VISTA — For the last 30 years Pearson’s Gardens & Herb Farm, owned and operated by Mark and Cindy Pearson, has been bringing color and life to the community.
“Growing plants is like raising humans and animals,” Cindy Pearson said. “Plants are living beings with circulatory, respiratory, metabolic, sensory systems, etc. Gardening is the act of creating and maintaining conditions in which a plant will thrive, not unlike children or pets.”
Originally based in Leucadia, the Pearsons made the move to Vista in 1989, when they brought 5,000 plumerias and a small herbal collection from their first store into a “run-down” succulent range in Vista. Confident of the area’s perfect weather — Vista reigns among the world’s top five horticulture areas because of its climate — the couple established themselves as wholesale growers.
But their first year didn’t go as planned, as a historic freeze brought temperatures down to 17 degrees and they lost every plumeria overnight. Then the Los Angeles Department of Agriculture detected an invasive pest in their incoming Hawaiian plumeria shipment. Not only was everything confiscated, the Pearsons had to pay for the shipment’s incineration.
“Devastated” but determined, the couple tapped into expanding their herb collection.
“The timing was perfect as the demand for herbs had just exploded,” Pearson said. “Martha Stewart’s rising popularity had elevated the status and request for culinary herbs.”
As wholesalers, the Pearsons successfully produced and sold edible and culinary herbs — “attractive herbs that didn’t look like weeds” – to independent nurseries throughout Southern California. Stock quickly expanded to include utilitarian and medicinal herbs.
Ethnobotanicals — herbs indigenous to their ethnicity (Chinese, Mexican, Indian, Native American, South African to name a few) — came next.
“We’ve dedicated ourselves to growing edible, medicinal and utilitarian plant species from every continent across the globe,” Pearson said. “To this day, we offer a wide spectrum of herbs, vegetables, fruits, trees, and seeds including those that reflect San Diego’s ethnic diversity. People love to grow and use food from their homeland.”
Sidling South Africa, the Mediterranean, Western Australia and Coastal Chile, Vista’s drought-free sunny days also afford the Pearsons the opportunity to grow California native wildlife habitat species such as insects, hummingbirds and butterflies.
“Wildlife habitat plants provide food and shelter for hummingbirds and a variety of insects including bees,” Pearson said. “Categorized as host plants, they also feed, shelter and support the metamorphosis of butterflies. Without the milkweed plant, Monarch butterflies wouldn’t exist.”
Everything used “to promote an ecologically balanced ecosystem” is sold on site.
“Our handcrafted plants are propagated, cultivated and maintained by organic and bio-sustainable methods such as beneficial insects, pollinator species, catch-crops and insect screening,” Pearson said. “Organic pest control is used in leu of fungicides, growth regulators, hormones, and chemical pesticides. And no GMOs. Period.”
The Pearsons replaced chemical pesticides that “contaminate nectar and kill bees,” with organic pest controls “conducive to each plant.” These include green lace wings, praying mantises, earthworms, beneficial nematodes and lady bugs.
Pearson described lady bugs as a “front-line army” for keeping pests from making holes in your plants.
“Lady bugs produce armadillo-looking larvae that can consume up to 200 pest bugs a day,” she said.
Pearson also said plants sprayed with pesticides don’t require labeling. Applied at the growing phase, pesticides become systemic, remaining within the plant’s tissue and surrounding soil for at least a decade. Because of their potential toxicity to humans, animals and the environment, Pearson cautioned on trusting the safety of these “tested” chemicals.
Pearson also cautioned against using neonicotinoids, a nicotine-based pesticide widely used by conventional growers.
“Thought to be safer than common conventional pesticides, updated research clearly documents adverse impacts on the bee and other pollinator populations,” she said. “Long-term persistence in plant tissues and the environment contaminates foodstuffs — fruits, vegetables, and honey — which causes health concerns due to accumulated long-term exposure.”
The Pearsons will resource and grow what’s not in stock including the Bouillon Bush, a perennial plant native to Brazil, noted as Pearson’s most unusual plant. Used as the secret flavor ingredient in vegetarian bouillon broth — it smells/tastes like beef bouillon — the plant is also coveted for its medicinal value.
Nicknamed the lifeboat plant by Brazilian locals, the bouillon was used to feed shipwrecked victims run ashore in a significantly deteriorated state. Leaves were also mulched into a skin poultice and applied to reduce inflammation.
Today, pharmaceutical companies are researching its anti-inflammatory properties in order to synthesize products viable for humans. When asked about this unusual find, Pearson said she meticulously combed through medical research — all in Portuguese — “weeding through the translation while leaning on my science background to understand the uniqueness of its potential value.”
“We’re constantly educating ourselves and our customers,” she said. “A garden must give back.”
Pearson compared their specialty crops to commercial, high-quantity output as the difference between variety and profit. Unlike large-scale, mass production outlets, their collections are cultivated by hand in small batches from seed or the propagation of a mother stock plant — a cloning technique void of seeds, that utilizes root division, stem cuttings and air-layering.
“Mass production and mechanization inhibits variety because of the need to change the machinery to accommodate the plants,” she said. “While the industry typically works from spreadsheets and schedules within the confines of regulation, we gather seeds as they ripen and clip cuttings from mother stock. Everything happens right here, nurtured under the watchful eye of Mark and I.”
Customers are encouraged to succeed.
“Gardening is an arena where failing causes people to give up,” she said. “Be it their first or last-ditch effort, we problem solve with proven methods and materials. We provide everything, the soil, the pest control and teach sustainable garden practices including effective watering practices, the use of beneficial insects and garden design.”
Fifteen years ago, the wholesale growers opened their doors to the public due to a decline of independent retail nurseries. Strangling regulations, rising operational costs and property values have slowly made it “impossible for a retail nursery to survive,” Pearson said.
“Fifty years ago, North County was a horticulture mecca; Vista alone housed over 400 nurseries,” Pearson said. “Hard-working nursery owners became millionaires virtually overnight. Today, that’s almost impossible. Founding nurseries no longer survive through its younger generations. Offspring shy away from the amount of work involved, rising operational costs don’t run parallel to the selling price of products, and the land’s value favors the high-tax revenue of residential and business development.
“We purchased enough land in an area historical for its horticulture and agriculture when it was still possible to do so,” she said. “It’s taken years of dedicated hard work, but we’ve forged a life many dream of — outdoors with nature, interacting with people from all over the world, helping them create vibrant gardens.”
The Pearsons said they have witnessed a renaissance of millennials emerging from the “indoor, sterile environment that they grew up in.”
“In discovering the outdoors, they have a desire to control their food supply and protect the environment,” she said.
With customers coming from everywhere — “Southern Cal locals, snow birds and clients from Maine, Canada and Mexico,” — the Pearsons said they welcome locals, day-trippers, and traveling garden aficionados to enjoy their unique garden and nursery farm.
The Pearsons also feature an outdoor classroom serving fee-based workshops and scheduled garden clubs.
And everyone is invited to enjoy Tonka, the cat, who hangs out with their ever-growing herd of Russian tortoises.
Pearson’s Gardens & Herb Farm is located at 1150 Beverly Drive in Vista. For more information, call (760)726-0717 or visit pearsonsgardens.com.