Steve is one of our founders, and the founder of Buena Creek Gardens in San Marcos. He wrote the text for our tree book, and has lectured on garden-worthy trees and other topics. For many years he also wrote a favorite monthly column for our newsletter.
For our 14th Annual Horticulturist of the Year Award for Excellence in Horticulture we are proud to honor a founding board member: passionate horticulturist and nurseryman Steve Brigham. Steve is the author of the SDHS book, Ornamental Trees for Mediterranean Climates, and for many years he wrote a monthly newsletter column on important local gardening issues. Congratulations, Steve!
Steve’s mission is, “to collect, grow, display, promote, and distribute new and uncommon varieties of ornamental plants for California gardens.” For many, many gardeners in Southern California his nursery, Buena Creek Gardens, was a beacon. Customers traveled significant distances and many became friends with this soft-spoken, modest and enthusiastic purveyor of horticultural delights. New Zealand shrubs, Australian perennials, South African bulbs and Mediterranean-climate herbs mingled happily with California natives. Several acres of display gardens would whet the appetite of even the most jaded gardener – Steve always seemed to have something new worth making room for in our gardens.
We asked Steve to share some of his experiences with us. Last month he wrote about the flower and the book that inspired him to become a plantsman. We learn more this month, and his life story will conclude in the next newsletter, though we know his love of plants will last a lifetime.
A Brief History of Me
By Steve Brigham
Today, as I write this, is June 2, 2009. Interestingly enough, it is also my 20,000th day on Earth! (Doesn’t that sound more impressive than 54 years old?) It is a beautiful, warm, sunny day here at our “retirement estate” in Kingston, Washington, where Donna and I have lived for a year now. Summer has arrived in the Pacific Northwest, and with it a nearly unimaginable wealth of plant and animal life in full, glorious growth and expression. As I look out my large third-story office window at the gardens below and at our surrounding forest, I know that this indeed is the perfect place to be! What particularly strikes me today is the realization that our home and gardens here are a nearly total manifestation of the best of my experiences, observations, and preferences gleaned from my 20,000 days of poking around our beloved planet. Here are elements of both my childhood and career, including reminders of visits to so many beautiful natural places around the world, and so many beautiful gardens as well. I have become one with this place, and I will always have it in my mind.
My Early Years
My home and garden are more important to me than almost anything else. And although I’ve never had much money, I have usually found a way to have a nice place to live, often at great financial risk. My parents were no different. Although they could barely afford it, in the 1950’s and 1960’s they developed a 1-acre home and garden in Atherton, California (about 30 miles south of San Francisco). While my Dad’s small business struggled to pay the bills, our family homestead developed into a true paradise, with a nice house and many kinds of plants and trees from all over the world. The youngest of three brothers, I had plenty of time and space to myself while I was growing up, which was exactly what I wanted. I started growing vegetables when I was 5 years old, and soon became a dependable supplier for our entire family and neighborhood. Flowers, too, were an inspiration – and we had lots of them, for my Mom had planted nearly every type of flowering plant then available at local nurseries.
My Mom and Dad and I were good friends from the moment I arrived on the planet. Ignoring financial hardship, we took some fantastic driving trips around the U.S.A. and Canada during summers when I was young, which allowed me to really see what was “out there” and get a perspective on the world. And I got a good education, too – first at St. Pius X School in nearby Redwood City, and then at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose. (I was allowed to choose both of these schools myself.) At Bellarmine in particular, there was a strong Jesuit message of “serving others” (indeed, this is the main emphasis of the school), which would provide important inspiration for my career. My biggest inspiration, however, would come during my college years, and I had only one preference as to where that would happen – a small, young, non-traditional campus known as the University of California, Santa Cruz.
