’s out of the bag,” he says. “The quality you get in the grocery store is terrible. Unripe green tomatoes are shot up with red dye so they’ll keep longer.”
One of Bell’s favorite features is a drought-tolerant garden on the south side of the nursery, with vibrant and odd-shaped plants — including smoke bush, campfire succulents, flapjacks, and aeoniums. He says the garden often surprises customers.
“We’re really making the case that drought-tolerant plants can be just as, if not more, beautiful than more traditional plants,” Bell says. “They have a huge variety with lots of colors.”
“I’m always looking for new, exciting plants,” he adds.
As for the impressive fruit salad tree, Bell says the trick is plain, old, weird science.
“It just starts with one tree,” he says. “Then branches from other varieties are grafted onto it. The quality of the fruit is actually better. Part of the grafting process includes selecting roots and stocks that are more resilient and disease-resistant than others. They grow better.”
Bell excuses himself to assist a wide-eyed wannabe green-thumbed customer who saunters into the store clutching a potted plant that she is clearly unsure of how to handle
“Aside from having my dream store come together, the best part has been knowing how much people missed us when we were gone for six months,” he says. “There are a lot of customers who have been relying on me for years. I see lots of familiar faces coming back.” ER