Business & Real Estate

While others have fallen, Auburn nursery still blooming after 85 years

Eisley Nursery owner Earlene Eisley-Freeman walks through rows of poinsettias in one of the many greenhouses at the Eisley Nursery in Auburn. Nearly a dozen members of the Eisley family, spanning three generations, work at the site. While other nursery operations -- both private and big box -- have dropped off over time, Eisley Nursery is marking 85 years in business this year.
Eisley Nursery owner Earlene Eisley-Freeman walks through rows of poinsettias in one of the many greenhouses at the Eisley Nursery in Auburn. Nearly a dozen members of the Eisley family, spanning three generations, work at the site. While other nursery operations -- both private and big box -- have dropped off over time, Eisley Nursery is marking 85 years in business this year. rbenton@sacbee.com

No glitzy neon signage. No giant billboards. In fact, if you motor too quickly along Nevada Street in Auburn, you might just miss Eisley Nursery.

The business has been firmly entrenched at 380 Nevada St. since Herbert Hoover was president. Today, nearly a dozen members of the Eisley family, spanning three generations, work at the site. While other nursery operations – both private and big box – have dropped off over time, Eisley Nursery is marking 85 years in business this month.

Over the decades since the Prohibition era, the nursery has survived dozens of economic cycles, drought, floods and competition from various fronts.

“The perseverance of the family has helped us through good times and bad,” said Earle Eisley, the 86-year-old president of the nursery. “Even when things are bad, you just kind of hunker down and do your job.”

The job has evolved over time. Eisley Nursery has both retail and wholesale operations and 45 greenhouses spread over 13  1/2 acres. The nursery’s long-standing production of poinsettias and pansies is legendary throughout Placer County and beyond. It supports Northern California growers by supplying other mom-and-pop nurseries throughout the region.

This year’s poinsettia volume alone is anticipated to be around 20,000. Earlene Eisley-Freeman, Earle Eisley’s daughter and the nursery’s retail manager, notes that every poinsettia pot is individually wrapped for a more festive appearance.

Eisley-Freeman said an over-the-top customer service approach has worked well, producing an extensive base of loyal customers, some of those spanning multiple generations.

“I’m the lucky one. I get to deal with the public, and we love every customer,” Eisley-Freeman said. “Our customers come here because they want to, not because they have to. We’re not like a gas station or grocery store that you have to go to.”

Eisley-Freeman noted that there are “only a few independent garden centers” remaining in the region and statewide.

The sometimes tenuous nature of the nursery business hit home in late 2012 with the demise of Capital Nursery. Amid financial woes, the 76-year-old company shuttered its stores in Sacramento, Citrus Heights and Elk Grove, shocking many longtime gardeners, ranchers and farmers in the area.

In 2013, San Jose-based home-improvement and gardening chain Orchard Supply Hardware shuttered some California stores – including its Citrus Heights location at San Juan Avenue and Greenback Lane – following a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.

Earle Eisley and Eisley-Freeman say they’ve benefited from their local expertise of trees, flowers and plants and a long-established list of customers who trust that judgment.

“Among local vegetable gardeners, Eisley’s is the go-to nursery for quality, hard-to-find varieties, especially for tomatoes. And, it’s been that way for decades,” said Sacramento radio host and lifetime master gardener Farmer Fred Hoffman. “They help out when you get too many tomatoes on your plants too. Earlene’s canning classes always attract big crowds at local fairs and home shows. Eisley’s also has a stellar reputation among other nurseries, as well, who are wholesale customers for Eisley’s plants.”

Don Shor, owner of Redwood Barn Nursery in Davis, said his business has been a wholesale customer of Eisley since opening in 1981, saying the Auburn nursery provides “phenomenal service” and “great quality. They supply small independent nurseries, garden centers and hardware stores all over the remote parts of Northern California.”

Shor characterized the Eisley tomato selection as “awesome” and added: “I think they’ve stayed in business because they’re old-fashioned in how they choose their varieties and how they treat their customers.”

And unlike other family operations, generations of Eisleys have remained committed to the business.

Eisley-Freeman said that is evident during holidays, when family members still make the trek to do the extensive watering chores at the nursery.

“Even though it’s a holiday, the plants don’t know that,” Eisley-Freeman said.

Earle Eisley said that attitude is ingrained in him, and it’s the primary reason he’s not contemplating retirement anytime soon: “Every morning when I wake up, I know there are some plants that need my attention.”

That work ethic goes back to 1909, when Adam Ray and Sarah Iola Eisley came to Auburn. Ray was receiving a modest pension as a Civil War veteran. Sarah would end up purchasing the Nevada Street property on which Eisley Nursery operates. Back then, it was a fruit ranch, and it would subsequently see duty as a chicken ranch.

The fledgling nursery business commenced in 1932 in the heart of the Great Depression. Early buyers of Eisley’s homegrown pansies included Depression-era gold miners.

As youngsters, Earle Eisley and his brother, Harvey, were making wooden flats and transplanting pansies. As they moved into adulthood at the dawn of the 1950s, they started tearing down chicken houses and building glass houses for the nursery’s wholesale business.

To this day, many old-school touches stand out in the Eisley Nursery retail store, where gardening tools of every stripe are arranged in rows, colorful carved gnomes line the aisles, and shelves of books cover seemingly every topic, from tomato growing to pepper planting to canning.

Years ago, nursery workers began using red Radio Flyer wagons to haul heavy loads around the grounds. Over the years, the red wagon fleet has grown to dozens.

Eisley-Freeman said some customers still “come for the popcorn.” That would be the free popcorn cooked up daily in the store. Kettle corn is featured from Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve.

The business seems to thrive on the old-time, comfortable atmosphere. As Earle Eisley notes: “We are just farmers. We farm under a tent.”

As farmers, the Eisleys also roll with the punches thrown by Mother Nature. The extended Northern California drought washed out by last winter’s relentless rains was a challenge to customers, and surprisingly, the nursery business.

“We had so much rain and snow every week that people couldn’t come here to shop,” said Eisley-Freeman.

More information on the nursery can be found at eisleynursery.com.

Mark Glover: 916-321-1184, @markhglover

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