5 Bay Area nurseries have the plants you’re looking for — orchids, palms, and more
Ornaments and plants are on display for customers at Morningsun Herb Farm in Vacaville. Morningsun, like other family-owned nurseries, has a diverse selection of plants but specializes in certain plants that cannot be found elsewhere.
Sure, you can go to your favorite home improvement store and pick out the plants that everyone grows. But if there’s something special — something unique — you just have to have it for your garden. Nothing compares to local nurseries, and the Bay Area boasts plenty of them.
While it’s true that big-box stores, which often offer plants at discount prices, have led to the collapse of many family-owned businesses, the nurseries that survived did so with smart pivots: they expanded their selection of plants and focused on specialty plants, such as herbs , orchids, California natives, Asian plants and palms.
These are some of our favorites.
Orchids Bay Area, Half Moon Bay
Family comes first at Bay Area Orchids, where Juan Manuel Aguilares, his wife, Maria, and their three sons work hard to “cultivate healthy plants and happy minds.”
“It might sound a little corny,” says Jesus Aguilaris. “But all we care about is love and family ties. We pay a lot of attention to what we do, and you can see that in the plants. They are raised with love.”
After working for years in the sugarcane fields of his native Mexico, Juan Manuel moved to the Bay Area in 1997 and was immediately drawn to some of the most elegant and mysterious flowers on the planet—first while working at Half Moon Bay Orchids and then ePlant World.
When the latter went bankrupt last year, he boldly started a new venture on the same site.
“I love the whole process of growing plants and teaching my children how to grow orchids,” says Juan Manuel. “I feel happy when the plants start to flower.”
Jesus, 22 – along with his brothers Juan Manuel Jr., 17, and Daniel, 14 – pick up things as they go, while learning from their father that growing orchids requires a great deal of patience.
“It’s a methodical process, but he’s very dedicated, determined and persistent,” Jesus says. “He is part of a dying breed – a craftsman who does it all while providing for his family.”
The Aguillares Nursery specializes in Phalaenopsis (also known as the butterfly orchid) and Cymbidium species, and they hope to expand their inventory to include more exotic and rare varieties in the near future. At the same time, they admit that starting a business amid the pandemic has its challenges.
“A lot of people doubted it. We had doubters,” says Jesus. “But from my point of view, if you have to quarantine and stay inside, it would be good to have some orchids around you. They are stress relievers. They give a feeling of calm.”
details: Bay Area Orchids is open 9am-6:30pm daily at 12511 San Mateo Road in Half Moon Bay; www.bayareaorchids.com.
Golden Gate Palms, Point Richmond
It would be accurate to say that Golden Gate Palms, which specializes in palms of all shapes and sizes, as well as avocados and subtropical plants, has its origins in the heart of an 8-year-old boy.
Gary Gragg, who grew up in Lafayette, developed an obsession with plants at an early age, filling his room, the yard and then his mother’s entire house with a stunning array of plants. But it’s the queen palm growing in a Denny’s parking lot in Pleasant Hill that may have sealed the deal.
Garage admired the Queen, the stately, single-trunk palm that earned her name. The sky-scraping tree topped with a graceful canopy of bright green leaves with a classic droop. At certain times of the year, bright orange dates fill the top of the tree.
Garage was fascinated by the tree. He knew that eventually, he would drop the seeds, and with any luck, those seeds would germinate and produce a new queen palm. When his dream came true, he rode his bike to the parking lot, shovel in hand, dug up a small sapling and set off with his treasure.
His plant collection followed him to college and then to his first home. Eventually, it turned into full custody. Armed with a wealth of horticultural and landscape knowledge, he opened Golden Gate Palms Garage in 2002, and the nursery quickly became the go-to place for palms and subtropics.
Garage even defied garden logic by planting banana and mango trees, which he says could thrive in many Bay Area gardens and squares.
“We sell palm trees of every variety possible,” says Garage. “The ones that need cranes, which we have, are small, extremely rare. Moreover, we sell all kinds of subtropical and exotic plants. I have encountered really wonderful things, so he took them and used them.
Although Gragg has many commercial clients — the nursery supplies palm trees to businesses and institutions throughout the Bay Area — most of his clients are everyday gardeners looking for something different for their spaces.
details: Golden Gate Palms is open 9am-5pm daily at 425 Cutting Blvd. at Point Richmond; https://www.goldengatepalms.com.
Morningson Herb Farm, Vacaville
In the early 1990s, Rose Lovell was working for the U.S. Forest Service in Placerville, where she ran research greenhouses and was surrounded by “little trees.” But what she really wanted to do was lose herself in the fragrant herbs.
That’s when the concept for Morningsun Herb Farm began to take shape. Knowing there was nothing like it nearby, Lovell created a specialty nursery on the three-acre plot of land where she grew up and where her parents have lived since 1956.
