Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Back in the Day

I have a confession to make.  I didn’t start this job because I loved tuberous begonias.  I started this job because I needed the work.

I guess you could say the job started in Northern Australia.  Broke in Asia, I needed work then too, badly.

In order to get into Australia as a tourist, I needed a ticket out of the country.  I bought the cheapest ticket I could before I boarded the plane from Bali to Darwin.  The ticket was to Kupang, Timor.  It took almost all the money I had to buy the two tickets one to Darwin, one to Kupang.  I sat on the plane with less than $20 in my pocket, I was deadly afraid that the customs guys would take one look at my wallet, not let me out of the airport and send me off again, and I would end up broke in Timor (not a good prospect).  
I sat next to an Australian on his way home from a vacation in Bali and I talked to him about my dilemma.  He loaned me the $300 in his wallet.  Just put it in my wallet, walked through customs (they looked at my meager funds and found them adequate) and I gave it back to him on the sidewalk outside the airport, the air heavy in that tropical way.

Darwin had been struck by Cyclone Tracy about three months before and was actively trying to rebuild, I found work the next day.  Taking a job on a tourist visa and overstaying my allotted time, made me an illegal alien.   Australia had an amnesty offer  a year or so after I arrived and I got my visa straightened out.

Construction work was lucrative and easy to find but inherently unsatisfying.  Thinking about what I would like to do, I knew I wanted to be a gardener and grow plants.  By that time I had fallen in love with the tropics and it's flora. 

I got a job working for the Northern Territory Parks Department.  They assigned me to Government House.   It is the residence of the “Administrator”, what we (in the U.S.) would call the “Governor”. The residence was maintained by the Parks Department.  It was such a great job, a wonderful tropical garden overlooking the harbor, but not a public place.  The Administrator never came out of the air conditioning and we gardeners gardened for ourselves.

Below you see a photo of Government House.  I’ve been to the top of those palm trees many times.

Government House, North Australia

I started propagating plants in a unused portion of the garden, first for my use and then for the other parks and got a pretty good raise and a title of “Propagator”.  Oh, that was the life.   The stories I could tell, don’t get me started.

Soon though, I knew I had to come home again, I left by a  wooden sail boat. It took 2 years to get home. I also knew that I would settle in California, I mean… where else?

I didn’t want to grab just any job, I wanted back into horticulture.   One afternoon, I drove to the top of Hecker Pass and looked over the Pajaro Valley.  At that time the valley was full of greenhouses, you could count hundreds.  I thought to myself “I can find work here”.   I went from place to place with no luck, several people recommended I go to Half Moon Bay and get a job at one of the big wholesale places.  Most of those greenhouses I saw from Hecker pass are closed now.

At the time, I was staying in my van, parked in an old friends driveway in Capitola and for amusement (being broke) walked about in the evenings.  One evening I walked by a place called the “Brown Bulb Ranch” which I thought amusing.  I mean were the bulbs brown? Or what?  Just outside the fence was a little shack, covered with little pink roses, Paul’s Himalayan Musk I think.  I have always liked shacks and thought to myself, “ I could live in a place like that”

I applied for work at the “Brown Bulb Ranch” the next day.  It was just a couple days before begonia harvest of 1983 and the ad for help was going to appear in the next day’s paper.  They hired me, and my first job was unloading 100 pound sacks of tulips for minimum wage, $3.35 per hour.

They kept me that harvest season, they kept me though the propagating and planting season, they kept me though the summer.  The next year the old greenhouse manager retired and her right hand helper was not comfortable taking on the job.  They offered the job to me! 

I have to confess, I did not fall in love with tuberous begonias.  I fell in love with my job.  I liked the old greenhouses.  I liked the smell, the touch and look of those greenhouses (even though the doors were so low I had to duck to get in).  I liked watching the little plants grow from seed. Seeds small as dust.

Believe it or not, I did end up living in that shack just outside the fence.  And it was a real shack. Built around the 20’s for Filipino dairy workers, I couldn’t stand up in the kitchen or bedroom because the ceiling was too low.  The roses good.

