Each year, Californian Annie Hayes unrolls a magic carpet, from seed
by KAREN DARDICK photography by MARION BRENNER
AN INDUSTRIAL SECTION IN RICHMOND, CALIFORNIA, makes an unlikely setting for a nursery. Yet it’s where you’ll find Annie’s Annuals, one of the Bay Area’s most innovative suppliers of unusual and rare plants. Summer selections include dozens of different delphiniums, including Delphinium ‘Dowdeswell’, verbascums, such as Verbascum ‘Cotswold King’, incredible impatiens, like Impatiens tinctoria and I. mengzteana, 30 sunflower cultivars, clematis, campanula, and much, much more. It’s a plant lover’s paradise.
What makes this nursery special is that most of the plants are propagated from seed and grown on-site. “I love the magic of things coming up from seed,” says founder Annie Hayes. “It’s really boring to grow from plugs.” (Some plants are grown from cuttings, when that’s a more efficient method.) The plants are sold in four-inch or one-gallon containers, and strong, well-developed root systems fill the pots. And because they aren’t greenhouse grown, the plants are hardened off before buyers take them home.
‘We grow plants as nature intended, from seeds, in wind, rain, and air,” Hayes says. “We don’t use growth regulating hormones, either. What we do is select plants for beauty, fragrance, charm, and their suitability for California and Mediterranean climates.” She is in love with plants, especially those that are nostalgic, odd, or hard to find. She particularly delights in plants that add height and movement to a garden. And what she likes, she sells, both wholesale to other area nurseries and directly to gardeners.
Hayes’s tastes are influencing both gardeners and nurserymen alike, because of her innovative approach to growing and selling plants. “I want people to enjoy plants when they are in flower, so unlike a lot of other nurseries, I don’t sell plants in bloom; I sell them just before they’re ready to explode with flowers,” she explains. “Early on, I realized that to sell these plants, I had to provide people with information.rsquo;
So Hayes devised an ingenious system to motivate buyers. In each display area are signs with photographs of the blooming plants, detailed descriptions, and instructions on their cultural requirements. It seems like such an obvious method, yet she started this when most other nurseries relied—as many still do—on the flowering plant to attract shoppers and inspire purchases. Her strategy proved successful, and it has been adopted by other nurseries.
Hayes started her career as a staff member at Berkeley Horticultural Nursery in Berkeley, California. While visiting the studio apartment of a co-worker, she was stunned by what she recalls as “the magic of seeds germinating all around the bed.” The innovative gardener was not growing the seeds in flower beds, but inside her apartment, in seed trays illuminated by fluorescent lights. After the seedlings were pricked out and potted up individually, they were transferred to the garage roof, and later sold. Hayes returned home, looked at her backyard, and decided she, too, could grow plants from seed and supplement her income. She collected seeds from Linaria purpurea, filled a few six-packs with potting soil, and sprinkled the seeds over the top. They sprouted—with the assistance of her cat, Jupiter.
‘I was a little lazy and rebellious and didn’t tamp the seeds,” she recalls. “Jupiter walked over the seed trays. They sprouted only in his paw prints. If he hadn’t walked on the tray, it wouldn’t have succeeded, and I would have stopped.” Instead, Hayes was inspired to grow more heirloom cottage-garden annuals and perennials. Her endeavor outgrew her own garden, so she rented space in neighboring gardens to meet a steadily increasing demand from local nurseries for these unusual and vigorous plants. When she ran out of land (two years later, in 1989), she found the current two-and-a-half-acre site near the railroad tracks in Richmond.
Initially, Annie’s Annuals was a wholesale enterprise supplying 80 nurseries in northern California. But, gradually, local plantspeople wanted to come shop. Over time, the business shifted from wholesale only to include on-site retail and Internet mail order. Now, gardeners can visit Thursday through Sunday. Mail-order business is increasing, too, and plants are shipped across the country. The Web site, www.anniesannuals.com, is as colorful and lively as the nursery itself.
Hayes loves color, and this is evident from the front wall and gate, which are adorned with bright floral paintings by local artist Lauren Ari, straight through the shopping area, where five lush and colorful display beds showcase the plants for sale.
Hayes and her staff change the beds three times a year (retaining roses, perennials, and other foundation plants). A bed near the gate is devoted to California wildflowers interplanted with Mediterranean annuals. Nearby, a sunflower display highlights many unusual varieties, along with amaranthus and summer annuals, including Hayes’s favorite, Celosia argentea subsp. cristata ‘Kramer’s Burgundy’. Along the fence, a rose bed houses cultivars best suited for this region: ‘Grandmother’s Hat’, ‘Altissimo’, ‘Sparrieshoop’, ‘Felicia’, and ‘Lady Hillington’. Companion plants include species of Wahlenbergia and Eupatorium, Lupinus arboreus, Angelica stricta ‘Purpurea’, and five different salvias—Salvia involucrata and S. microphylla, to name two. Shrubs and perennials native to South Africa have their own display, near an experimental bed of aloes and succulents.
Plants for sale sit at easy reach on wooden tables. Shoppers’ questions may be answered by those informative signs, or they can just ask any of the skilled staff members, who are led by Hayes and Anni Jensen, head propagator. Jensen often strolls the site, collecting seeds and observing plants. In fall and winter, the staff numbers 15. It swells to 26 during the height of spring shopping season.
Hayes is a generous and fun person who loves to have a good time. She sponsors parties for her customers in spring and fall. Thousands of loyal fans enjoy homemade food, music, entertainment, plant lectures and demonstrations, and gardening games for the young and young at heart. Local vendors display garden-related wares. Although gardening can be a serious pastime, expect some humor along with the horticulture at Annie’s Annuals, reflective of the nature of its founder, the self-described “flower floozie” Annie Hayes. H