On My Own
Everything my parents did for me made me into what I would be for the rest of my life, and I am in complete agreement that they – and I – did exactly the right thing! We had a wonderful life together. Oddly enough, though, one of the best things my parents ever did for me was to go bankrupt. By 1972, competition from the new “big box” stores in our area made a small furniture business like my father had virtually obsolete, stifling over 20 years of modest success. Rising costs and falling income made it impossible for my parents to afford to pay for my college expenses, so my first attempt at college ended after just seven months, in favor of starting my own small landscaping business. My parents had to sell their Atherton home for a very low price and declare bankruptcy (a situation similar to that of yours truly some 37 years later, which is exactly how much older my Dad was than I). Sad as it was, however, my parents’ bankruptcy turned out to be just what I needed to qualify for financial aid. With a combination of grants, loans, and work-study funding, I re-entered UC Santa Cruz in the fall of 1974 on my own, with all expenses paid – providing, of course, I could find a job on campus. But my friends in the financial aid office knew right where I should go.
In 1974, the young UC Santa Cruz Arboretum needed lots of work but had little funding. With my work-study grant, however, Director Ray Collett had only to come up with 20% of my salary for my half-time employment there, which he gladly did. Ray’s incredible knowledge of plants, both native and exotic, together with the extensive plant collection he was establishing, was all the inspiration I needed to decide what I wanted to do with my life (see my “Birth of A Plantsman” essay in the June 2009 issue of Let’s Talk Plants). I worked at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum for the next four years with Ray as a Botany and Natural History major, and during that time, I was privileged to get to know many of the most famous horticulturists of California and beyond. These days, the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum is a world-renowned botanical and horticultural institution. (What a great way to “work yourself through college”!)
The Horticultural Revolution
Horticulturally speaking, the 1970’s were nothing less than a revolution worldwide, and I feel most fortunate to have been a part of it all. I doubt that any period in recent history has seen both the beginnings and co-existence of so many talented horticultural careers at once (a number of which continue to this day), both in California and abroad. Ease of world-wide airline travel had a lot to do with the flood of plant discovery and introduction in the 1970’s, and advances in propagation techniques allowed more kinds of plants to be successfully grown. Because of this, by the 1980’s a great wealth of new garden plants were becoming available in California in particular. In marked contrast to today’s modern tissue-culture labs, the newest garden plants in those days were grown, shared, and sold the old-fashioned way – by small specialist growers and botanical gardens, not giant corporations. And so it was that the late 1970’s saw me taking many trips throughout California to find new and exciting garden plants that merited propagation.
At that time, however, there were so many of us in Northern California experimenting with new plants, the thought occurred to me that it would be nice to find a place where I wouldn’t have to compete with all my friends. Because of the tremendous variety of garden plants that may be grown in frost-free climates, it wasn’t hard for me to be attracted to the mild Southern California climate, especially since I really like subtropical plants. All my friends thought I was crazy to even think of moving to “big, bad” Southern California. And it’s true, by then, that the Los Angeles area was already so big and unruly as to make a comfortable life there impossible in my judgment. But once you drove a little further south into San Diego County, there was this magical area of cute little coastal towns, complete with a county-run park then known as Quail Botanic Gardens. I first saw QBG in the summer of 1977. Right then, like so many other times in my life, I knew exactly where my next move would be – and nothing was going to stop me.
Quail Botanical Gardens
The fall of 1980 was a wonderful time in my life. At 26 years old, I was probably just a little too full of myself as I came blazing into Encinitas in a 24-foot U-Haul truck that was full of rare trees and shrubs from my backyard nursery in Santa Cruz. After a long wait, and thanks to some very generous help from QBG Horticulturist Gil Voss and his wife Alison, I had finally secured a San Diego County Parks and Recreation Gardener position at what was then known as Quail Botanic Gardens (we put the “-al” into the name my first month there). Over the next two years, with the help of the Quail Gardens Foundation, we would make some very big steps in modernizing the botanical structure and function of the Gardens, as well as greatly expanding its plant collections, plant sales, and educational programs.
