Editor’s note: This story is part of Good Times’ annual Home & Garden 2019 magazine. Read the full issue here.
Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands? After 20 years in business, Refugio Ortega isn’t sure exactly how many succulents, cacti, flowers, herbs and other plants are currently growing at his overflowing namesake Watsonville nursery.
What the patriarch of Ortega Nursery sees when he surveys the never-ending rows of buds and blooms and lush leaves in his two jam-packed greenhouses are families in constant evolution. It’s up to him to pick just the right moment to pluck off small segments ready to strike out on their own—the “hijos,” Ortega says, or children—from adult plants he’s already raised.
“You cut them like this, with care,” Ortega says as he rotates the dark purple leaves of a flowering succulent to reveal tiny white hairs jutting out from the stem. “Look, this is the little root.”
Experienced landscapers and amateur gardeners alike flock from all over Santa Cruz, San Jose, Tracy and other neighboring areas to buy Ortega’s wide range of plants—which start at $1 for the hijos and go up to $10 for large, three-gallon grown-up plants. It doesn’t cost much more than that for the palms and small trees that Ortega sells around the perimeter of the greenhouses that he and his small team have built over the years out of wood, metal and mesh. Five-star reviews on sites like Yelp usually involve some version of the sentiment, “I literally had a panic attack at how many plants are here and how inexpensive they are,” as one Central Coast reviewer wrote last year.
It all started around 1999, when Ortega found himself looking for work after 18 years at Moran Nursery in Freedom. He’d moved to the Central Coast in 1972 from his hometown of Tepatitlán, in Jalisco, Mexico, and learned to grow plants in the more than a decade he spent at a different Watsonville nursery.
Ortega knew it wouldn’t be easy to branch out on his own when he rented the space that the nursery still calls home on a quiet side street, but he also knew that he was getting older and couldn’t count on other people for work forever. So he set up a table and sold his first few plants.
“I didn’t know anything else,” Ortega says. “Over the years, I saw that my kids were growing up, that I didn’t want them to be wandering the streets. I wanted to have a little business to entertain them.”
Ortega grew his inventory with plants he bought at local flea markets and other nurseries. Over time, one table of plants became dozens of tables filled to capacity. His children got married, and he now works at the nursery with his brother and two other employees.
Nestled in a flat section of the rolling hills between Corralitos and Watsonville, near Pinto Lake, Ortega’s neighbors are a Nazarene church, wholesale nurseries, markets advertising weekend menudo, and modest one-story ranch houses with conspicuously nice gardens. You know you’ve arrived at Ortega when you see the big piles of pots and plastic tarps draped over the greenhouses.
Down the unpaved driveway and through the entrance near a big mound of fertile, wormy soil that sells for a few dollars a bag, the sensory overload really begins. To the right are vibrant flowers, prickly aloe plants and aromatic bunches of mint and rosemary, all neatly arranged on makeshift tables that stretch the length of about half a football field, separated by only a few inches of a dirt path (be careful to duck the hanging plants for sale overhead; this is not the place for the claustrophobic). To the left is the other greenhouse—Ortega’s growth business—brimming with cacti and succulents.
“I have many succulents here, a lot,” he says. “The past four years have been mostly succulents.”
This is the area where out-of-towners are most likely to be found snapping Instagram photos of endless rows of jade plants, echeveria and ball cactus, sometimes with a surprise cameo from the rooster that wanders the premises. While some upscale gardening shops in the area have supplemented their inventory with Ortega’s plants, he says he doesn’t focus on wholesale deals.
“If I bring them a sample, later they’re going to say, ‘Well, bring me 500,’ and I don’t have them,” he says. “I don’t have much space.”
During the busy summer months, Ortega can sell several hundred plants in a weekend. The shop is open seven days a week, and most purchases are small, but bigger projects can add up to a few hundred dollars. He says he doesn’t mind if people just come to look. “I’m friends with everyone,” he says.
After two decades, Ortega may be almost out of space, but he hasn’t stopped experimenting with his ever-expanding families of plants. This winter, he decided to build a super-sized table to showcase about 400 boxes of his newest succulents.
“Look, each box has 16 little plants,” he says, bending over to inspect a neat grid of tiny, red-tipped green succulents. “And there it goes, they’re looking very pretty.”
Ortega Nursery, 30 Paulsen Rd., Watsonville. 801-3050.