Finally visiting San Marcos Growers in Santa Barbara

The 2019 Bromeliad Summit in Santa Barbara was a two-day extravaganza the likes of which I probably won't see again for a while. A personal highlight was breakfast at San Marcos Growers, a wholesale nursery specializing in “plants appropriate to California's mediterranean climate, including many California native plants, as well as vines, trees, shrubs, ferns, perennials, succulents, ornamental grasses and grass-like plants from other areas around the world.” [1]

San Marcos Growers isn't open to the public, but their plants are carried by retail nurseries across California and in the Pacific Northwest. Over the years, I've bought many of their plants at the Ruth Bancroft Garden nursery and Peacock Horticultural Nursery. More recently, I've been able to get SMG plants via a friend so I've been able to indulge.

San Marcos Growers is named after San Marcos Road, the location of the nursery. For a long while I was confused because there's also a town named San Marcos, but it's much further south in San Diego County.

The nursery was started in 1979 by retired businessman Jim Hodges and City of Santa Barbara arborist David Gress on a 6-acre lot. Over time, adjoining properties were purchased, and today SMG has 21 acres in production, with 2 additional acres of cutting and demonstration gardens.

Massive agave flower stalk at San Macros Growers

To many of us, San Marcos Growers is synonymous with Randy Baldwin. He was hired in 1981 as production manager, became general manager in 1990, and is part owner of the company today. Arguably one of the biggest stars in the plant world in California. Randy has been a pioneer in the popularization of plants appropriate for our Mediterranean climate, including many South African and Australian plants that hadn't been seen in California gardens before. This interview with Randy Baldwin, which was posted on the State of California's CA GROWN blog on February 17, 2017, is a great introduction to what Randy does and what his interests are. It's a fast and informative read, and I highly recommend it.

Along with everything else, Randy also writes the descriptions for the plant database on the SMG web site. It's usually the first resource I go when I try to find out more about a specific plant. In addition to the specs you expect in a plant description, Randy gives valuable hardiness information and, with hybrids and cultivars, often sheds light on the plant's origin. Without the SMG database, I'd be lost, and that's no lie.

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Back to the Bromeliad Summit. Between breakfast, the silent auction, and the many opportunities to socialize, there wasn't as much time to explore SMG as I would have liked. But that's how it always is.

The first group of photos below were taken near the office. Eventually, Loree and I went a bit farther afield and checked out the container production area, especially the succulents. We were the only ones there.

As you can imagine, the desire to take home plants was strong. Unfortunately, with all the Summit-related hubbub going on, SMG wasn't able to accommodate those of us who wanted to do some shopping. I'll be honest, I was a bit disappointed, but I understood. Heck, SMG had already gone all out to serve as a great breakfast complete with pastries as well as a bagels, cream cheese and smoked salmon!

There's something oddly lovable about this old chair not far from where I parked. I bet it's gotten a fair amount of use over the years, mostly by nursery employees during a break.

One thing to bear in mind as you look at these photos: San Marcos Growers is a working production nursery. Since there are no walk-in retail customers, there's no need for pretty trappings like artfully arranged plants, shiny containers, clever gadgets and the assorted other doodads you expect to find in a retail environment. SMG's customers are other nurseries as well as landscapers and landscape designers. They're there to buy plants and don't mind if things aren't super fancy.

In the photos below, where I was able to identify a plant, I've added a link to the corresponding entry in the SMG plant database. Do click a few of these links to see what useful information is out there for anybody to use.

LEFT: Beaucarnea recurvata 'Gold Star'  (more info)  ︱  RIGHT: Geranium maderense (more info)

Dracaena serrulata (more info)

Clivia miniata 'San Marcos Yellow' (more info)

Kumara plicatilis (more info)

Grevillea 'Peaches and Cream' (more info)

TOP: Cordyline 'Electric Flash' (more info)
BOTTOM: Phylica pubescens (more info)

Created especially for us, this bromeliad display features many of the broms San Marcos Growers has grown in the past

Sonchus canariensis (more info)

LEFT: Puya coerulea var. coerulea (more info)  ︱  RIGHT: assorted bromeliads

Puya coerulea var. coerulea (more info)

Staghorn ferns (Platycerium sp.)

