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Greenhouse Grower: Altman Plants/Color Spot Nurseries consolidation at the top

Original story published by Greenhouse Grower

April 29, 2019

Story by Janeen Wright

Co-Presidents Ken Altman (right) and son Matt Altman (left) share a common interest in leading a united Altman Plants’ team into a successful future.

Altman Plants, based in Vista, CA, is 10 weeks into integrating the recently acquired Color Spot Nurseries assets into its operation after acquiring them near the end of December 2018. It’s an undertaking of massive proportions as the two companies, ranked No. 1 and No. 2 on Greenhouse Grower’s list of Top 100 Growers in 2018, work to become one company under the Altman Plants name. What happens when the big get bigger? The way this merger is coming together proves that the big get better, but the real test begins as the newly united companies head into the busy spring season.

“We’ve shared with the team the key goals for the company,” says Co-President Ken Altman. “We want to produce high-quality plants and satisfy our customers. And we want the two companies to feel like one team with an interest in helping one another. Decisions are measured against those goals. To this point, it seems like the team is on the same page. Now it is about executing this spring. There is a lot to do in a very short time.”

New Locations Bring Advantages

Altman Plants gained 11 million square feet of environmentally controlled space and 1,500 acres of outdoor space, spread across Color Spot Nurseries’ facilities in Fallbrook, Salinas, and Lodi, CA, and in Troup and San Antonio, TX, plus three locations in Waco, Walnut Springs, and Fort Davis, TX, that were closed and will remain closed for now. The increased production capacity leaves the company in a good spot to supply the ornamental bedding plants, container perennials, woody ornamentals, potted foliage, and succulents it produces for its customers.

“The facilities are well-positioned geographically,” says Co-President Matt Altman. “We are well located to serve the Southern part of the country, and we have the capacity to do so. When needed, we can share plants between sites to be sure that all customers’ needs are satisfied.”

Altman Plants has two major business units in addition to the Altman Plants organization. One is Plug Connection (No. 63 on the 2019 Top 100 Grower list), which is a young plant company that serves both Altman Plants and other growers. Plug Connection grows plugs, roots liners, and grafted vegetables. They also grow tissue culture plants. The operation just opened a new tissue culture facility with a modern 10,000 square foot lab. The lab is used primarily to do rapid build-up and production of new plants bred by Altman. With the purchase of Color Spot, 20 acres of young plant greenhouses in Lodi are being added to Plug Connection.

The other unit will be known as Lone Star Growers and will focus on production of woody ornamentals and flowering tropicals from its San Antonio, TX, location. There will be little separation between Lone Star Growers and Altman Plants, with a lot of sharing between merchandising and transportation activities. Lone Star has a history of high-quality plant production, and Ken says Altman Plants intends to invest appropriately to earn that reputation going forward.

The first decision made by the company relating to the integration was regarding which computer operating system to use. Management made a decision to stick with the Altman system and cutover from the Color Spot SAP software system. California facilities are successfully converted and Texas facilities will be tackled in June.

Working Together Opens the Way for a Successful Transition

Marriage is hard enough for two people. Marrying two large companies with distinct management styles, different operating systems, and hundreds of staff members would seem like a recipe for a disaster in comparison. But like all strong marriages, unity has been key to the two companies becoming one.

“We’ve placed a strong focus on being one company with the development plan,” Matt says. “The staff on both sides have been receptive and embraced the change, which allows us all to move forward together.”

The management team also played a key role in smoothing the transition. With the acquisition of Color Spot Nurseries, Altman Plants gained around 1,600 employees, and five facilities, creating what would seem a logistics and human resources nightmare.

“We felt confident taking this project on because we have a strong management team,” Ken says. “The team is engaged and collaborative. They’re very capable of making things happen to get the job done.”

Extra hands also means extra minds, which Altman Plants has applied to problem solving, innovation, and process improvement during the integration. The management team has held on-site meetings with growers to look at growing operations to determine what best practices they are using that could be leveraged across the entire company. This has kept the staff engaged and led to some processes implemented for the future. Ken says having new people with a fresh set of eyes analyzing processes, sharing ideas, and brainstorming to solve problems and improve efficiencies is a big advantage.

