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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

Water Woes

Business has been slow at C&S Nursery Inc. in Baldwin Hills.

Cristian Rosales, who owns the company with his brother Santiago, said the slowdown this summer was due to customers being reluctant to buy new plants.

“With the (watering) restrictions, they don’t want to risk the plant dying on them if they cannot water it appropriately,” Rosales said.

The strict restrictions on outdoor watering have severely pruned business at nurseries throughout the Los Angeles area with one owner claiming sales were down 90% in August. They agree their future may lie with native California plants and growing material that uses less water.

The water restrictions are from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD), which in April asked its member water agencies to either go to a one-day a week watering schedule or go on a water budget – a setting of volumetric limits on the amount of water used. The new requirements started on June 1.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) announced on May 10 that it would go with the water budget option and would allow twice a week watering.

For all LADWP customers with street addresses ending in odd numbers, watering will be limited to Mondays and Fridays. For customers with addresses ending in even numbers, watering will be limited to Thursdays and Sundays. The new city regulations also went into effect on June 1.

The Los Angeles city regulations differ from the MWD regulations in that the city allows residents to water twice a week, as opposed to the once-a-week watering schedule ordered by MWD.

The changes come on top of existing watering restrictions, which stipulate that customers watering with sprinklers are limited to eight minutes per use; watering with sprinklers using water-conserving nozzles is limited to 15 minutes; and watering between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. is prohibited, regardless of the watering day. The existing regulations were imposed by LADWP last year.

“We are exempt because we fall under the agricultural umbrella,” Rosales said. “We do need to keep our plants alive to be able to stay in business.”
The exemption that Rosales’s business falls under is stipulated by LADWP and allows for it to continue watering without restrictions. That is not the case everywhere, however.

Martin Badilla waters plants in the greenhouse of C&S Nursery Inc. in Los Angeles. (Photo by Ringo Chiu)

Not alone

In Agoura Hills, which is served by the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, water usage has been limited to once a week for both residential and commercial customers.
That includes Colorful Garden Center.

The center’s owner, Bharat Shah, said that business had been down about 40% during July, while in August it dropped by nearly 90%.
Shah said that back in 2014 and 2015 his business had decreased between 30 and 40% but everybody had cut their water usage by 20 to 25%.

“It was not like this,” he added about the conditions he now faces.
Shah said he started Colorful Garden more than 30 years ago; the company sells flowers, trees, bushes, fruit trees, soil and houseplants.

“We do really good business here,” he added. “We do over $1 million in a year. This is only one year. The next year will be normal because we will have an El Nino year and we’ll have so much rain either next year or the year after that.”

Colorful Garden breaks even only during the years when there is an extreme drought, Shah continued.

“Then we start getting a lot of rain and people start forgetting about the drought,” he said.

Native plants

Bob Sussman founded Matilija Nursery in Moorpark over 25 years ago. It was a career change for Sussman, who had been in the banking business. But he tired of the drive to downtown Los Angeles and no longer wanted to wear a tie.

His nursery sells mostly native California plants – irises, sages, lilacs, buckwheat, manzanita and the flower that gave his business its name – the Matilija poppy
“They are the largest of the poppy family,” Sussman explained. “It is (a) big white flower about 6 inches across with a big orange ball in the middle, like the size of a golf ball.”

With the summer months being slower in terms of plant sales, it is too early to say if the water restrictions are having a big impact on the business.
But there is some pick-up in business, Sussman said.

“If you don’t do a lot during the summer and you do a little bit that’s a big percentage increase and that’s an improvement,” he added.

Greg Kuga, the manager of Sunset Blvd. Nursery in Silver Lake, said that the nursery has been cutting back on water usage for many years as it transitioned to drought-resistant plants. Vegetable and bedding plants are watered every other day or so, while the other material the nursery sells is watered once every four or five days, or sometimes even once a week.

“It has been a strange couple of years,” Kuga said. “Ever since the pandemic started, the nursery industry was crazy. There was a huge demand for a lot of vegetables and herbs because people were staying home and growing their own food.”

The past six months or so, the number of sales has been trending downward and it is getting back to where it had been pre-pandemic.

“It went up and then down and is now on a normal basis to what it used to be,” Kuga said.
He had never seen business boom as much as it did during the pandemic as sales doubled or tripled, he continued.

During the height of the pandemic, 1,000 people would come through the nursery during the course of the day. Now that is down to a couple of hundred people during the week, with more on weekends, Kuga said.

“All the nurseries were thriving during the pandemic, and it has now evened back out again,” he added.

Looking to the future

Ask a nursery professional where the industry will be in five years in California and their response is all about drought-tolerant plants.

“The long-term trend has been a move away from plants that are more water intensive. I would expect that to continue,” said Sussman, of Matilija Nursery. “It could be more Mediterranean, more desert, more native, more succulent, things like that.”

Unfortunately, he added, it also means more concrete, more fake grass and more rocks in place of green lawns.

“I guess that is somewhat bothersome, but I am not sure you would call that the landscape industry,” Sussman said.

Rosales, of C&S Nursery, also foresees a future of water-wise plants.
“It will be the norm for L.A. to be water wise,” Rosales said. “I think most people are on board. If you look at most people’s landscapes they are introducing Australian natives and succulents, and California natives and combining them so that they don’t have to spend so much on lawns or water-loving plants. I think it’s going to continue on that route.”

At Sunset Blvd. Nursery, the business has always evolved along with what customers are looking to buy, said Kuga, whose father, Dennis Kuga, owns the company.

During the pandemic, houseplants, vegetables and herbs were popular. Now it is drought-resistant plants that are popular among the customers. The nursery sells a lot of cacti, succulents and California native-style plants, Kuga said.

“In five years, it’s going to be a lot different than where we are right now,” he added.

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