Somebody's plant order?

More plant orders...


...for pickup or delivery

Open side door in one of the SMG delivery vans

Agave shipment ready to go

Container production area:

How I'd love to have a convenient supply of potting soil, always there when I need it

Aloes and other succulents

An abundance of aloes (you know, a shrewdness of apes, a sounder of boars, a flutter of butterflies, a coalition of cheetahs, etc.

Agave schidigera 'Shira ito no Ohi' (more info)

Agave 'Blue Glow' (more info)

Mangave 'Red Wing' (more info)

Mangave 'Freckles and Speckles' (more info)

Mangave 'Macho Mocha' (more info)
Agave weberi 'Arizona Star'  (more info)

Puya laxa (more info)

Puya laxa

Dyckia 'Silver Superstar' (more info)
Agave potatorum 'Cherry Swizzle' (more info)

Yucca 'Bright Star' (more info)

Agave salmiana var. ferox 'Medio Picta' (more info)

Aloe 'Erik the Red' (more info)

Aloe 'David's Delight' (more info)

Aloe 'Yemeni Gold' (more info)

Aloe 'Big Mac' (more info)

Leucospermum 'Veldfire' (more info)

I've never seen so many new nursery containers in one place!

A beehive of activity at the silent auction tables

Beaucarnea 'Gold Star' (more info)

Aloe secundiflora (more info)
Agave attenuata 'Variegata' (more info)

Agave attenuata 'Variegata' (more info)

Mangave quartet, all creations of mangave whiz Hans Hansen at Walters Gardens

BACK: Mangave 'Kaleidoscope' (more info)
FRONT: Hechtia 'Silver Star' (more info)

Does anybody know what this beauty might be!

Hechtia lanata

Hechtia rosea (more info)

Unidentified orthophytum

Orthophytum magalhaesii flowers (more info)

Acacia cognata 'Cousin Itt' (more info)

So there you have it. You may be as overwhelmed as I was and yet even more enthusiastic than before about the many cool plants San Marcos Growers produces. If you're a succulent fan, their aloe and agave offerings are of particular interest. Because of their deep ties in the plant community, SMG has access to seeds and plant material that may not be available through other channels. At the same time, exciting hybrids or sports continue to be found right in the SMG growing grounds.


2019 Bromeliad Summit in Santa Barbara

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  1. That would have hurt not to be able to shop!

    Their website is the best. I must check it 10 times a week.

    Great post! Thanks!

  2. SMG is my favorite stop for plant information too. As several of my local garden centers are retail outlets for their plants, I'm wondering where in heck those Mangaves and Hechtias are as I've yet to see any of them on offer! I'm headed to Santa Barbara this weekend so maybe I'll have more luck at one of my stops there.

  3. Wonderful post. Thanks. SMG is my plant bible and I've printed their descriptions as a permanent reference for plants in my garden.

  4. So many gorgeous plants within reach but unobtainable. Must have been a real treat though to be able to explore the operation. I second the sentiment about a ready supply of potting mix. Thanks for the great tour.

  5. Wow, does this bring back memories. About 25 years ago, I went to a plant symposium in Santa Barbera, with a good friend who has a VERY winsome personality. Randy was one of the speakers, and after his talk, my friend managed to get us an invite to drop by the nursery the next day. Randy gave the two of us a personal tour around the office building and thru the growing grounds, probably one of the highlights of my gardening life. I'm glad you got the opportunity to go, it looks like the growing grounds have really expanded in the intervening years. Sue

  6. Thank you for the background on Randy and the nursery. I must say knowing I wouldn't be able to buy any plants at SMG was almost a relief for me, I could just take it all in with my eyes and not work on strategizing what I could get home.

  7. I could probably get in here to visit since I am a buyer for a garden center but I always forget about trying. They won't sell to us though because of our location on Highway 29- they will go up 101 I think as far north as Santa Rosa, but 29 is off limits.

  8. Your posts are so comprehensive Gerhard; love the links to SMG pages below the pics!


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