Matt echoes that sentiment, adding another benefit of a larger staff.

“There will always be challenges such as environmental regulations and labor availability,” he says. “When presented with those challenges, we now have more people to bring to bear on finding solutions. We get further along faster.”

Investment Drives Innovation

Opinions vary in the floriculture industry about whether consolidation on the grower side and the breeder side is healthy for the industry. The Altmans point out that company acquisitions can be beneficial for the industry when done right, saying they keep people employed and allow for best practices to be put to use across a larger enterprise.

“It’s true we have gained more resources to use to help our customers,” Ken says. “But we recognize that there is a place in the market for all sizes of growers. The growers in this industry are friendly. We share information with each other and wish each other well.”

Larger companies also make substantial investments in new and developing automation equipment and other technologies that keep the industry sustainable by supporting other companies, Matt adds. The resulting innovations benefit other growers who want to adopt new technology.

For example, Altman Plants is currently helping a company develop and trial an autonomous vehicle that it will eventually use in its greenhouses. The vehicle is basically a cart that can find its way from the greenhouse to a loading dock and back on its own. This type of technology saves growers time and labor during the shipping season.

“Family-run companies are investing back into their businesses, and everyone benefits from those dollars coming into the industry,” Ken says.

Strong Research Focus Benefits All Growers

Altman Plants’ strong commitment to research and education is one way it shows leadership and gives back to the industry. In 2008, Ken and his wife Deena Altman founded the Center for Applied Horticultural Research, a nonprofit organization that addresses, through research, the practical issues the nursery and floriculture industry face on a regular basis. At the time, Ken felt there was no shortage of issues that needed solving, but the funds to find solutions were limited. He and Deena decided to do something about it. The center supports industry researchers and opens its doors for all types of growers to participate.

True Bloom, a new line of disease-resistant garden roses, is one of the results of Altman Plants’ investment in research and development. This is the True Gratitude rose.

Altman Plants also invests heavily in research and development through its multiple breeding programs. A current introduction is True Bloom roses, a new line of disease-resistant garden roses with a shrub-type habit and hybrid-tea-like blooms. The development of these roses has been a lifetime work for the breeder. Altman Plants will roll this program out soon to its customers on a limited run, with more production in 2020 to supply other growers. Ken says the company is also working on a compact hibiscus and has more breeding projects in the works for the future.

“The rose breeding project has been a large-scale investment for us,” Ken says. “We can invest in these types of projects and continue to invest in things for the long run because of our larger scale and volume. It is a big endeavor and a benefit for the industry and our customers.”

Matt recently spent time in Washington, DC, at the Society of American Florists’ Congressional Action Days, lobbying with other members for the support of the Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative and the continuation of the USDA Floriculture Crop Survey. He says it was important to fight for maintenance of the initiative because floriculture crops represent 15% of the crops in the country, yet the industry gets less than 1% of the research dollars.

“Our industry is easily forgotten by our legislators, and these initiatives provide visibility and important research dollars to university programs,” Matt says. “However, ultimately it falls on growers to invest in the industry to keep it going strong.”

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The New Yorker talks to Altman Plants breeder about Dudleya poaching

Reporter Dana Goodyear interviewed Altman Plants breeder Kelly Griffin for a story about the smuggling of dudleyas from wild habitat in California.

Feb., 12, 2019

From the piece:

Another way to fight smuggling is to destroy the market. That is the ambition of Kelly Griffin, a Dudleya specialist who works for Altman Plants, a nursery based in Southern California that is the country’s leading supplier of succulents. “I see myself as Johnny Cactuseed,” Griffin told me. “I’m the person that spreads cactus and succulents everywhere.” Griffin travels the world legally collecting plant material—pollen, seeds, and samples—from which he makes hybrid crosses and tissue-cultured clones, plants that people can enjoy without destroying sensitive habitats. He also stalks the Internet. A few years ago, he noticed rare and, he suspected, ill-gotten agaves being sold for thousands of dollars apiece on eBay. So he cloned thousands of them for nurseries where they sold for five dollars each. “I intentionally killed the market,” he said. “Being an activist, you can say, ‘That looks like a collected plant, and you shouldn’t be selling collected plants.’ ”

Read the full story at The New Yorker website.