As the “Greenhouse Manager”, I could not stray too far from the greenhouses.  The vents were not automatic and required the pull of a chain or rope to operate. I could go out on weekend mornings but when the fog cleared, I had to return promptly to open the vents before the houses got too hot.  Likewise, in the evening, I had to close them. If the fog blew in early, I had close them then.  Seven days a week.  For me, this was not a problem.  I didn’t have anywhere else I wanted to be.  I lived at that place and for that work.  I thought it was kind of like sailing a boat.  I read books.  I made a vegetable garden in the back yard.  I cleared a huge patch of blackberry vines and found a house under it.

Below is a picture of me outside my “office”.  We were doing some underground work across the road and I propped the camera on the rubble pile, set the timer, ran over and struck a casual pose.

Andy at the Brown Bulb Ranch


In the winter evenings, when the begonia seedlings were in the greenhouses, I would go around and light the heaters.  For the most part the heaters were a pipe with holes drilled along the top with a line of gas fed into one end with a valve on the inlet.  I would kick the valve open with one foot and toss a lighted match in the general direction of the pipe, and the flame would come on with a satisfying “whoomp” and dance about three feet high in the middle of the greenhouse floor.  Had to turn them off in the AM too.

The begonias were sown by hand in redwood flats.  Below you can see a picture of me sowing them.  Sometimes I would get behind and return after dinner to finish the sowing.  The propagation greenhouses were a balmy 78 degrees in middle of winter, they had heat that ran as hot water in pipes under the benches from an antique boiler. I put classical music (KBAQ when they were still classical) on a little radio at one end of the house and would finish my work, sometimes not until 10:00 at night.

Sowing open flats of begonias at the Brown Bulb Ranch

Although the greenhouses were old, they were scrupulously clean.  The redwood benches in the propagation houses were painted every year, before sowing, with a 50–50 mix of diesel and formaldehyde.  They had a kind of oily green color from so many years of this treatment they looked like particularly ugly ebony.  The flats were steamed in a big old pressure cooker that was bought when the canneries from Cannery Row closed in Monterey.

There were many little out of the way corners in the Old Ranch.  There was a small greenhouse off the propagation houses, maybe 20 x 30, glass roofs like most were, old Lord and Burnham chain pull vent openers. The house hadn’t been used in years and was full of whatever wanted to grow there.  There were lots of tomatillos gone wild that filled one side to the gutters.  The tomatillo fruits would dry in their papery skins until they were like big fat blond raisins.  I would go in a pick a few once in a while during work.  

One day, I don’t remember why, I was instructed to get this greenhouse back into operation.  That meant fixing whatever was broken and taking the floor back to clean dirt.  Before I started on the floor, I was struck by how beautiful it all was.  I ran home (I was living in that shack by then) and got my camera.  Below you see a picture of a little weed arrangement on the floor. Some sort of begonia-gone-native in the middle. By the afternoon this photo was taken it was all dirt again.

I became interested in how greenhouses worked (and in how to automate them; selfishly) and in how to improve the crop that became my charge.  I was going to the local community college at night and taking all the hort classes I could.

We left the Old Ranch in 1989, the year of the Earthquake, and built a new facility in Moss Landing.  The greenhouse are all controlled by an environmental computer now. One that has been upgraded through the years. 

I now sit at home, fifteen miles away, and look at the condition of the greenhouse on my computer, cup of coffee in hand, and change the set points, open a vent, turn on a heater, or whatever, with the touch of a key. I’m removed.  I’m here, they are way over there.

Looking back, it seems wonderful.  Begonias gave me a life. Who knows what I really thought then, time has turned it all to myth in my mind.


  1. I grew up running around the old Brown Bulb Ranch and those photos bring back many fond memories. I love the one of your "office".

  2. Ver interesting!I follow your wife's blog and love her books.Love plants nearly as much as horses!I have never grown tuberous begonias but the are beautiful.I don't remember seeing them in area nurseries.Would they grow well in North Texas-gets awfully hot here and usually lots of strong south winds.

  3. Hi Laverne,

    Thanks for the comment on my new blog.

    Well, to tell you the truth, North Texas might be tough.

    Begonias being native to the tropics can stand heat fine but, desert heat not so much. If I were you, I’d plant them out of the sun, say the north side of a building and out of the wind, keep them moist when it’s hot.

    I notice that there several branches of the American Begonia Society in Texas. See the list here.

    This one has some cultural info (the others might too, I didn’t look)

    Good luck


  4. It is good to feel a connection back to you through your written words, and it inspires me to get back to my writing. Keep it up.

  5. Thanks Bill,
    I check your blog now and again and look forward to you writing.