As she bustles through holiday decorations and positions poinsettias, Earlene Eisley-Freeman feels the spirit of Christmas past fill her family business.
"I think about my grandparents, coming in here," she said. "I can't imagine what they'd think about what they started. My grandmother probably would throw up her arms and say, 'What's all this?' "
With a big smile, Eisley-Freeman mimicked her grandma's shock, then added, "I think she'd be pretty amazed."
For 80 years, customers have trekked to Eisley Nursery in Auburn for their prized poinsettias and pansies, two flowers that symbolize winter gardening indoors and out.
Patrons gather in the gift shop and munch free caramel corn while browsing through a vast array of ornaments and garden gadgets.
"We have a lot of people coming in, just to hang out and say hi," Eisley-Freeman said. "If they're feeling kind of low, they come in and get an instant lift."
But as with any longtime business, it's the people who keep customers coming back. Ten members of the Eisley family still work daily at their full-service independent nursery, the largest remaining nursery of its kind in the greater Sacramento area.
Eisley's still grows its own poinsettias 23,000 this season. The plants will be sold not only at the family's landmark nursery, but also at Green Acres and many other Sacramento-area garden businesses and florists.
"In Placer County, we're the only poinsettia grower," said Bill Eisley, Earlene's brother, who has been in charge of the poinsettia operation since 1977. "Our poinsettias will be shipped throughout Northern California and western Nevada."
A major wholesale grower, the nursery also produces thousands of pansies from seed, plus other annual flowers, perennials and vegetables.
"You don't last as a nursery for 80 years unless you are doing something right," said Sacramento radio host and longtime Eisley's fan "Farmer Fred" Hoffman. "Eisley's is doing a lot right."
In an industry that's been buffeted by hard times, Eisley's has become a destination nursery, valued for its expertise as well as vast selection.
"The economic downturn has affected every nursery," said Hoffman, noting Capital Nursery's recent decision to close its remaining two locations. "Cutbacks are the norm. And then there is the competition from the big-box stores.
"But the big-box stores cannot compete with local nurseries when it comes to plant selection geared for their locality, local plant knowledge and, most of all, service," he added. "Eisley's still prides themselves on great service for their customers. All gardening is local, and Eisley's (staff) knows their community and serves them well."
In response to increased interest in growing food, Eisley-Freeman started teaching classes in food preservation.
"Vegetable sales are huge!" Eisley-Freeman said. "Tree and shrub sales have gone down, but veggie sales have gone up incredibly, at least 30 percent over the last two years. People are growing their own food, but they need to know how. Our classes have been very well attended. I tell people, 'Call me any time with questions.' "
The nursery also hosts fruit and tomato tastings as well as its popular salsa contest. With cohort Cyndi Davis, Eisley-Freeman shares her tips via their Garden Goddesses blog at www.eisleynursery.com.
"(Year-round), people come in with samples of what they made and want Earlene to try it," said Nancy Newman, an Eisley's staff member. "They'll ask, 'What's my salsa lacking?' "
For its 80th birthday in September, the nursery hosted a three-day party, culminating with a giant barbecue. Hundreds of patrons turned out.
That personal touch has endeared the Eisleys to their community. So has their generosity. Members of several clubs and community groups cite the business's help, whether donating plants or offering discounts.
With 3 acres of retail space, Eisley's also stocks such plants as large rosebushes or unusual fruit trees that can be hard to find elsewhere.
"Eisley's is a special business in Auburn," said Dave Coop, past president of Auburn's Gold Country Rose Society. "They make each member of our rose society feel like we are part of their family. They not only stock the largest and latest selections of roses this side of Fremont, they generously offer our members 10 percent off any rose purchase."
It's part of the family tradition started by Henry and Lila Eisley on their chicken ranch. In 1932, Lila started selling home-grown pansies from the front yard.
"We still grow a great selection of different pansies and violas (23 varieties in all)," Eisley-Freeman said. "My grandparent's house is still here, too. Now it's our office."
Massive greenhouses long ago replaced the chicken coops on the 14-acre ranch. Starting in July, they're packed with poinsettias, a family tradition the Eisleys began in 1970.
"That first year, we grew 500 plants," Bill Eisley said. "They're very labor-intensive. They're planted, watered, pinched all by hand."
By Dec. 15, the poinsettias should all be gone, except for the gift shop's selection for last-minute shoppers.
"What I like best is knowing these plants are all going to someone else's home," Eisley-Freeman said. "We're helping them brighten their house for Christmas. It's like we're in everybody's home for the holidays."
Where: 380 Nevada St., Auburn
Hours: 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays
Details: www.eisleynursery.com, (530) 885-5163
Bill Eisley of Eisley Nursery offered this advice:
Make sure to poke a hole in the bottom of the foil wrapper for drainage, and put a saucer under the potted plant.
Place potted poinsettias indoors in indirect light, away from heat vents or drafts. Six hours or more of light (natural or fluorescent) is best.
Keep them happy. A tropical shrub native to Mexico and Central America, poinsettias don't like it too cold or too hot; their comfort zone is between 65 and 75 degrees, day or night. Lower temperatures will make them drop leaves almost immediately and shut down. Higher temperatures also shorten their life cycle, blasting out the true flowers.
Limit their exposure to lower temperatures. If using potted poinsettias for a porch display, place them outside just before your guests arrive.
The red bracts are actually modified leaves (not flower petals), but they'll retain their color long after the true flowers (small yellow knobs at the center of the bracts) brown and wither. When choosing a plant, look for tight flowers that haven't opened. The plant will keep color longer.
Check the soil daily. Water the plant when soil feels dry to the touch, but don't let it get soggy. Allow water to drain into the saucer and discard excess water. Wilted plants tend to drop bracts sooner.
Although they can grow outdoors in many parts of California, poinsettias are not frost-tolerant and need winter protection. When nighttime temperatures top 55 degrees, potted poinsettias can be placed outdoors on a sheltered patio. They'll thrive through the summer. Remember to bring them back indoors in fall.
Poinsettias need 14 hours or more of complete darkness each night for six to 10 weeks to trigger color change. To get a plant to rebloom next year for the holidays, place a lightproof bag over it every night or put it in a closet, starting in September. (Otherwise, it'll will bloom in March or April.)
Poinsettias aren't poisonous to humans, but their sticky sap can cause skin irritation or stomach upset. Keep away from cats.
For more tips, click on the Poinsettia Pages, urbanext.illinois.edu/poinsettia/index.cfm.