Dudleya photo by John Rusk (CC by 2.0)



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GrowerTalks’ Acres Online: Ken Altman on the Color Spot purchase

Original column published by GrowerTalks’ Acres Online

Feb. 8, 2019

Column by Chris Beytes

Ken and Deena Altman

Ken and Deena Altman

Ken Altman on the Color Spot purchase

It’s no secret that when bankrupt Color Spot went up for bid at auction last July, Ken and Matt Altman wanted it.

“We were the other bidder in the auction,” he told me at the time. “We made a very large bid to purchase all the assets, but in the end, the bank decided to credit bid for the company. We are working to see what we can purchase from the bank.”

That last statement, which came to fruition December 21, includes eight former Color Spot locations in California and Texas covering 10.3 million sq. ft. of greenhouse and shadehouse and more than 1,700 acres of field production, making Altman Plants the largest (by area) grower in the country by a comfortable margin.

I covered that news in the January 10 issue of Acres Online, but without being able to speak with Ken directly. In that item, I wrote that I had two main questions for Ken: “Why?” and “How will you not let this sudden massive expansion screw up what you’ve already built?” Finally catching up with Ken as he drove to the airport earlier this week, I was able to ask both those questions and a few more.

After the customary greetings, I thanked Ken for being a good sport about the rather direct, unvarnished way in which I had phrased my second question.

Ken, who knows that’s my style, dismissed my concern with a generous laugh.

“I’ve been asked that question from the time we came out of our backyard,” he said.

But before we got further into that, I asked him question No. 1: Why make the decision to add so many locations and so much retail territory to an already large nursery?

“We like the nursery business, and we like our customers, so this gives us more of all of that,” he replied. But he admitted that it’s a major expansion, even for the formerly second-biggest nursery in America.

“It’s a big jump. But I have to tell you, we’ve been growing very rapidly for a number of years. I think even from the first years, we have always grown in double-digit numbers every year. It’s just that when we first started, we were making $10 a week—double digits wasn’t so big. Now it’s getting bigger.”

I asked Ken if perhaps the acquisition looks bigger and scarier to those of us on the outside than it does to him.

“I think even to us it’s a big deal,” he answered. “But I have to say, we have a really great management group. There are a lot of really experienced people who run fairly good-sized enterprises themselves. And we have younger people who are coming along and are gaining skills. So I think we have a really good roadmap for running this.”

How they’re bringing the new locations aboard

To run the new operation, Ken says they’ve retained the location managers that were with Color Spot. They expanded the territories of their West Coast and Southwest divisional leaders. And he and his son, co-president Matt, are busy filling positions where needed.

“One thing we’ve found is that there are a lot of great people at Color Spot. They seem to be happy and really good about joining us. Morale has been pretty good right now with some of the direction we’ve been providing.”

I asked about the initial reaction of the former Color Spot staff to the new ownership.

“You never know because every company has its own culture, but when we first took over, Matt and I and some of the other managers made a quick circuit through every location and talked to all the employees in group get-togethers—one great thing about that is that Matt is 100% fluent in Spanish, so he was able to communicate bilingually so everybody could understand and participate.

“We had a few main points that we were trying to get across: one is that we are going to be all about quality in our plants and every decision that comes up we are going to make in favor of quality.

“Another thing is that we are going to be totally customer-focused and 100% on making customers satisfied. We’ve always had a position in our company of wanting to say ‘yes’ to our customers. When we get a request from a customer, our first impulse is to say yes, then figure it out. We want to make sure that the bigger company also has that same point of view.