Quail Gardens was then and always has been a complete joy to work with, since so many different kinds of plants grow well there, all in remarkably close proximity. With its enviable site overlooking the Pacific Ocean, it is both unique and exceptional among all of the many botanical gardens I have ever seen. Another, even more compelling aspect of Quail was its tradition as a true “community garden,” with many volunteers working together to develop it in lieu of paid staff. These people quickly became not only my friends, but also my family – and I too volunteered many hours each week after my 40 paid hours were done. In the two years that I worked at Quail, we all got at least five years’ work done, by anybody’s standards.
Sad to say, by 1982, San Diego County Parks had severe budgetary challenges, and rightfully had to channel most of its funding into the big recreational parks that produced the most revenue for the Parks Department. In a re-organization, I ended up on the short end of things – but I did hope that as the Quail Gardens Foundation got more prosperous, it could someday take over the Gardens completely and that I would be there to help (eleven years later, it did and I was). All I wanted to do was to continue to grow and introduce new plants, and so I continued my career in the rare-plant nursery business.
My first stop was Kartuz Greenhouses, a small but important mail-order nursery in Vista. Mail-order was a brand new world for me, and a most exciting one, since I now had the opportunity to see the rare subtropical plants that I grew distributed all across the USA and beyond. In doing so, I was able to maintain my connections with many botanical gardens and plant collectors worldwide, further adding to my credentials as a rare plant grower. This work continued at Stallings Nursery in Encinitas, which specialized in unusual landscape plants but also allowed me to establish a mail-order program.
In late 1987, I accepted an offer from Bob Brooks (former Treasurer of the Quail Gardens Foundation) to manage his Cordon Bleu Farms in San Marcos, where he grew hundreds of the newest varieties of daylilies and iris for mail-order shipment. When word got out to all my plant-collector friends that I was doing this, they all thought that I had lost my mind. Why would I give up rare plants for daylilies?! Well, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve made some pretty risky moves in my life, and this one was no different. As always, this time I had some important reasons.
Actually, I had no intentions of giving up my rare-plant career. But at 33, there was still something I’d always wanted to do that I hadn’t done yet, and that was to have my own rare-plant nursery and garden. With absolutely no savings to work with, I needed to be creative. And despite its many challenges, Cordon Bleu to me was worth the risk.
Bob’s 4-acre property in San Marcos reminded me of a very early version of Quail Gardens – it had the potential to be a “mini Quail.” As long as I kept his fields and grounds maintained and fulfilled my shipping duties, Bob agreed that I could spend my extra time building a nursery and display garden, and so Buena Creek Gardens was born. Because of limited time and money, initial progress was slow. But our plant collection began to grow, with the addition of many new and uncommon perennials, drought-tolerant plants (including California natives), and subtropicals.
If there was ever a “golden era” of San Diego Horticulture, the 1990’s were it – and it all had to do with volunteers. By 1990, the Quail Botanical Gardens Foundation had asked me back, this time as a Board member, and soon we were on a roll. Here I was, back with my family, with a new generation of players (some of whom I had taught 10 years before in their first year as volunteers at the Gardens). The San Diego horticultural community was finally maturing, and as more talented friends hopped on board, we knew we were ready for big things. Why not finally take “the big step” and assume control of Quail as a non-profit institution? And further, why not finally create a San Diego Horticultural Society, like many of us had talked about for years? As they say in Australia, “done and done,” and we “did and did” it in 1993 and 1994.
None of this would have happened if it weren’t for the serendipity of so many talented volunteers serving at just the right time, each performing their own vital functions (since space is quite limited in this essay, I must regretfully refrain from mentioning all the wonderful people involved by name – you’ll just have to wait until I write a book someday). The big challenge was not just to get the “new” Quail Botanical Gardens and the completely new San Diego Horticultural Society up and running, but to do it in a way that would keep these organizations prospering long into the future – and they have. Ours was and is to this day an “army of friends” too big and too dedicated to be denied, as may it be forever more!
