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Torrey Neel outside her native plant nursery on Coast Highway in Encinitas. Photo by David Boylan
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Lick the Plate: Go native at Neel’s Nursery

When I first moved to Encinitas, one of my favorite stores was Environgentle, owned by Torrey Neel on Coast Highway in the heart of old Encinitas. It opened my eyes to organic and recycled products that had a low impact on the environment. Between frequent visits to the store and our mutual participation in a local longboard contest, I got to know and appreciate what Torrey was all about.

It was a treat to run into Torrey recently at her new venture in the Gold Coast Plaza in Leucadia, where LTP was last week at Coastal Eatery.  We caught up and I got a nice refresher on native plants. Some of that conversation is captured below.

LTP: Let’s go back a ways, Environgentle was one of my favorite stores, tell me how that happened and what the experience was like?

Torrey: I had a store over by Swami’s, where the Swami’s Cafe is now, called Concept Designs that was a surf, skate and reggae shop in front and I did custom screen printing in the back, right out of high school from 1986-1990. In 1991 I found a spot where I could do my custom screen printing of mostly T-shirts in back, but it had a nice retail area in front. It was when recycling was just taking hold and my brother and I thought if we could just help the recycling market by selling products made with recycled content, and we named it Environgentle. That evolved into all things better for the environment that was hard to find, including organic cotton, hemp, recycled and biodegradable products. It was a great 17-year run, I met so many amazing, conscientious customers.

LTP: What have you been up to since you sold the store?

Torrey:  I sold the store in 2008, went into partial retirement, did a lot more surfing and bought land in Potrero.  Environgentle went to part-time online sales and with the remainder of my time, I went back to school and went through MiraCosta’s horticulture and nursery program. I completed an internship with Tree of Life Nursery as well as a lot of volunteering with Quail Botanical Gardens, the Natural History Museum in the Botany department and now currently serving on the board of The California Native Plant Society San Diego Chapter.

LTP: Tell me about your new venture and how it came to be.

Torrey: My husband and I spend a lot of time in Potrero and love enjoying the local flora. Our land needed some restoration, so I started collecting seed and propagating our own plants to move out into the disturbed areas. It turned out to be something I really enjoy, to the point that we started calling our yard Neel’s Nursery. That was my father and grandfather’s business name. I started a driveway nursery a few years ago that was based on little free libraries, I called it Pequeño Native Plant Nursery and it was free or donation for 2” size native plants with information and signage.

LTP: Why is it important that people in this area know about and start planting native plants?

Torrey: My mission is to see us put some of the habitat back that we put our homes on. Insects, birds and other wildlife have an intimate relationship and dependence on the plants that they evolved with. When we remove those plants and insert plants from other parts of the world, we create local extinctions and make it difficult for those life connections to happen. I can walk for blocks and not see any native plants and I want to make it easy for people to come buy a California Buckwheat or San Diego Sunflower and mix it into their garden.

LTP: Can you give me some examples of your favorite native plants and how people can incorporate them into their yards?

Torrey: My favorite plants for the garden are the sages especially, White Sage Salvia apiana, it can take full sun and is adaptable to work in garden conditions and dry nature strips. But I also love Cleveland Sage, Black Sage, Hummingbird Sage and Salvia munzii, the smells are amazing, not to mention the butterfly and hummingbirds they attract.

LTP: I love your location. How did you score that killer spot?

Torrey: We had been looking around San Diego for a spot to open a nursery for several years because San Diego does not have a retail, all-California native specialty nursery. I had started but I kept thinking about this location, between Lou’s and the Pannikin you can’t really beat that. It is very small, but so far, I have 98 species of plants for sale here with room for another 30-40 before I max out. The gardens of Gold Coast center are one of those hidden gems of Encinitas, with a very nice existing garden, stream and pond that are shared common areas of all the tenants of Gold Coast.

LTP: You have some other offerings at the nursery, what’s up beside the plants?

Torrey: In the gazebo, I have some fun new, used and vintage planter pots, California native plant seed for sale in packets, a few books on gardening with native plants, rehabbed garden hand tools, garden signs and some Environgentle things like reusable straws, utensils and sporks.

LTP: If I recall, you lean vegan in your diet, where are some of your favorite places in North County for that type of food?

Torrey: I really like the whole menu at The Bigfoot Natural Cafe in Carlsbad. Escondido has Phatties vegan Mexican cuisine that is super good. And for a fast-food splurge, we go to Veggie Grill. And I am going to miss Kim’s in Encinitas.

LTP: Are any of these native plants edible and if so, how do you incorporate them into cooking?

Torrey: For myself, I have a Pacific Blackberry Rubus ursinus in a big pot and I like to snack on the blackberries. I also harvest the grapes from my Rodgers Red California Grape for jelly and jam every year. Lemonade Berry Rhus integrifolia berries are a favorite to flavor my water or a leaf from my garden, Cleveland lia berries are a favorite to flavor my water or a leaf from my garden Cleveland Sage Salvia clevelandii makes a nice tea.

 Check out Neel’s Nursery at 466 N. Coast Hwy 101 or