During more than 2 decades as a Chula Vista optometrist, Bill started a project to give tree seedlings to 4th graders to enhance their appreciation for nature. This led to a 36-year career as a nurseryman and arborist, founding Pacific Tree Farms (a mecca for tree enthusiasts), donations of trees for many community projects, and helping with designing the world-class conifer collection at the Wild Animal Park.
We asked Bill to share some of his experiences with us, and he graciously has written the following account of his background in horticulture.
Nurseryman and Arborist with a Generous Nature
Bill Nelson had an interesting childhood. Born in Livingston, Montana, he began working at an early age delivering papers and mowing lawns when the snow shovels were put away. Then came work at a grocery store, egg candling, and a couple of summers spent as a ranch hand. Two more summers found him in Yellowstone Park on a road crew and in a service station pumping gas.
His grandparents, Chris and Effie Teters, gave Bill a loving home and served as good examples. Concerned that he might spend his life trout fishing and trapping muskrats, they sent him to Kemper Military in Missouri for the last two years of high school. It was a good decision and broadened Bill’s outlook a great deal.
With the aim of saving for college, he worked for the Northern Pacific Railway for a year on the Bridges and Building crew. Repairing bridges over a frozen river at ten degrees below zero convinced him that his goal was sound.
The next six years were spent at Pacific University in Oregon, where he graduated with a Doctor of Optometry degree. During that time he worked at many jobs, but the best one of all was in the university cafeteria where he met his future wife, Louise. They married in 1952 and soon moved to San Diego. Bill practiced optometry for twenty five years in Chula Vista, where they raised two sons, Geoffrey and David. Active in many community groups, Bill came up with an idea that would change his and his family’s life.
Bill felt the need to enhance the appreciation of life and nature for children. He planned a project to give tree seedlings to the fourth graders in Chula Vista. With the help and support of the Boy Scouts and the Kiwanis Club, 2,000 pine seedlings were distributed. Many of the trees thrived and it was a great moment for Bill when he received many letters from the children describing their tree, which often contained drawings and the name given to it.
For some time the Nelsons had been using live conifers for their Christmas trees. Finding different species proved to be a problem, so Bill reasoned that a nursery offering a wide range of container-grown trees would meet a need. Thus was born Nelson’s Pine Patch. The venture was moderately successful, but along the way they learned why many species were not good candidates for living Yule trees – only a mother could love some of them.
A number of other fruit and flowering trees began to pique Bill’s interest. Bill and Louise bought more land and changed the name to Pacific Tree Farms. He propagated and brought in many rare and unusual species. Before long, they began to ship trees throughout the U.S. and around the world.
Thanks to suggestions from Louise, early on Bill began to use insect control methods that did not include pesticides. With the help of other nurseries, Bill was able to raise funds for a University of California program to release tiny wasps to control a serious outbreak of pine tip moth. The plan was very successful and was the forerunner of many other predator releases at Pacific Tree Farms.
A pleasant memory for Bill was the time when an inspector from the Department of Agriculture came to the nursery looking for tip moth. He found a damaged tip on a pine tree and announced that the entire crop of several thousand trees would have to be sprayed. Bill broke off the dead tip and out flew a wasp: no spraying was required and Bill silently thanked Glenn Scriven, the U.C. researcher in charge of the state project.
Another problem during the early days of the nursery was watering the trees and plants correctly. Overhead irrigation was wasteful and caused erosion. Various emitters and systems were tried, but all had serious defects. One night, Bill came in voicing his frustration with watering problems. Louise suggested that he design a better one. When Bill asked what she had in mind, she replied, “Oh, some sort of a ring with holes in it.” Later, Bill thought about her idea and said to himself, “By golly, she has it!” Shortly after, he began making the Trickle Flow Rings. They were rings made from small diameter plastic tubes which were perforated in several places with a belt punch. They were very effective and several other nurseries adopted the idea.
In the late 70’s the nursery’s inventory and sales were increasing well and it gave Bill a chance to share some of the trees. He donated hundreds to parks, schools and camps. Working with Jim Gibbons, the horticulturist at the Wild Animal Park, he helped design the Mirov World Conifer Collection. This section of the Park is now well-established and is probably the finest mild-climate conifer forest in the world.
An area which Bill felt needed more emphasis was the matter of drainage for trees and plants. His lectures usually included some mention of this vital aspect of cultivation. Work done at Purdue University and the University of California helped him to produce an instruction sheet on transplanting and drainage correction.
In 1991 Bill became a Certified Arborist. Since then, he has made several hundred tree reports and appraisals. Sometimes, these matters ended up in litigation, where he served as an expert witness. Of his experiences in court, Bill said, “We didn’t win them all, but the challenges were great and I developed a real appreciation for our legal system.”
Early in 2006 Bill decided to retire. Future plans include growing conifers for the fire victims near Julian and helping to develop an arboretum and botanic garden in Montana. In January of 2007 Bill will be searching for rare tree seeds in New Guinea.
Bill says that his 36 years as a nurseryman and arborist have been very enjoyable. He thanks the many people in horticulture who have given him advice and inspiration.