Sonoma County landscapers, nurseries find uptick in business with drought-tolerant plants, trees
The path up to Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards in the hills northeast of Windsor, through the years became one of the most scenic drives within Sonoma County.
Its entrance, which gave way to nicely paved roads lined by tall eucalyptus trees, captivated visitors and provided them with the perfect setting to begin a day of wine tasting.
But during the 2019 Kincade fire, those eucalyptus trees were identified as a potential hazard as the blaze burned its way closer and closer to Chalk Hill Road. Ultimately, though, while the wildfire did threaten the winery it only caused limited damage to nonessential buildings and equipment, as well as the outer portions of the vineyards.
“After talking with the firefighters, we learned those things (eucalyptus trees) are just basically what they call ‘liquid kerosene.’ We were really worried, coming into another drought,” said Shaun Harder, chief of staff for Foley Family Wines, which owns the winery.
Working in an ‘exceptional drought’
Like many other local businesses and residents, the winery turned to Jeff Allen of Allen Land Design to redesign the landscape in an era of climate change, which this year means living with what has been classified as an exceptional drought.
Allen got to work and redesigned the front landscape. He pulled out the eucalyptus trees and replaced them with drought-tolerant, 140-year-old olive trees from Tehama County.
The asphalt was paved over with chip seal – a smooth layer of crushed rock –that allows water to flow into drains on the side of the road when it rains. “The groundwater could come back into the earth more” Allen said.
Succulents were added near the winery sign out front. A selection of plants from a line called “drought devils” were interspersed around the front of the property.
“That really shows it off. The trees are very, very low water-use once they are established,” Allen said of the olive trees. “The drama is with the scale of the trees, the lighting and the gravel. It’s real simple.”
Thriving in a time of hardship
The work his company does is a prime example of how climate change and the worsening drought has increased the workload for certain businesses.
Arborists and others with forest management skills are in demand given the number of burned and damaged trees from previous wildfires.
Pump and well contractors, such as Jerry and Don's Yager Pump & Well in Petaluma, also will likely see an uptick in business as consumers opt to dig new wells or – on properties with existing wells – opt to dig deeper in search of better groundwater sources, said Rob Eyler, an economics professor at Sonoma State University who studies the local economy.
“In catastrophes, there is always opportunity,” Eyler said.
That also has been the case at nurseries such as Emerisa Gardens in Santa Rosa, where customers go to find more drought-tolerant plants and trees for their gardens and lawns and learn what plants work best for them overall, said Jani Weaver, manager of the store’s retail side.
This kind of uptick began during the pandemic when local residents focused more on their own landscaping, as a result of people having more time at home. Sales were up 60% last year over the previous one, Weaver said.
“I had to hire new people just to keep the table stocked,” she said.
Allen also has found himself busy with his business and residential customer base, which he has built up over the years through various ventures.
In the 1980s, he founded a company that sourced decorative grasses for clients and in the late 1990s he founded another firm that supplies olive trees and olive oil throughout California.
“It’s (advocating for) lawns that are not only going to be used for kids, for example ... to really convince people to do that,” he said. But there are limits as homeowners still want their pools. “There’s more and more people who want pools. They want it for fire and they want it for cooling off because it is so hot,” Allen said.
The most recent change is that customers like Chalk Hill are coming to him for landscaping consultations on how to protect against persistent drought conditions, as well as wildfires.
Such designs go hand-in-hand and have led to more landscaping with gravel areas interspersed with so-called specimen plants such as colorful Kangaroo Paws, which can stand out on their own with strategic lighting.
“There are a lot of more gravel areas because people want that buffer,” Allen said of defensible spaces around structures.
You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5233 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BillSwindell.