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When Robin Stockwell first discovered the mysteries of succulents, you could barely find them for sale. And when you did, they were a sorry sight.

“I would go into a retail nursery and look around and wander in to where they had their cactus and succulents,” said Stockwell, who unwittingly was decades ahead of his time in recognizing their winning combination of beauty and functionality. “There would be plants that were dead or had bugs all over them. Some were drowning in cans with no drainage. There was no consistency to the containers and no labels.”

That was back in the early 1970s, when every tract house had a thirsty lawn and few Northern Californians gave a thought to natives and low water-use plants.

“There were definitely times,” he said, “when I felt like I was swimming up a river.”

But eventually this persistent surfer dude from Santa Cruz caught the perfect wave in the early 2000s when consumer tastes caught up with these sophisticated plants. As a premier wholesale grower who supplied plants to many of the top nurseries in the Bay Area, including Flora Grubb in San Francisco and Prickett’s and King’s nurseries in Santa Rosa, Stockwell did as much as anyone to popularize these long-overlooked plants. He eventually became one of the largest wholesale providers of succulents on the West Coast. His Succulent Gardens nursery in tiny Castroville, set amid the artichoke fields of Monterey County, featured 400 varieties of succulents and became a destination for professional horticulturists and hobbyists alike.

Stockwell sold the nursery a few years ago. But he’s still a recognized voice of authority. His “Succulents; The Ultimate Guide to Choosing, Designing and Growing 200 Easy-Care Plants,” published last year by Oxmoor House, an imprint of Time, Inc., is still the top seller among books on Ornamental Plant Gardening on Amazon.

He will pay a visit Thursday March 15 to the Santa Rosa Garden Club in an afternoon talk and Q and A that is open to the public. Tickets are $25. To pre-order email events@yahoo.com or call 707-953-4241. Doors open at 1:30 p.m. for pre-ordered Will Call tickets.

Stockwell had just gotten out of the Army and had enrolled at San Jose State when he hooked up with buddy Gerry Moran, who had a small greenhouse in Santa Cruz.

“We were driving down to Fort Ord one day and saw a little sign that said Mulligan Hill Cactus. Mulligan Hill is at the mouth of the Salinas River. We drove out there through the artichoke fields to check it out. It was spring and all the little cactus plants were in bloom and we thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ There were literally thousands of them.”

The owners wanted to sell. So Stockwell put up the money and his friend provided the greenhouse and almost overnight, they were in business.

Instead of focusing on the product line, Stockwell found that he had to start at a more basic level. He began preaching the virtues of succulents, not just as houseplants but in the landscape. Not only are many extremely hardy, but they are low maintenance and easy to move around and transplant.

He tried using cuttings in bouquets and worked with U.C. Davis researchers testing them for “vase life,” discovering some could last for months.

“I was trying to teach people all of these things,” he said, “but it was really falling on deaf ears.”

In 1981 he opened a retail store in Carmel, “Succulent Gardens,” that also served as a showroom to display plants and arrangements for a public still blind to their possibilities. But he quickly learned that it’s hard to pay Carmel rents by selling plants. So he expanded into pottery, weather vanes and statuary, becoming a pioneer not only in succulents but garden decor. It proved so popular he gave up on succulents altogether in 1985.

Fast forward to 2003. Garden design was changing and sustainability was entering the lexicon. Stockwell sensed the time had come to start selling succulents again. He found a greenhouse near Castroville and started cultivating, building Succulent Gardens into a 3-acre mecca with a stock of 10,000 plants. At the same time, he evangelized to whoever or whatever group would listen. He held Succulent Extravaganzas at his nursery. drawing up to 1,500 people to walk through his display gardens and marvel at wonders like his big succulent “wave,” a mound of earth studded with blue and green succulents.

Stockwell also made waves at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show. In 2012 he created a large rotating globe for the display gardens area. He worked with a fabricator to create a large sphere with eight planters — four in the northern hemisphere and four in the southern hemisphere. It took 20,000 succulents of different colors and shapes to fill out the living world. Other over-the-top displays included a cube house with succulent walls and a moat.

Garden trends come and go. But the succulent craze is still sizzling.

The next level, Stockwell said, is the increasing sophistication in how succulents are being used in the landscape.

“Ten years ago, if you drove down the streets of San Francisco you would see some agaves but you wouldn’t see much in the way of gardens that are succulent plantings. Today you drive around and they are everywhere, especially in coastal California, where you can use such a diversity of the material because you’re not concerned about freezes, and the coastal areas are drought prone.”

In a decade of experimentation, people have learned what succulents grow well in their climate or microclimate, how to care for them and how to incorporate them into a landscape with other types of plants.

“What we found,” he said, “is that there is such a diversity of shapes and colors and forms of succulents that almost any other plant material works well with some of those shapes, colors and forms. There’s just such a huge inventory of material you can pull from.”

Stockwell said succulents also are more versatile waterwise than many people imagine, as long as the soil is well drained. You could even work them in with plants that are watered two to three times a week and they will be fine. They also can do well with grasses, provided the grasses are cut regularly so they don’t cover over the succulents.

And like any other popular category of garden plants, there are new hybrids reaching the market all the time. New hybrids of Delosperma, or ice plant, are being produced that don’t blow out their flowers within a month, but instead flower all summer long, Stockwell said. The’re also producing new ones in different colors, like yellow and orange, or with foliage that is tight and low growing, making them attractive for rock gardens, he said.

It takes just a little knowledge about your plant’s needs to grow happy succulents. They can be found all over the world, but essentially grow in three environments — desert, alpine and tropical with salty water.

“Succulents are just plants. And like any other plant, they need sunlight, water, the right temperatures — all the things that are important to any plant are important to succulents.” Stockwell said. “It’s varying degrees of those things that helps you produce the best-looking plants. Some want full sun and some want partial shade. Some want to be watered once a week and some not more than once a month.”

Research your plant, he said, and give it want it wants.

“But one of the things people have found out about succulents,” he said. “You can have a lot of fun with them if you embrace them.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com at 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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