“The final thing we told everybody is that we are going to be one company. The company happens to be Altman Plants, but the idea is that we are going to reach out our hands in welcome to everybody who joins our organization.

“That seemed to resonate with people, the idea that there’s now a family that cares a lot about plants, cares about the nursery business and has a really long-term view of things. They’ve been through equity owners and bank owners; I think all those people did their best job, but we have a different point of view, a longer point of view.”

Also boosting morale? Raises. Ken noted that wages had been stagnant at Color Spot, so they’re boosting the pay of all the production people by a considerable percentage. He didn’t want me to say how much, but it’s generous.

“We think we can pay more by being inventive and efficient, and growing good plants,” he said.

How they won’t screw up what they’ve already built

So back to question No. 2: We watched Hines Horticulture get big, then fail. We watched Color Spot Nursery get big, then fail. How does Altman Plants avoid that same fate?

“First of all, I beg you, don’t put us on the cover of GrowerTalks,” Ken joked. (I had just pointed out to him that both Color Spot and Hines had been featured as cover stories in the past. He’s been there already—the December 2016 issue, so it’s too late.)

Then he got serious.

“We’re going to concentrate on exactly what I told the employees. If we have really good quality plants and we don’t forget where our bread is buttered—which is our customers—and we do everything to make them happy, and if we keep the morale of our company up as one company, that should be good.”

One other note about those other two vs. Altman: They were bank- or private-equity owned. Altman is still 100% family owned.

The former Spot facilities they’ll be running

After visiting and evaluating all the Color Spot assets they acquired, Ken and Matt have put together the following list of facilities they’ll be running, along with the size of the operation:

Fallbrook – 192 acres, 1.2 million sq. ft. of greenhouse
Salinas – Added 240 acres and 3.3 million sq. ft. of greenhouse
Lodi – 39 acres and 700,000 sq. ft. of greenhouse

Troup – 334 acres, 3 million sq. ft. of greenhouse
San Antonio – 580 acres, 2.1 million sq. ft. of greenhouse

Ken says they have three more Texas facilities—Waco, Fort Davis and Walnut Springs—but they’re “mothballed” and will stay closed at this time.

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Greenhouse Grower: Altman Plants Acquires Color Spot Nurseries


Original article published by Greenhouse Grower

Jan. 3, 2019

Story by Laura Drotleff

Ken and Deena Altman

Ken and Deena Altman

The sun set on 2018 with one of the biggest deals in floriculture industry history. Altman Plants, based in Vista, CA, closed a deal on Dec. 21 to purchase the remaining assets of Color Spot Nurseries from Wells Fargo. Joining Altman Plants’ additions in 2018 of a 20-acre facility in Salinas, CA, and 30-acres of new greenhouses at its Lake Mathews, CA, location, the acquisition of Color Spot’s remaining assets almost doubles the size of Altman Plants, to put the operation in the No.1 spot on Greenhouse Grower’s Top 100 Growers list.

Before Color Spot filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy and restructured, the company was listed with 21 million square feet of environmentally controlled space, 2,603 acres of outdoor space, and 206 acres of shade houses, and as of May 2018 was the largest grower in the country, according to Greenhouse Grower‘s 2018 Top 100 Growers Survey. Color Spot held that No. 1 position since the mid-90s. In 2018, Altman Plants was the second largest growing operation in the U.S.

After divesting ownership of Hines Nurseries in August and being acquired temporarily by Wells Fargo, Color Spot Nurseries was still one of the largest growers and distributors of live plants in the country, delivering bedding plants, perennials, annuals, flowering tropicals, ornamental shrubs, poinsettias, and other holiday plants to large and small retailers and wholesalers in the Western, Southwestern, and Gulf regions of the U.S. Founded in 1983, Color Spot employed 1,600 employees who fulfilled the needs of hundreds of retail and commercial customers in 26 states.

