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Carman’s Nursery

Articles: Carman’s Nursery

Marshall Olbrich sent this article to Pacific Horticulture about two weeks before his sudden death in July. In the accompanying letter he said of Ed Carman: “He is a connoisseur’s nurseryman. He is the one who has the blue ginger or Russellia equisetiformis when you can’t find it.”

A few years ago, writing an obituary for plantswoman Nova Leach of Stockton, I used with full feeling the expression “a saint of horticulture.” This is not a phrase lightly used, and it came to me first, and surely to others, in reflecting on those arch saints of horticulture, Ray and Rose Williams of Watsonville. To be a saint one properly should have passed to one’s reward and have one’s miracles attested. Also, though one is allowed, in Baron von Hugel’s phrase, minor sins of accident and surprise, one must have a single-minded devotion to plants. With Ray Williams the miracle is there to see: his last great work, the grounds of Gavilan College in Gilroy, which surely will be recognized as the most important pioneer dry garden in California (I can use that absurd neologism “xerophytic” no more than I can use the redundant “plant material”). Beatification can happen only to those who, in St Cyril’s phrasing, have fallen asleep before us, but in warmth of feeling we can allow ourselves the appellation “living saint” or “living proto-saint” (or up and down the scale) for Gerda Isenberg, celebrating her ninetieth birthday, for Rose Williams, and for Ed and Jean Carman.

Plantsmen can be adventurous, like Forrest, Fortune, Wilson, Douglas, Rock, Comber, the present-day Archibalds, and the rest of those at this moment vigorously extending our garden world. They can be chroniclers, like the great W.J. Bean, Liberty Hyde Bailey, Ernest Lord of that magical, early Shrubs and Trees for Australian Gardens, or the mysterious W. Arnold-Foster, who wrote the classic of clas­sics, Shrubs for the Milder Countries. Plantsmen can be conservators, like the directors of Kew and Wisley, Eric Walther of San Francisco’s Strybing Arboretum, Lawrence Johnston at Hidcote, Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst, or that buccaneer-plantsman, the late Don Stryker on the coast of Oregon. Finally, they can be those whose gift to us is to make plants available: those nurseries of the past — Veitch, Vilmorin, Robinson’s Hardy Plants; and those of the present — Hillier’s, Paul Picton, Elizabeth Strangman of Washfield, Don Mann of the Forge Nursery, A.C. Leslie and Joe Sharman of the newest and brightest Monksilver Nursery, Beth Chatto and all too many others in England; Eschmann of Emmen in Switzerland; and Forest Fam, We-Du, Canyon Creek, The Woodlanders, Montrose, the new Heronswood Nursery, and too many others to mention in this country.


Here belongs Ed Carman and also what I shall describe as the myth of Ed Carman. Unlike our explorers, his adventures have been mainly with the plants, growing up in his father’s nursery on Bascom Avenue, a rather tinny street in greater San Jose, and moving a few blocks away to the pleasantly named Mozart Avenue, a quiet residential street where he and wife Jean guard their treasures.

More than thirty years ago, when Lester Hawkins and I started our garden, we visited Carman’s nursery, then at the old location. Like a snake shedding its skin, there were vestiges of the old — sacks of manure and peat moss, junipers and leptospermums. But the new creature was emerging: a block of plants — I have forgotten whether epimediums or hellebores, but definitely not to be found at the supermarket — were roped off with crisscrossed ribbons and “sold” tags. “Oh, what a sale!” I thought, and then realized they hadn’t been sold at all but were being kept as stock plants. The situation has not changed in all the subsequent years.

Ed is, perhaps, the finest plantsman of us all, but there is a special puzzlement and charm to his nursery. First, like any truly innovative nurseryman, such as Don Stryker of Langlois, Oregon, where one parted the weeds to see the rare black daphne (Daphne x houtteana), which Brian Mathew thought extinct at the time; or Paul Hutchison of Escondido’s Tropic World, or Bernard Acquistapace, Darylly Combs, and Mark Bartholomew in Santa Barbara, the present-day mecca for plant buyers; in short, like anyone introducing and growing his own plants, Ed has too much to do. So the unknowing outsider, seeing weeds in the far forty perennial area, will find, as he approaches the throbbing heart of the enterprise — the propagating house and associated tables — that disorder progresses to an almost crystalline neatness.

But my myth is not through. Any nurseryman growing his own plants, which often are to be found nowhere else, ferociously and with his life protects his stock. The sneaky, knowledgeable buyer, drawn by forces beyond his control, inevitably goes to the new and rare, whereupon, like Albrich protecting the treasure against Siegfried, a head pops up and a voice thunders “You can’t have it!”

As a small nurseryman in much the same position, I went a different way, hiring assist­ance in the form of a splendid nursery and garden staff. But means outgrow ends in this bad world, so while I still have the weeds, I feel I have lost some of the charm that Ed and Jean’s totally deliberate and self-conscious determination to stay small has enabled them to retain.

Finally, I mention another topic — that nurseryman’s ailment that dares not say its name. This is the inevitable paranoia a person feels, when he has gone to some trouble to introduce and prove the value of a plant, upon seeing his child, seduced by a popsicle, wandering off to other growers. As Beth Chatto, who had just returned from Germany, exclaimed: “But all I saw were my plants!”

I honestly believe that Ed and Jean, like Ray and Rose Williams, have never been troubled by such thoughts. As a less nice person, I can think impure thoughts for them. I have always thought that they got far too little credit for their introductions and contributions to our gardening. As an example (which I remember because my devil-tempted soul would have frothed at the mouth), through their friendship with Trevor Davies of the famous New Zealand nursery, Ed and Jean have given us many new plants from that part of the world, including the shiny, brownish green Coprosma ‘Coppershine’. Like Beth Chatto’s plants, this was surely Ed’s plant, and yet, when another person exhibited it and received an award at the California Horticultural Society’s annual dinner, I recall no credit given.

Dymondia margaretaeErigeron karvinskianus ‘Moerheimii’, Helichrysum argyrophyllum, eleven cultivars of Rhodohypoxis… there is little point in going down the long list of their introductions here. This is what we owe, and for this we give thanks.




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