Flora Grubb helms her eponymous horticultural hub to the delight of those who flock to the Bayview for climate-appropriate plants, like Grevillea — which she describes as “a special plant that grows in coastal California and not very many other places.”
Flora Grubb has been a gardener her entire life. The cofounder and co-owner of the eponymous nursery located in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood has become synonymous with some of the most stylish, lush and creative gardens in and around the Bay Area. Flora Grubb Gardens itself is a destination for drought-tolerant plants of all shapes and sizes, unique pottery, trend-defining garden accessories, and a vibe that’s bound to awaken the nascent gardener in you. This spring, as the nursery celebrates its 20th anniversary in San Francisco — through multiple boom-bust cycles, the transformation of the City’s demographics and, right, a pandemic — as well as a forthcoming location in Marina del Rey in Los Angeles, Grubb expresses a degree of disbelief, and no small amount of gratitude, to find herself here today.
What makes an amazing garden? For Flora Grubb, much of it has to do with the flow of how eve…
“I’m incredibly grateful that I get to keep doing what I love, which is helping people discover their relationship with plants,” she says. “I just keep getting lucky.” We’re sitting surrounded by greenery on a quiet Monday morning in late January, ensconced in the embrace of a pair of Galanter & Jones heated chairs. The nursery is closed today, and Grubb warmly greets the few employees who are on-site to tend to the plants, which tower and drape in a kaleidoscope of color and texture. Luck may have something to do with it, but Grubb’s distinctive vision, impeccable taste, business savvy and palpable passion for the work she does seem to be contributing factors as well.
And then there’s her name — which she shares with her great-grandmother. It’s hard to imagine Flora Grubb as anyone but the veritable queen of the San Francisco gardening world. “My siblings all have biblical names, so I guess I lucked out there, too,” she says. The bright winter sun dapples through the fanning palm leaves as Grubb settles back, an easy smile on her face. “There are snapshots of me when I was really young making these hideous gardens,” she continues, laughing. “I would photograph them and paint them, and of course my mom saved them all.” Grubb was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Austin, Texas, with self-described hippie parents and four siblings. Her father was a gardener, as were many members of her large, extended family. The drive was in her blood, so to speak. Her desire to get her hands in the dirt was coupled with a blazingly strong independent streak.
“I was dead set on making my own way,” she explains. Grubb dropped out of high school at 14 and began working, both for a pair of entrepreneurial women with a gourmet food company and for herself, taking on landscaping jobs in her neighborhood. She had a habit of breaking into Austin’s Botanical Gardens at night, the better to enjoy the plants out of the blazing Texas sun. “I’d just climb the fence and go be a garden-loving criminal!” she says wryly.
She cites the oppressive heat as the primary reason she left Austin for San Francisco, making the move in 1999, in the midst of the first dot-com boom. She got an entry-level tech job and quickly moved up, simultaneously taking on landscaping jobs for friends while immersing herself in the mind-blowing array of Bay Area plant life. “The specialness of the climate here means there’s an incomprehensible number of plants that can grow in one place,” she explains. “The Mediterranean climate is special in and of itself, and San Francisco’s climate is particularly special because of the coolness. You can grow things from all of these different climates, including the cloud forest [a forest that gets a significant amount of moisture from fog or clouds], which is just the cream of the crop.”
That cool factor was a steep departure from Texas, but a major commonality remained: dryness. Texas had been in serious drought for the majority of the time that Grubb had lived and gardened there, and she was already prioritizing plants that require less water. In the Bay Area, where zero rain for six months is the norm, this mentality was a natural fit. Still, it was early days for dry garden design in San Francisco. “There were a bunch of creative, early dry garden pioneers, thanks in large part to Sunset magazine,” she recalls. “Everything kind of looked like an English garden, but with dry plants, like blue fescue and salvias. And it looked good! But it all kind of looked … one way.”
Grubb was doing more and more landscaping work through the dot-com bust, imitating gardens she admired while playing with redefined dry garden styles, when she took on a job designing a garden for San Francisco residents Saul and Susie Nadler. “Flora loved plants like no one I had ever met,” says Saul Nadler of his first impression of Grubb. “Her passion was infectious. We were novices, and the garden we ended up with was our favorite thing about the house — dahlias and fig trees and leucadendrons. She brought such life to something we had never really appreciated before.”
The meeting was fortuitous on both sides; Nadler was keen to take on a new project, and Grubb had been itching to open her own nursery. The first Flora Grubb Gardens opened on Guerrero Street in the Mission in 2003. With Nadler’s $150,000 investment, the pair, who had formed Grubb & Nadler, Inc., figured that they would see how things went and cut their losses if it was a bust. “We figured if it didn’t work out, we’d still be OK. We could rent the space out as a parking lot, or something,” she says. “But … it did work out.”
The Guerrero Street nursery was such a success that Grubb and Nadler began looking to expand almost immediately, first acquiring a wholesale operation in San Diego in 2005 (which supplies the nursery) and then moving to the current Bayview location on Jerrold Street in 2007. The indoor-outdoor space, boasting solar panels, reclaimed wood details and Ritual Coffee Bar, attracted immediate attention from the national press, quickly cementing it as the place to get your garden goods in the Bay Area and Grubb as a bona fide tastemaker. (After Ritual closed this location in 2021, a coffee truck was added late last year.)
Throughout this growth, and looking forward to the L.A. location later this year, Grubb’s philosophy has remained consistent: to provide diverse, beautiful, dry garden–friendly plants that suit all manner of styles and aesthetics. Growing awareness around drought in California has made this an important prospect across the board; Flora Grubb’s reputation for creating gardens that are as unique and stylish as they are drought-tolerant has made the practice undeniable. In other words, there’s no longer a reason to not have a dry garden because you don’t like the way it looks; a dry garden can look any way you want. “One thing that I love is that our customers will say, ‘I have a Flora Grubb garden!’ But that garden can look a lot of different ways. Follow what you love, and keep an open mind,” Grubb advises.
As for that gardening urge running through her blood, it seems to have been passed on. “My son does garden, but he’s a teenager, so he tries to do it in a way that’s rebellious,” she laughs. “But it’s hard to garden rebelliously!” One could argue that she’s made a career doing just that.