Color Spot’s five remaining production facilities in California and Texas, comprising an estimated 11 million square feet of environmentally controlled space and 1,500 acres of outdoor space, now folds into Altman Plants, which even before this acquisition owned more than 2,100 acres in several states.  Altman Plants’ full scope of production includes ornamental bedding plants, container perennials, woody ornamentals, and potted foliage, as well as close to 700 acres of succulent and stock production.

Altman Plants Will Expand Retail Footprint

While all of the details are still being worked out, including exactly how large this acquisition makes Altman Plants, we caught up with Ken Altman, CEO and Co-President of Altman Plants to find out about some of the particulars that he could discuss. He confirmed that Altman Plants will absorb the Color Spot Nurseries facilities in Fallbrook, Salinas, and Lodi, CA, and in Troup and San Antonio, TX, as well as three locations in Waco, Walnut Springs, and Fort Davis, TX, that were previously closed and will remain closed for now. All of the facilities will be renamed Altman Plants, except for the San Antonio woody ornamentals operation, which will be “tightly interwoven” with Altman Plants, but operated under its former name, Lone Star Growers.

Altman Plants’ production

All of the facilities will continue growing the same crops they were producing before, serving most of the same customers with plant products and merchandising services. Most of the customers Color Spot was servicing were also already Altman Plants customers, including home improvement stores, warehouse chains, grocery stores, and independent garden centers, so the sale allows the company to expand its service to those customers.

Altman Plants leadership is now busy with integrating the two companies, including hiring on nearly all of the Color Spot Nurseries employees and joining the two companies into one blended culture. The top management group from Color Spot will not stay on, as those positions are already filled; however, the remaining 1,600 employees will be welcomed to Altman Plants, adding to the company’s current 3,000 employees.

Other integration priorities include deciding which operating system to use. Color Spot was using SAP while Altman Plants uses a homegrown system called Evolution. There will also be ample opportunities to refresh the Color Spot facilities with automation and new processes over time, Altman says.

In addition to Altman Plants’ significant growth in 2018, the Altman family invested heavily in the young plants business in late 2016 and early 2017 with its acquisition of both The Plug Connection and EuroAmerican Propagators, which were integrated together as The Plug Connection. Altman says in addition to serving Altman Plants’ young plants needs, The Plug Connection is rapidly attaining a wide variety of new young plants customers to provide them with plugs, liners, grafted vegetables, and tissue culture liners.

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San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles Magazine: Altman hybrids

Our hybrids Echeveria ‘Neon Breakers’ and Aloe ‘Blizzard’ were among the recently featured succulents in the March 2018 issue of San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles magazine (garden planner section)!

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Colorado Nursery and Greenhouse Association: LooseLeaf

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Altman Plants’ Double 10 rose makes cover of American Nurseryman

Double 10 rose (now True Passion) designated a 2018 A.R.T.S.® Master Rose by the American Rose Trials for Sustainability®
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Altman Plants purchases EuroAmerican inventory, in escrow on property

Original Article published by Garden Center magazine

March 1, 2017

Story by Michelle Simakis

The wholesale nursery headquartered in Vista, Calif., has been caring for EuroAmerican Propagators’ plants as an independent contractor since EuroAmerican filed for bankruptcy at the end of January.

Altman Plants, a wholesale nursery based in Vista, Calif., operating several locations in five states, has purchased plant inventory from the property of EuroAmerican Propagators, which filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection at the end of January. The $200,000 cash sale, which also includes pots, trays and boxes, was approved under an emergency motion by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court Southern District of California on Feb. 10, 2017, because the inventory includes live goods that are perishable, according to court documents.

The sale does not include tags and plant labels, and there are restrictions and instructions for plants deemed “Third Party Plants” or “Royalty Plants.” In one inventory list EuroAmerican gave to the trustee overseeing the case, it noted more than 1,700 varieties of plants, totaling 2.5 million individual plants, according to court documents. It is unclear exactly how many are included in the sale or when that inventory was conducted.

