Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sierra Azul Nursery & Gardens, Watsonville, CA

Last weekend we visited family in Watsonville, CA, just south of Santa Cruz, probably the most iconic beach town in Northern California. While Santa Cruz is hip, cool and over-educated, Watsonville is agricultural and down to earth. The bulk of strawberries sold in Northern California supermarkets comes from Watsonville, together with many other types of fruits and vegetables.

As it turns out, Sierra Azul, the Watsonville nursery we visited on Sunday morning, was once strawberry fields. Now it is one of the most interesting nurseries I’ve visited in a long time. Even though Sierra Azul was recommended to me by the good folks in the Succulent Fanatics group on Facebook, I didn’t expect to find a demonstration garden cum outdoor sculpture park and a nursery very thoughtfully stocked with southern hemisphere plants, succulents, and plants ideally suited for Mediterranean climates.

Entrance to Sierra Azul Nursery & Gardens
Palm trees, prickly pears and agaves along the edge of the driveway into the nursery parking lot
Aloe arborescens in full bloom

When we arrived at 9 a.m. sharp on Sunday morning, the nursery wasn’t even open yet. We were able to freely roam the 2-acre demonstration garden, and even my daughters, who haven’t been bitten by the horticultural bug yet, found enough to keep them entertained for a while. (The bamboo grove shown further down was a big hit.)

Entrance to the 2-acre display gardens
Agave vilmoriniana and Leucadendron ‘Wilson's Wonder’
Billows of dried ornamental grass and Leucadendron salignum ‘Golden Tulip’
New Zealand flax, spurge, Leucadendron salignum ‘Golden Tulip’, rosemary
Does any shrub/tree provide more winter interest than red osier dogwood
(here: Cornus stolonifera ‘Cardinal’)?
Two of my favorite plant groups: bamboo in the background (Phyllostachys bambusoides?) and a restio (Chondropetalum tectorum) in the foreground on the right
Bamboo tunnel

Sierra Azul has hosted an annual installation of sculpture art since 2006. Every year over a hundred pieces by dozens of artists are on display in the demonstration garden and nursery. In addition, there is a permanent collection of sculptures that appears to be on exhibit all the time.

I realize that many of the pieces shown in the photos below are far too large and/or expensive for regular folks like yours truly, but I still found it incredibly exciting to walk among so many stunning pieces.

“Observation Tower” by Aaron Van de Kerckhove, one of the largest sculptures in the demonstration garden
“Imagination, Vicky Dream” by Michael Seymour
“GMO Heifer” by Michael Seymour
“Shield and Skirt” by Paul Cheney (left) and huge clump of Rhodocoma capensis (right)
“Bottle Rockets” by nursery owner Jeff Rosendale
“Strawberry Fields” by Kathleen Crocetti
“Begonia Fields” by Kathleen Crocetti
“Flaming Lotus Lily” by Dr Wasabe
“Cosmology” by Jack Biesek
“Crows” by Tamar Assaf
Agave americana (left) and “Sphere” by David Mudgett (right)

Interspersed with these intriguing pieces of art are plants that I found just as interesting. While most ornamental grasses and shrubs are still dormant, succulents took center stage.

Cotyledon macrantha
Aloes in their winter colors
Graptoveria hybrid (left) and potted Agave americana ‘'Marginata' (right)
Graptoveria hybrid and Echeveria agavoides
Echeveria agavoides and Graptopetalum paraguayense
Variegated Yucca filifera, Echeveria imbricata and Graptopetalum paraguayense
Agave bracteosa
LEFT: Aloe striatula and Echeveria agavoides
RIGHT: Echeveria agavoides in an old clay sewer pipe (great look, I will “borrow” it in our own garden)
Mound featuring Dasylirion longissimum
Dasylirion longissimum (left) and Leucadendron salignum ‘Winter Red’ on the right (that’s the same leucadendron I bought at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum the day before)

Being the bamboo lover that I am, I was thrilled to discover a 24-inch box of one of my favorites, Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata var. aztecorum). It goes so well with larger succulents, it should be planted much more in mild-winter climates (it’s clumping, so non-invasive). Check out the beautiful specimen at UC Berkeley Botanical Garden here.

Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata var. aztecorum) in 24-inch box

For a measly $12.95 you can get your own 1 gallon pot of Mexican weeping bamboo and kick your xeric garden into overdrive!

Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata var. aztecorum), 1 gallon plants

And if bamboo isn’t your thing, how about this 5 gallon Australian tree fern (Cyathea cooperi)? Thanks to coastal fog, Watsonville is more humid and significantly cooler than Davis; my tree ferns never look this good (and are much smaller)!

Australian tree fern (Cyathea cooperi)—I want one!

I’ve been mentioning manzanitas a lot lately (1 2); here is a really nice selection for the naturalistic western garden.

Selection of manzanitas

But what made my heart beat faster were the southern hemisphere plants, like these banksias…

Selection of banksias


Selection of grevilleas


Selection of proteas (and a couple of leucadendrons in the foreground)

…and leucadendrons. Sierra Azul had very nice larger specimens of leucadendrons, all at 20% off. As so many times before, I was wishing we had a larger lot. I would love to plant a garden with proteaceans.

Selection of leucadendrons

While not quite as stunning (and admittedly much smaller) than the Acacia baileyana I had just seen at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, this acacia was still an impressive specimen.

Spectacular potted acacia in bloom

While Sierra Azul doesn’t specialize in succulents, they had a good selection. In addition to 4-inch containers (priced very reasonably at $3.95) there were quite a few larger 1 gallon pots.

Succulents in 1 gallon pots and larger

The sales kiosk, newly equipped with solar panels, is surrounded by plants I thought were particularly tempting. I guess it’s the grocery store equivalent of selling candy and tabloid magazines at the checkout—junk food for plant lovers :-).

Sales kiosk

Even though this is one of the smallest sculptures on display, “Rollover” by Penny Waller was one of my favorites. At $750 it was one of the cheapest as well. But unfortunately, it was still out of my price range. But maybe some day…

“Rollover” by Penny Walker, with all kinds of interesting plants
Entrance to the retail nursery

We ended up buying more plants than we had anticipated—including a yellow twig dogwood(Cornus stolonifera ‘Flaviramea’) for my in-laws and a ‘Marina’ strawberry tree (Arbutus ‘Marina’) for a friend who was looking for one—and I couldn’t be happier. I try to put my money where my mouth is, and supporting small family-owned nurseries is something that is dear to my heart.

Sierra Azul Nursery & Gardens is located across from the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds at 2660 East Lake Avenue (Highway 152) in Watsonville, CA.

Also check out this long but very interesting blog post about their propagation operation.


  1. Lovely! And I've never seen an Agave bracteosa as large as the one you've pictured.

    1. Me neither! My Agave bracteosa is the slowest agave I have. It has barely grow an inch in three years.

  2. Awesome nursery -- some of that sculpture has really inspired me. Love the mosaic panels!

    1. Oh, and I would have grabbed one of those Mexican Weeping bamboos. I still want to try this plant in a pot! (to spend the winter in the garage). Along with some restios.

    2. Alan, send me a list of plants you're interested in and I will keep an eye out for you.

  3. Fantastic looking nursery Gerhard and lots of goodies! I like the sculptures too, especially the crows and the Volkswagen flowers.

    1. What I loved best was the element of surprise. I simply did not expect to find such a beautiful nursery.

  4. Sierra Azul is heaven on earth—especially being that it's situated next to those hills that look like Italy without the castles. Jeff's a real visionary, isn't he? I've had the pleasure of being his web consultant for years now. It's a joy to bring friends there.

    (One thought: how can any town, or anyone, be "over-educated"?)