Forty-four years ago Paul Backus started out at Green Gardens Nursery in Pacific Beach as a water boy. Now he not only owns the place, but his regional business continues to successfully serve coastal clients in the Pacific Beach and La Jolla areas.
Backus claims there’s no mystery to having a green thumb.
Instead, he insists you succeed at gardening through know-how, keeping up with the times, staying ahead of industry trends, and giving customers what they need and want. “We’re ambassadors to doing the right things in nature,” contends Backus, whose organic nursery is at 4910 Cass St.
Of his business strategy, Backus noted: “We’re not just selling you. We want to create happy gardeners that have good experiences that are going to be long-term customers. If we just sold somebody and didn’t help them. And they got the wrong things and went home. Then you’ve lost that customer. If you nurture them and they get hooked: You’ve got a customer for life.”
Backus was an SDSU student when he first went to work for Japanese landscapers back in the day. He liked gardening so much he changed his major to botany. He eventually saved up enough to buy the nursery, which he has since expanded purchasing the property next door, along with adding a gift shop.
Gardening, like clothing, is cyclical, noted Backus.
“Plants are like fashion,” he said. “It changes as time goes on. It’s a guessing game to see what is going to be in fashion. For instance, we were in a drought, and everyone was buying drought-tolerant plants. But that changed real quick. Now that we’ve had the rains, demand has shifted to the tropicals. But it will eventually go back.”
Discussing advice for neophyte San Diego gardeners, Backus pointed out they have some things in their favor, and several things working against them.
“We’re probably one of the best places in the country, besides Hawaii, to grow things year-round,” he pointed out while warning, “But you have two strikes against you. We have some of the worst soils in the country here with this clay adobe soil, which has very little nutritional value. We also have probably the worst water in California, because it’s all imported and picks up all these bad salts and minerals on the way.”
So how do you combat that?
“The whole trick is to start with good soil,” counseled Backus. “If you start with good soil, you’re going to probably have a good experience. If you just go and buy a bunch of vegetables from me, and try to stick them in our crummy San Diego soil and water them with our crummy San Diego water – you’re probably not going to have a good experience.”
The key to gardening success instead, insists Backus, lies in turning negatives into positives by using the right materials.
“You add proper amendments to the soil,” he advised. “Break up that soil with gypsum. Start adding fertilizers because our soils are void of fungi and other things that help plants uptake nutrients.”
Backus had other advice.
“Certain plants are made to be together,” he said. “If you plant the right combination of plants, you ward off insects. If you attract the right beneficial insects and pollenizers, like bees, you have a more productive garden.”
Timing, and temperature, are also critical.
“We put these time frames on things, but it really boils down to the nighttime temperatures,” noted Backus half-jokingly, adding, “Plants will tell you, ‘I don’t care what the calendar says, I’m not going until the temperature is this.’”
The nursery owner offered an example.
“We’ve been carrying peppers and tomatoes for several weeks,” he said. “But it’s still too cold in the nighttime for them to really start taking off. The early birds don’t always catch the worm with spring planting. It all depends on the weather.”
Backus pointed out COVID, in some ways, has actually had a positive impact on his business.
“People have been at home so what do they do?” asked Backus.
“Number one, they notice their backyards, and they want to get their hands dirty, and all of a sudden they’re coming out of the woodwork,” he answered. “Everyone wanted to grow their own veggies, herbs, and fruit trees. It became so popular, it was hard for us to even keep inventory in.”
And the demographics of gardening have changed as well during the pandemic.
“Then we got a big wave of younger people who don’t have gardens or yards. What we saw was a lot of younger people with stimulus checks coming in and buying house plants. House plants have had a tremendous boom,” noted Backus.
Green Gardens Nursery has found organics work the best all-around for all concerned.
“We’re all about organics, especially with soils,” concluded Backus. “The worst thing you can do is try to enrich the soil with chemical fertilizers. What happens is the plants grow really well, really fast. But you don’t want that, because fast-growing plants are going to be more prone to being attacked by insects and funguses. So then you have to run to the nursery to buy chemical fungicides or insecticides. And in trying to kill these bugs and funguses, you’re killing all the natural predators as well.”
“Then you have this bad downward spiral and you finally give up gardening because ‘I can’t garden. I don’t have a green thumb.’ But that’s not true at all. You’re doing the wrong thing. Let nature work for you. Let the soil do the work for you.”
Spring gardening tips by longtime home gardener Linda Marrone, a La Jolla Village News columnist and a La Jolla Realtor specializing in historical properties.
– I like to purchase 4-inch pots of foxgloves, usually the hybrid "Camelot" and plant them in a fairly sunny spot in the garden. I have found that when you purchase foxgloves in 4-inch pots, find ones that have a small flower spike forming. Foxgloves are bi-annual and sometimes the 6-pack plants don't bloom the first year you plant them. I have several planted last year from 6-packs that did not bloom. They will bloom later this spring.
– I like to plant spring flowering plants in different heights and then sow some seeds of flowers that will bloom in the summer months, such as cosmos, coreopsis, Mexican marigolds, or small varieties of sunflowers.
– Always plant a few plants that will attract beneficial insects to your garden. Plants with smaller flowers, such as alyssum, Santa Barbara daisies, and many flowering herbs will do the trick.
– Sometimes, Green Gardens and Walter Anderson's Nursery carries Praying Mantis egg sacks this time of year. Place the sack in a tree or bush, at least 3-4 feet above the ground. I like to place it in a plastic mesh bag that has holes for the baby mantis' to emerge. When the weather heats up, hundreds will emerge and help protect your garden from unwanted invaders. I usually have about 6-8 that survive to adulthood in my garden, the rest are prey when they are so small. It is very interesting to watch them in your garden (see the photo of a Praying Mantis near my foxglove garden a few springs ago).
– Before you plant, feed your soil with organic earthworm castings and a box of some type of seaweed fertilizer. I used to love to supplement my soil with bat guano, but with COVID, I am not sure I want to use it anymore. Having healthy organic soil and using organic fertilizers, makes healthy plants that can resist pest infestation. Chemical fertilizers can make plants large with lots of flowers, but the plant sometimes can become weak and susceptible to pest infestation.