“It was their idea,” Loval recalls. “They said, ‘Why don’t we do it here?’ The land was flat and there was water and electricity, and it was free! And I thought: This is something I can do.
Things got off to a humble start with one small greenhouse, just 60 varieties of herbs, and only weekend hours. Looking back, Loveall recalls how potential clients would often drive past her humble place in the country “several times” before locating it.
Fast forward to the present, where the demand for fresh herbs is increasing dramatically. Morningsun now grows more than 700 varieties and its business is booming.
“We can make as much money in one day as we used to make over the course of a whole year,” she says proudly.
Lovell insists that she and her clients love herbs because they are “interactive plants.”
“You can cook with them. You can make medicine. They smell good. They repel insects,” she says. “It’s really practical. They’re not just there to look at.”
Its biggest seller? “Basil, basil,” Basil says. “From mid-March to July, it’s an obsession.”
In Morningsun, Plants shares the spotlight with a trio of furry creatures – two donkeys and an oversized goat named Goose.
“He’s worthless. He’s really old, you can’t raise him,” says Lovell. “But he’s very sweet and very friendly. Our customers love it.”
details: Morningsun Herb Farm is open 10am-4pm Thursday-Sunday at 6137 Pleasants Valley Road in Vacaville; https://morningsunherbfarm.com.
Yamagami Garden Center is located in Cupertino
The cedar tree on the grounds of Yamagami Garden Center began living in a small container seven decades ago. It is now over 50 feet tall.
“It’s very firmly rooted in the place, very much like our family,” Brittany Shedd says.
Indeed, that towering evergreen tree is an apt metaphor for a company that prides itself on its rich history and family continuity. After launching the business in 1948 as a fruit stand amid sprawling orchards, original owner Taro Yamagami sold the nursery in 1963 to Mase Oka, who worked under him for 10 years.
Mass and his wife, Betty, retired in 1983, turning the operation over to their son Preston, who eventually turned things over to his daughter, Brittany, and her husband, Michael. And through it all, the original name has remained.
“Many of our clients remember coming here as children. Now they bring their own kids,” says Shedd, whose first job in high school was in daycare. After leaving for college, she decided to come back because she didn’t like her major — city planning.
She attributes Yamagami’s long-term success to an unwavering desire to maintain a “family feel.”
“We are a small, independent company. We are not a corporation,” Sheedy says. “And some of our core employees have been with us for more than 20 years. “I hope that means we are doing something right.”
As for the nursery’s offerings, it’s particularly proud of its edible selections — vegetables, herbs and citrus trees — and is proud that Yamagami serves more than 60 zip codes across the Bay Area.
She also points to more than 100 selections of bonsai at the nursery – ranging from 3-inch to 1-gallon sizes, as well as ready-made bonsai options suitable for indoor and outdoor settings. In addition, Yamagami carries tools and educational books for growing and caring for bonsai.
“Bonsai is a niche market in most places, but for us, it’s a very centralized market,” Shedd says. “Being a Japanese nursery, it is an important piece.”
details: Yamagami Garden Center is open 9am-4pm Monday-Thursday, and 9am-5pm Friday and Saturday at 1361 S. De Anza Blvd. In Cupertino. www.yamagamis.com.
East Bay Nursery, Berkeley
This nursery is one of the oldest in the East Bay area, first opening in one small building in 1926. It has been family-owned since 1942. Today, East Bay Nursery covers most of the entire Berkeley city block and is one of the favorite places for Californians And house plants.
General manager Dominique Gamache says the nursery has built its reputation on offering something for everyone, whether a professional gardener, landscape designer, garden novice or, increasingly, people working on a botanical oasis for their apartments.
East Bay has long considered itself a landscape nursery, offering larger plants in larger gallon pots, Gamache says. But they’ve found that many of their newer clients have smaller yards or none at all. So, while they still offer larger plants, they also stock plants more suitable for postage stamp gardens and balconies.
“We try to get not only what’s blooming right now, but also get plants to help the homeowner and the porch owner build their landscape for the future,” Gamache says.
California native plants make up a large portion of the nursery’s inventory. Although the popularity of drought-tolerant plants can sometimes wane a little, they are always going strong.
“It’s always evolving and changing,” says Gamache. “We’ll stumble a little when it rains, but (interest) always comes back.”
To keep up with trends and renewed interest in gardening at home and abroad, Gamache says the nursery has increased its focus on houseplants, succulents and fruit trees, many of which can be grown in containers. They’ve also modified their pot and container selections, keeping their redwood planters in stock and adding a variety of decorative pots for houseplants — perfect for that apartment oasis.
details: The nursery is open 9am-5pm Tuesday-Saturday at 2332 San Pablo Street in Berkeley; www.eastbaynursery.com.