Ken Altman, president of Altman Plants, said he is in escrow on a land purchase as well from owner Jerry Church, co-founder of EuroAmerican. Altman said he bought Plug Connection in October, and plans to use the 55 acres of EuroAmerican space primarily for Plug Connection’s young plant production. Altman has already reached out and hired “quite a few” former EuroAmerican employees, and plans to continue adding to staff as production expands.

“Sometimes when these things happen, facilities don’t look as good, but John [Rader, EuroAmerican COO and co-founder] and Jerry Church really kept everything up, and it’s in great shape,” Altman said. “This is a facility that’s very well set up for young plants and allows us to expand Plug Connection very easily.

“We don’t have full plans yet on what we are going to do, although there was a succulent liner program there, and we’re probably going to continue that,” Altman added. “Altman Plants is a large finished succulent producer, and we’ve been trying to figure out how we can help other growers. We have lots of stock, we know the plants, and we have new introductions from our own breeding. We’ll have a robust offering.”

The trustee appointed to EuroAmerican’s case reached out to Altman Plants, hoping the company could serve as an independent contractor and care for the plants after EuroAmerican shut down its operations Jan. 24. Altman Plants agreed and was paid a flat fee of $5,000 per week starting Jan. 26, which ended after the inventory sale closed, according to court documents.

ALSO READ: Success in stewardship: A reclamation system allows Altman Plants to reuse more than 100 million gallons of water annually.

EuroAmerican Propagators, which was a young plant and retail-ready producer for more than 20 brands, was struggling long before filing for bankruptcy at the end of January. The company stopped paying wages to at least 238 employees starting with the payroll scheduled for Nov. 28, 2016, according to court documents. Former employees who wished to remain anonymous confirmed this, though their dates differ from court records.

Because it is unlawful to sell goods that are produced by employees who are not paid at least the federal minimum wage under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Department of Labor filed an action on Jan. 24. The action designated the inventory “hot goods,” meaning that plants on EuroAmerican property could not be shipped or re-sold, and customers of EuroAmerican who purchased plants were prohibited from shipping or re-selling these plants until “restitution of the wages owed to [EuroAmerican] workers has been made,” according to court documents.

However, the sale of the plants to Altman was approved, and that permits Altman to sell those plants free and clear of interests of creditors. Proceeds Altman receives from selling the plants will not need to be redirected to the Department of Labor, either, according to court documents.

The Department of Labor has not responded to multiple requests for comment about the status of their action regarding the unpaid wages. Lawyers working on the case and John Rader also did not respond immediately to our follow-up requests for comments.

Some plants on the EuroAmerican property from about 26 companies were not actually owned by EuroAmerican, but were designated in contracts as “testing agreements” or “propagation agreements” and are considered intellectual property, according to court documents. Companies who fall into this category have three options: Altman can destroy the plants; the companies can pick up their plants; or Altman can continue to have possession of plants until pending negotiation of a license with Altman. Companies with plants in trial gardens can either ask Altman to destroy them or pick them up, Altman says. There are also a handful of companies with plants designated as “Royalty Plants” that have different stipulations, but like the third party plants, Altman does not have permission to sell them under the agreement unless they first obtain permission.

“We’re working on those agreements,” Altman says. “Many people are giving us the agreement so that we can sell the plants and pay them their royalties.”

They’ve also been working with companies that had previously ordered plants from EuroAmerican, Altman says.

“To the extent to that the inventory is in shape, we’re trying to supply them with that inventory. But there was a pretty long period between the bankruptcy filing and when the inventory was purchased by us,” Altman says. “For young plants, that two to three weeks is pretty critical. To the extent that we can, we’ll help them out.”

This is all part of the process of Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which traditionally ends in liquidation, with a trustee overseeing the distribution of non-exempt property to creditors. Dean T. Kirby Jr., a lawyer representing the trustee on the case, said in early February that they were trying to determine the value of the plants and that the business was being liquidated. The court documents indicate EuroAmerican has more than 350 listed creditors, and its liabilities range from $1 million to $10 million.