Buena Creek Gardens
Amidst all this wonderful activity, I had one more project up my sleeve back at Buena Creek Gardens, which by then had gotten rather well known as a source of unusual plant material. Bob Brooks was set to retire at 65, and in January of 1996, he sold Cordon Bleu Farms, Buena Creek Gardens, and his 4-acre property to me (since I still didn’t have any money, he generously agreed to finance the deal himself). Now, at 41 years of age, I had finally achieved my dream of owning my own rare plant nursery, and it was one of the most rewarding and also riskiest things I ever did. At that time, the nursery was still dominated by the daylilies, which took up most of my time but also paid most of the bills. Determined to get a quick start, however, I took out some loans and hired a staff in order to develop the “new” nursery and gardens as quickly as possible. Buoyed by helpful publicity, a rising economy, and lots of hard work, we achieved quick initial success and kept it going as fast and as far as the daylily mail-order business could afford. But in a few years, when those initial loans came due, a crisis point was reached. Because of economic realities, would the nursery whose promise was “to boldly grow what no one has grown before” simply cease to exist?
I first met my wife, Donna, in 1999, just as I was re-examining my life and business path. Donna is in reality an angel that was sent to help me in my worst time of need. I had always wanted most to have a “mom and pop” small business, pleasantly manageable without lots of employees – but I’d never had a “mom” to do it with. Now I did, and Donna was no stranger to hard work. If we knew we couldn’t make much money selling plants, why not just do what we really wanted? And so we began a new chapter of Buena Creek Gardens, where Donna and I gradually phased out the daylilies, and with the help of our new friend Jacob focused ourselves on the nursery and gardens.
The first several years of the 21st century were a period of the greatest garden and nursery developments ever at Buena Creek Gardens, since once the daylilies were minimized, I was finally able to return to my life-long twin loves of plant propagation and garden building. With Donna’s vision, our nursery areas were transformed into works of art, and in 2005, we completed a deservedly famous 1-acre Bird and Butterfly Garden, which showcased so many of our finest plants and which we further expanded over the next two years. By 2007, I had finally achieved much of what I had envisioned for Buena Creek Gardens 20 years earlier. By then, however, we had an even newer project – and that was to escape our formerly rural North County area, which had become way too urbanized and overcrowded for our sanity to continue. In May of 2008, we sold Buena Creek Gardens to our friends Steve and Shari Matteson, who today continue to run BCG in fine fashion.
So there you have it – a brief account of some of the thrills, chills, and spills of the first 20,000 days of my life. I now return to my present view in June 2009, past my computer screen, looking out at the Washington garden that Donna and I have created and its surrounding forest – as we contemplate a new chapter in our lives with our impending move (this time reluctantly, and economically driven) to the Mendocino Coast of northern California.
In my life, I have learned that knowledge exists to be shared, and that often the greatest formats for sharing that knowledge are organizations that require our cooperation – and patience. Some folks might be surprised to know (but others surely won’t) that since childhood I have never changed – I have always been the same shy, quiet person who just likes to stay at home, play in my garden, and read books. Plants are easy for me (since I basically am one), but helping to create and support lasting organizations that will serve my fellow gardeners has always required major effort on my part. Because I don’t really like to socialize much, it sometimes seems amazing to me that I ever got involved in community projects and serving others (although I’m sure the Jesuits had something to do with the fact that I did).
There is no denying that we all live in a big world these days, and if we take the time to look, we realize that there are always big things to be done. No one can do big things alone. In horticulture, as with any other aspect of our lives, the big things that we choose to do we must do together with others. It takes not just a village, but an army – an army of friends – because we must be disciplined enough as a unit to “get the job done.” Of my career accomplishments, I am by far most proud to have been a small part of some wonderful armies of friends – who together got the job done by creating and supporting great horticultural organizations which will long outlive the “prime time” that we individually could give them.
If there is any award to be given, it should go to all of us in those horticultural armies of friends, and to each of us – because each of us, no matter how much or little we contribute, is essential to the whole. The point is that you did contribute. In my life, I have found that working successfully with others gives me a wonderful feeling inside. And when we all truly work together, as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock might say, “All honors must go to the many, and not to the few, or the one.”