Oakland at Work: Buddhas and bowling balls at The Dry Garden nursery
on December 11, 2015
Richard Ward of The Dry Garden nursery tells of a time when succulents saved a house from a wildfire.
In 1989, raging flames from the last big fire approached a house but stopped short at a row of giant aloe and agave plants. Ward said that succulents are naturally fire retardant because 98 percent of their composition is water.
Ward knows his succulents, cacti and bamboo. Since 1987, he has owned The Dry Garden on Shattuck Avenue, near the border between Oakland and Berkeley.
On a recent Thursday, Ward was at his desk, carefully penciling in plant labels. Towering over him was a bookshelf crammed with plant reference books. Ward continued labeling as he told his story, pausing occasionally to recall a plant name out loud.
Ward was drafted into the Vietnam War in 1967, “Just in time for Tet.” When he got back from war, Ward opened a head shop in Greensboro, North Carolina, selling smoking supplies and other paraphernalia. He has stories of getting high there with the Allman Brothers, Sha Na Na, Pink Floyd and other rockers.
The story of The Dry Garden begins in the 1980s. He and a friend were living in Nashville when they came up with the idea of moving to California and opening a nursery. The only problem was, they had no money. So Ward and his friend, Keith Calhoun, worked for five years to save $10,000. Ward worked as a waiter in an upscale Nashville restaurant. Eventually the duo saved up the money and moved out west.
“I always knew I would end up here [in the Bay Area],” Ward says. “It just seemed like the place to go, the happening place.”
Ward and Calhoun originally planned to open a storefront in the Castro selling plants. But even back then, the Castro was out of their price range, so they opened a nursery in Oakland in 1987. At the time, they called it Bay Area Succulents.
Calhoun joined the San Francisco Cactus and Succulent Society, but “we knew absolutely nothing,” Ward says of their early days. Still, they got the fledgling nursery off the ground, and they were able to double the shop’s footprint by taking over the adjacent lot 18 years ago.
Around that time, Jinpa Nyima began work at The Dry Garden. Nyima is a former Tibetan monk who is now married with two children. The statues, sculptures, incense and other Buddhist imagery that dot The Dry Garden are partly his influence.
Walking around the nursery watering plants, Ward pointed to items that showed how connected the nursery has become to the neighboring community. Bowling balls, which serve as garden decor, came from Marcia Donahue, a neighbor of the nursery and fellow plant enthusiast, he said.
“Probably 25 years ago, she passed me 15 or 20 of them over the fence,” Ward said. “We just spread them around. They’re just another ornament, like a round rock or something.”
As a purveyor of rare and unusual plants, Ward doesn’t have favorites among his collection, but he does have a wish-list of rare plants. One plant he is dying to acquire is the beaucarnea recurvata variegata, also known as the ponytail palm. He has been trying to track one down for about two years.
“I spend a lot of time on my computer, searching the Web for the damn things,” he says.
Succulents come in all shapes and sizes, but the collection that Ward and Nyima maintain brings to mind the landscape from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. Alongside common succulents and houseplants are more exotic varieties: Medusahead, Sticks on Fire, Christmas Cactus, Lawyer’s Tongue, Rainbow Bush, Tasmanian Tree Fern.
Ward says his business is thriving thanks to the drought, which has brought in new customers looking to replace their grass lawns with more eco-friendly plants.
Ward was selling drought-tolerant plants long before the current drought and it’s likely he’ll be selling them long after it’s over. He’s not confident that the current trend for replacing lawns with native-plant gardens will continue after the drought is over.
“People forget in a hurry, I’m telling ya,” Ward says. “The general public doesn’t have a great memory.”
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