When George Budgen arrived in Berkeley around 1920 with little more than a degree in landscape design from Penn State, Berkeley was booming. The city’s population doubled between 1910 and 1930, and street after street of two-bedroom stucco cottages that needed lawns, foundation plantings and trees began to replace the last remaining cattle that grazed in open fields. After a brief stint laying out trails and pathways at Tilden Park, Budgen opened Berkeley Horticultural Nursery in 1922.
Now a fourth-generation family business, Berkeley Horticultural Nursery has become a local institution, one of the region’s premiere nurseries and an industry leader that has influenced botanical tastes in homes and gardens across California.
Budgen was instrumental in introducing fuchsia hybrids and Malaysian rhododendrons into the California marketplace. Both plants have become synonymous with the nursery after Budgen named a fuchsia hybrid after his only child, Constance, in 1935 and one of his employees named a Malaysian rhododendron after Budgen himself in 1976, both of which are still sold at the nursery.
In addition, the nursery’s early involvement in the native plant movement promoted statewide shifts that saved water and changed the look of California landscaping. “Berkeley Hort,” as it’s nicknamed, has also acted as an incubator for a generation of budding nursery men and women (like Annie Hayes of Annie’s Annuals) and a required stop for aficionados in search of the rare and unusual.
“George Budgen was a visionary,” says Bill Pollard, a horticulturist at Suncrest Nurseries, a wholesale operation in Watsonville, who worked at the nursery from 1974-75 and named the Budgen cultivar. “He often knew the pulse of the industry and oftentimes was ahead of everybody else.”
Berkeley Hort is celebrating its centennial all year long, with monthly raffles that include its two signature plants, free gifts and dozens of outdoor events, from live concerts to gardening talks. Renowned Berkeley illustrator David Lance Goines is designing the centennial poster.
Out with the train tracks, in with the dwarf conifers
The Berkeley Horticultural Nursery came into being during “a critical time in Berkeley’s history,” according to Chris Grampp, co-chair of the landscape horticulture department at Oakland’s Merritt College and author of the 2008 book From Yard to Garden: The Domestication of America’s Home Grounds. He worked at BHN before getting a landscape architecture degree from UC Berkeley.
The city had recently hired Werner Hegemann, a German city planner of the City Beautiful movement, who helped create Berkeley’s winding streets and front-yard setbacks. “You had Charles Keeler designing Mediterranean gardens for Bernard Maybeck. Then you have the university, which attracted professors and professionals who planted gardens in their Berkeley Hills homes,” Grampp said. “All of these things gave Berkeley this esteemed reputation as a garden city. Berkeley Horticultural Nursery was an important part of that history. It helped establish the city’s garden character.”
When Budgen arrived, 1310 McGee Ave. was an empty lot traversed by the Key Route railway. Once Budgen bought the 1.7-acre property, the railroad removed the tracks and he built a small storefront.
Like many retail nurseries, BHN has its specialties, which were shaped by Budgen’s tastes. “He spent a lot of his time growing and cultivating dwarf conifers and fuchsias,” recalled Paul Doty, a Budgen grandson and horticulturist who’s been the nursery’s president since 1997. It was the latter that would have a major influence on California gardeners.
BHN’s fuchsia tradition began with the arrival of 50 English hybrids in 1929. By the early ’70s, it was known on the West Coast for its collection of two-hundred-odd fuchsias and its annual fuchsia shows. The fuchsia craze ended with a mite that destroyed the market in the early ’80s.
Budgen’s penchant for Malaysian rhododendrons, also known as vireyas, also had a ripple effect. By the mid-1970s, Peter Sullivan, the head propagator at what is now the San Francisco Botanical Garden, gave BHN’s Pollard seeds that produced a bright orange-yellow flower. He asked Pollard to name the hybrid.
“I started thinking about a person who’s done a lot for horticulture and gardening nurseries,” said Pollard. “It was my way of honoring George for his lifetime of work.”
The nursery still propagates the ‘George Bungen’ from cuttings off a mother plant, though “there’s years of requests for those,” says TC Melancon, Paul Doty’s son and the nursery’s general manager. The process takes from a year to 18 months.
Budgen also sold collectible alpine plants like Edelweiss and dwarf cyclamen from the Middle East. But with homes literally going up all around him, he also had to stock what his residential customers needed, what Doty calls “the old standbys: rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias.”
During the Depression, the nursery “really struggled,” Paul Doty said, requiring Budgen to grow most of his own inventory on 10 acres in El Cerrito. Signs of change occurred by 1938, when he was able to replace the original storefront with the 3,000-square-foot building that stands today.
A business lasting four generations
The nursery became a family business in 1954, when George’s daughter married Ken Doty, a landscape architect from a Portland, Oregon nursery family. Ken Doty gradually took over the business, with Budgen involved through the 1970s. Budgen died in 1983. The third generation entered the picture when Ken’s son Paul began working weekends and summers at the nursery, starting at age 11.
Ken Doty was instrumental in starting the California Native Plant Society in 1965 and remained active in the organization, which has moved the needle in California toward more water-saving and environmentally beneficial species. He also introduced such plants, like manzanita, ceanothus and native bulbs like fairy lanterns, into the nursery. Natives now make up 15% of BHN’s inventory. Ken Doty died in 2010.
Natives became popular after the devastating drought of 1976-1977, when gardeners were forced to consider less thirsty alternatives to “the old standbys.” Not long afterward, California nurseries began promoting drought-tolerant plants from other Mediterranean climates, including the South African naked ladies, French lavender and Tuscan rosemary, all of which can be seen in Berkeley today.
The nursery now stocks about 10,000 different plants. Unlike its early days, 99.9% of the nursery stock comes from wholesale growers.
Paul Doty’s tutelage saw the construction of a number of new structures at the nursery, among them a pond for aquatic plants and a patio canopy recognized for its innovative design by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association. Between the 1980s and ’90s, sales tripled during a couple of years. Staff has expanded to accommodate that growth, from two or three in the nursery’s early days to almost 30 today.
“What’s unique about the nursery is its test gardens, where you can see what plants are going to look like in two to three years,” said Patricia St. John, a landscape designer and member of the Berkeley Garden Club, who’s patronized BHN for 50 years. In addition, the nursery has “a large selection of natives sold in four-inch pots, which you can only find there or in the botanical gardens in Tilden and Berkeley.”
Doty’s now semi-retired, so Melancon runs the nursery day-to-day, aware of the legacy he is inheriting. His three-pronged strategy carries on the ideals of his predecessors.
Melancon plans to continue to offer a wide selection of plants, find new species that “really push the limits of what can be grown in the microclimate that is the Bay Area” and seek independent, family-run local growers, many of which shuttered in recent years.
“We’ll continue to employ Bay Area residents with a real passion for horticulture,” he said. “I’m very proud of the staff we do have here. We run it like a family.”