Original Article published by GrowerTalks’ Acres Online
November 18, 2016
My trip to Altman Plants
I like doing things at the last minute. Just-in-time delivery is how I justify my tendency to procrastinate. Which is why I had to do a one-day, redeye-flight trip to Southern California this week to get the cover story for the December GrowerTalks (which goes to the printer Monday—plenty of time!).
Our subject? Altman Plants, which is, as best as we can tell, the world’s largest grower of cacti and succulents. We wanted to talk to owner Ken Altman about how he and his wife, Deena, got into succulents 40 years before the current succulent craze hit, and how they’ve been able to capitalize on their current popularity. Deena has stepped back from the day-to-day of the business so I didn’t expect to get to interview her, too. But apparently she was compelled enough by my list of questions to joined us for the interview in their succulent-surrounded hilltop back yard.
A few highlights:
– Their love of succulents started in the early 1970s when a cactus growing on Deena’s apartment windowsill unexpectedly bloomed. “I think it was that flower that just took our hearts away,” Ken says.
– Deena grew up hating the nursery business “with a passion.” That’s because her parents had a “teeny, weeny” rare plant nursery, and Deena had to work there as a child. But high school sweetheart Ken, a plant enthusiast since the age of six or seven, discovered the nursery and was completely enthralled by it. Recalls Deena, “The rest of our time before we started [Altman Specialty Plants], he would say to me, “Can I quit school and start a nursery?” And I’d say “No, no! We’re not going to do that!” (Ken was in grad school studying psychology. He eventually earned his doctorate.)
– Their first foray into selling plants was via catalog. Their backyard plant collection had gotten so big, they decided to print a small catalog and offer their unusual specimens for sale. How did Deena justify this? “That’s not a nursery. That’s just mail order,” she told herself.
– New product development is their lifeblood. Succulents weren’t always the hot sellers they are today. In fact, it wasn’t too long ago when they could hardly give them away, Deena admits. So they got very good at developing new products, new packaging and new uses, such as a full line of low-cost landscape succulents. I spotted this cool new item, a crassula (jade plant) topiary, on the deck outside their office.
What few people know about me is that I was raised by a professional artist who managed galleries and gave art lessons, so I had a pencil or brush in my hand from a very early age. I never pursued painting, instead choosing writing, music, woodworking and gardening as my creative outlets. But I know good art when I see it, and I greatly admire Deena’s talent with watercolors.
I mentioned that Deena has stepped back from the day-to-day of running a big nursery. She did that to finally try her hand at painting—something she’s always felt she had a knack for, she just never had the time to find out. So after giving her nursery duties over to others (Ken says it took five people to replace her), she set up a home studio and began taking lessons, quickly discovering her latent talent.
She’s good enough, in fact, to have been invited to participate in an international juried watercolor exhibition—a high honor!