Although Altman is excited about the opportunity to expand on EuroAmerican’s former property, he is not happy about the circumstances.

“It’s just a shame because EuroAmerican has been such a great nursery, and produced so many good plants and introduced so many programs. I hate to see that part of this happening. I know John and Jerry really well, and it’s an unfortunate thing,” Altman says.

He’s working on reaching out to breeders to see if he can work out agreements.

“With this increased young plant facility, we can expand the resources of Plug Connection. We’re talking to various breeders to make agreements to propagate their plants,” he says. “There are breeders’ plants we’d like to see in the industry, and we’re happy to work with them. We like plants, and when we see good plants, we want to grow them.”


This is a developing story. Keep checking back for updates.


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How Altman Plants is beating the drought

Original Article published by Nursery Management

Dec. 2016 Nursery Management
Story by Kelli Rodda
Photos by Joshuah Rubio

A reclamation system allows the California nursery to reuse more than 100 million gallons of water annually.s


Lack of water is a painful reality for California residents and businesses. In 2013, as the state experienced the driest year on record, Altman Plants dusted off a water reclamation plan it had been contemplating for a few years.

“We were concerned with the long-term water supply, concerned with the rising cost of water, and wanted to make sure we were protected against a short-term interruption of supply,” says Jim Hessler, Altman’s director of West Coast operations.

In 2014, construction began on the large-scale water reclamation system at the grower’s Lake Mathews location in Southern California’s Riverside County. The Lake Mathews site houses 420 acres of container production and relies solely on municipal water to irrigate plants. Altman constructed a new on-site storage facility, lined an existing reservoir, installed two pumping plants and a treatment facility.

The nursery is designed to capture all the runoff from the container beds. All beds are covered with ground cloth, and most beds have plastic under the ground cloth. Irrigation runoff flows via gravity into three ponds through a system of channels and canals, then ends up in a 10-acre-foot basin at the lowest point in the nursery. The canals and channels are also lined so the nursery doesn’t lose any water.

First, irrigation runoff is captured in the remedial pond. Next, runoff travels to a second pond complete with natural vegetation of cattails and barley to help mitigate excess nutrients and algae. As water travels through the main canal, canna boxes help remove nitrates and fertilizer runoff.

“The main canal is the backbone that everything feeds into, and it’s almost 2 miles from end to end, with many more miles of small channels feeding into it,” Hessler says.

Left: Altman’s Lake Mathews location relies solely on municipal water. With the reclamation system, the nursery to date has recycled 200 million gallons of water. Right: Canna boxes, located at certain points along the canals, help remediate nitrates from the water as it flows toward the final holding basin. 


Water is stored in a third holding pond prior to undergoing sand filtration and acid injections to lower pH. Water is stored in the final holding pond and treated with chlorine dioxide to control pathogens prior to reuse.

“We test the water right past the pumps and test it at various locations throughout the nursery for the right amount of chlorine dioxide,” Hessler explains.

On a really hot day when water needs are high, the nursery can generate about 1 million gallons of water. Since the launch of the reclamation system, Altman has recycled about 200 million gallons of water. And the water savings from the system has exceeded Altman’s goal by 5.5 percent.

“Our engineering was better than we thought it would be,” Hessler says. “Our field design, channel design, the way we train the irrigators, and the maintenance of the entire irrigation system have all played a role. Up to this point, we thought we’d recycle and remediate about 100 million gallons, and it ended up being double that. We still use municipal water, just a lot less of it.”

The reclamation system exceeded the nursery’s water saving goals thanks in part to advanced engineering, as well as from training irrigators and the overall maintenance of the system.


Hessler adds that two key players in the success of this system are the facilities manager and the technical services manager, who are watching
the system on a daily basis.

A large cultural change took place in regards to irrigating once the system was operational.

“In most jobs throughout the nursery, the more you do, the better — sales, planting, or weeding. It’s the opposite with irrigating, and there was a lot of education that went into training irrigators how much water needed to be applied throughout the nursery,” Hessler recalls.

