Flora Grubb Is Teaching All of Us How to Garden More Sustainably
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There is nothing like growing up during a drought to teach a self-taught gardener to embrace water-wise gardening. And in the case of plant enthusiast Flora Grubb, owner of the much-lauded Flora Grubb Gardens, dry gardening is all she's ever known. "I tried water hogging plants once or twice and they immediately failed," admits Grubb. "I was young and too broke to try them again." Impressed and inspired by the Bay Area's tame climate and diverse plants, Grubb uprooted herself in 1999 and moved from parched Austin, Texas, to cooler San Francisco where she started a landscaping company. "It never really occurred to me to work for someone else in the industry," says Grubb. "Like many people who start their own businesses, I think I am probably unemployable."
In 2003, with business partner Saul Nadler, Grubb opened a neighborhood nursery in San Francisco's Mission District, which soon became the place for professional and amateur gardeners alike. After outgrowing the spot, she opened the current 28,000-square-foot shop in the industrial Bayview District. She's a minor celebrity in the city, focusing on sustainable and urban gardening as well as working with community groups to turn abandoned city plots into green spaces and giving gardening a cool edge. Her shop has become a destination, and not just for gardeners. The space features a soaring shade house, a sunny corridor lined with unusual plants, and a café, Ritual Coffee Roasters. Grubb showed us some of the vertical displays she has been working on lately, such as the amazing wall of sempervivums, and her new stock of bright, modern pots. The goal? To create a city full of wise green thumbs.
Some people love food, for others it's cars or wine; Grubb, on the other hand, adores plants (with a first name like hers, it feels like a given). "Plants surprise me and fill me with delight," she says. "And as the years go by, I become more interested in gardening and less interested in many other things." But gardening alone isn't enough to satisfy Grubb; she also has a seated meditation practice. "I meditate to connect myself with that which is timeless, deathless, and indestructible." And besides finding inspiration in plants and nature, Grubb also looks to art and fashion. "I'm really inspired by the commitment, creativity, and vision of the people I work with."
"When I built my business," Grubb says, "I created it in my own image, and it inherited my strengths and weaknesses. It became alive with all of my neurosis, and my personal blind spots became the dysfunctions of my business." Grubb realized that she needed assistance sorting all those tricky and sensitive areas out. And just like plants rely on us to help them flourish, Grubb is a fan of asking for outside help. "There have been challenges in my business I just never would have solved without the help of really wise consultants."
When asked whose invaluable advice she follows, Grubb mentions American designer Rob Forbes. "He has been a tremendous mentor for me. Most often I—like many entrepreneurs—get bored and distractible. Rob always reminds me firmly to stick to what I am best at and stay focused. In retrospect, it has saved me from spreading myself too thin professionally, which allows me to have more energy for other things."
And through all the inevitable twists and turns, Grubb still really enjoys herself, largely due to the industry being packed with supportive people. "Through my career, I've been met with the kind of generosity that gardeners know to expect of other gardeners, a camaraderie that grows from our mutual love of living things."