Randall Benton / Bee file

Joan Coulat, formerly a buyer for Capital Nursery, examines indoor plants at the nursery in 2011. The company's shutdown shocked employees.

Seeds: End of Capital Nursery shakes up gardeners

Published: Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3CALIFORNIA LIFE
Last Modified: Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012 - 1:00 pm

To many local gardeners, it felt like the death of a longtime family friend. But the demise of Capital Nursery also served as a wake-up call.

By Thursday, employees at Capital Nursery will finish closing down the company's locations in Citrus Heights and Elk Grove. Its Sacramento nursery has been vacant since October.

Little remained this week of the 76-year-old business beloved by generations of Sacramento gardeners. After Capital announced it was going out of business Nov. 14, a whirlwind sale wiped out its merchandise within days. The plant tables, shelves and seed racks were picked clean.

"We're all dumbfounded," said Joan Coulat, Capital's longtime merchandise buyer. "I don't care so much about myself, but so many (of Capital's employees) are single parents with children – and it's Christmas."

Coulat worked for 26 years at Capital's Freeport Boulevard flagship. When that nursery shut down in October, she relocated to the Citrus Heights store.

Her tenure at Capital was typical. Many of its 67 employees had been with the company for decades. Often becoming trusted friends of customers, they freely shared their expertise and love of gardening.

The week before Thanksgiving, Capital's employees gathered for an announcement from general manager Carr McClendon.

"That was such a doozy," Coulat said. "At the Freeport store, we sort of knew it was coming. But this … I thought he was calling us together to tell us what a good job we were doing."

Instead, Capital's board of directors had decided they could no longer keep the doors open. The business was losing money.

Capital's closure leaves only a handful of full-service nurseries in the greater Sacramento area.

"That's the sad thing – no nurseries," Coulat said. "Green Acres (which has locations in Sacramento, Roseville and Folsom) is a great nursery, but doesn't have the unusual things. Sacramento is going to have a hard time."

Sacramento's remaining nurseries such as Talini's on Folsom Boulevard or Fair Oaks Boulevard Nursery may fill in the gaps or attract new customers. Or gardeners may use more online sources.

Capital's departure shook up other nurserymen, too.

"It's scary," said Earlene Eisley-Freeman of Auburn's Eisley Nursery. "Capital was the leader in our industry for years. It hits home."

Now 80 years old, Eisley's found its niche in Placer County. It thrives in part through its close relationship with its customers. Local knowledge is key to success.

"The plants they carry are for the local areas, and they are very knowledgeable of the foothill areas, which is more than can be said of the large box stores," said Wes Babcock of Penryn, an Eisley customer for more than 40 years. "I have over 80 different fruit and nut trees plus grapevines; almost all are from Eisley's."

Babcock first heard of the Dapple Dandy pluot in 2004 from Earl Eisley; now, it's one of his favorites. With Eisley's staff, he also shared advice about fireblight in his area and what fruit varieties to avoid.

"This is the knowledge that is gained by having longtime staff and customers," Babcock said.

Bill Eisley, a third-generation nurseryman and one of 10 Eisleys who work at the nursery, has seen his industry shrink.

"Most of the time when nurseries go out of business, (the owners) retired," Eisley said. "Their children didn't want to be in the nursery industry. They want to sell the property or do something else.

"It's hard work," he added. "My typical day starts at 6 a.m., and I'm here until 7 at night."

And it's a risky business.

"We gamble on Mother Nature every day," he said. "We gamble on what plants we grow, if customers will want it, and if it will be ready when they want it, and what the weather will be like when that plant is ready to sell. With some plants, you have only a 14-day window for it being ready to go. Later, it's too big or over the top."

Independent nurseries such as Eisley or Capital have a hard time competing against big-box chains on price alone.

"Most people don't understand our plants cost us more," Eisley-Freeman said. "We're charged more by wholesalers."

The independents make up for the difference in service, selection and expertise. That's priceless.

Said Sacramento radio host "Farmer Fred" Hoffman, "Communities need to support their local nurseries if the area's gardeners want to continue to have that expertise available."

Or more old friends may go the way of Capital.

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Read more articles by Debbie Arrington

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