The majority of the nursery uses overhead irrigation, and Altman has changed to more efficient sprinklers.

“This has been an evolving system,” Hessler says. “And because municipal water is not the ideal quality for plants – high pH, high alkalinity and high EC – we’ve had to develop techniques for growing with less-than-perfect water. The water we use impacts our selection of soils and it’s also a factor in our choices of fertilizers for certain crops.”

To complement the reclamation system, Altman is installing sensors in every field to monitor soil moisture. Each field, which is generally one-third of an acre, will have one or two moisture sensors, depending on plant material and container sizes. Based on data from the sensors, the nursery will prioritize the areas that need to be irrigated first. About a quarter of the nursery is equipped with the sensors, and another quarter is almost complete. With the sensors in place, the nursery discovered that over a four-week period, it saves three irrigation applications, and each application equals about 4,000 gallons of water, Hessler says.

Prior to the reclamation system, Altman used basins to capture the runoff, but the nursery was unable to reuse the water. And five years ago, the nursery cut its water use in half.

Left: Miles of canals are an integral part of Altman Plants’ water reclamation system. Right: Altman uses a number of natural remediation techniques, including cattails and barley to help mitigate excess nutrients and algae.

“Being mindful of the need for water conservation and being on the leading edge of water conservation research is part of our DNA,” he adds.



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California Bountiful Magazine: Working with—and for—the land

Original Article published by California Bountiful magazine

Jan./Feb. 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Tracy Sellers
Photos by Paolo Vescia

Farmers recognized for conservation practices


Farmers and ranchers are often called stewards of the land because of their close connection to it. They hold true to the belief that they can and must enhance natural resources and protect the environment, while simultaneously producing food, fiber and energy for a growing world population.

The Leopold Conservation Award honors landowners who demonstrate such a commitment, including 2015 recipients Jim and Mary Rickert of Shasta County.

“Winning this award is validation that our life’s philosophies are being recognized,” Mary Rickert said. “It’s not about Jim and me; it’s about the people we work with, the animals we look after and the land we care for.”

Ken and Matt Altman of San Diego and Riverside counties and Bruce Hafenfeld of Kern County were finalists for the 2015 award. In California, the Leopold Conservation Award is presented by the Sand County Foundation, California Farm Bureau Federation and Sustainable Conservation. The S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation and the Nature Conservancy are major sponsors as well.


Matt Altman, left, and father Ken Altman have implemented a number of efficiencies at Altman Specialty Plants to conserve resources. The family also founded a nonprofit center for researching and teaching sustainable horticultural practices.


Ken and Matt Altman

Altman Specialty Plants

Riverside and San Diego Counties


What began as an avid interest in plants for husband and wife Ken and Deena Altman is now a wholesale nursery business that encompasses more than 1,700 acres in six states. Altman Specialty Plants, today one of the nation’s largest horticultural growers, specializes in drought-tolerant and water-efficient plants.

Ken Altman and his son, Matt, manage the company with a careful eye on conserving resources.

The nurseries are retrofitted with water- and energyefficient irrigation systems that reduce water use by 50 percent per acre, and soil-moisture sensors are being installed in container plants to further decrease water use. In addition, Altman Plants raises 5,000 plant species using integrated pest management, which controls pests in ways that minimize risks to people and the environment. The Altmans also founded the Center for Applied Horticultural Research, a nonprofit research and teaching center dedicated to advancing a sustainable horticulture industry.

In 2014, the Altmans embarked on their biggest project yet: a water recycling system at their Riverside County site that captures irrigation runoff, treats it and reuses the water.

“As a farm and nursery, we’re reliant on water, and over the last five years, we’ve seen water become more and more limited here in California,” Matt Altman said. “We took it upon ourselves to ensure we had access to water.”

The Altmans recycle and reuse 1 million gallons of water a day. They say they hope the public and other nursery growers are able to benefit from their approach to water management.

“There’s really nothing better than being able to do a good job with family, share your success and provide knowledge to others,” Ken Altman said.



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