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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.