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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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GrowerTalks’ Acres Online: Inside Altman’s and Deena’s Art

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.




Deena’s art


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!

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Greenhouse Grower: Altman Plants Saves Millions Of Gallons Of Water Through Recycling Program

Original Article:
Altman Plants is on a mission to prove that, despite California’s drought conditions, it is possible to save water while still maintaining the ability to irrigate your plants sufficiently.

The company, which ranks third on Greenhouse Grower’s 2016 Top 100 Growers list, hosted a media day on Monday, October 3, to demonstrate the significant water savings it is seeing as a result of an innovative, on-site water-recycling program that captures irrigation runoff for reuse on plants and lower the company’s water use. This month, Altman celebrated more than 100 million gallons of water saved since the reuse program began operation.

Less than two years ago, Altman Plants secured grant funding from Western Municipal Water District and The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to implement a water-reuse system to water the nursery’s 400 acres of plants. The project includes a water recycling program with the ability to capture nursery irrigation runoff in lined ditches and reservoirs. The water is then stored and reused to water the nursery’s plants.

“The partnership between Altman Plants, Western, and Metropolitan is evidence that rebate programs can result in substantial water savings,” says Tim Barr, Western’s Director of Water Resources. “Programs such as this one can be used as examples that demonstrate innovation in a time when water resources are scarce. Additionally, many of the plants sold by the nursery are drought tolerant. Our customers purchase the plants and use them to replace water-thirsty landscaping. The project comes back full circle.”

As one of Western’s larger water volume business customers, Altman Plants reuses approximately 360 acre-feet of water, which is equivalent to more than 117 million gallons in annual potable water savings. The associated water savings actually exceeds the project’s goal by 5.5%.

“As a company, Altman Plants has always taken an interest in water savings. We realize that we can’t create more water, and the cost continues to increase,” says Jim Hessler, Altman Plants’ Director of West Coast Operations. “We understood the reality of limited water resources years ago. Five years earlier, prior to starting the water recycling program, we had already cut our water use in half. Our current water reuse system takes a unique approach to water management and is being used as part of a national study to create best management practices for growers.”



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Floral Daily – US: Altman, Ecke MS/Ph.D. scholarships in floriculture available

Link to Original Article

AFE is now accepting applications for the new Altman Family Scholarship, and the Paul Ecke, Jr. Scholarship, for graduate students who have the skills and passion to become leading floricultural scientists and educators.

The application deadline is Feb. 1.

The Altman Family Scholarship was created in 2015 by Ken and Deena Altman – owners of Altman Plants – who support numerous efforts to improve education and research for the industry.

The Altmans are highly appreciative of the field of horticulture and enjoy giving back. They established the Center for Applied Horticultural Research as an effort to help the industry. Ken Altman has also been actively involved in AFE’s Education and Scholarship Committees for a decade.

“We’re privileged to have Ken on our board. His experience has been undoubtedly beneficial for AFE as we continue to advance the industry, and his commitment to improving educational efforts is commendable,” AFE Chairman-Elect and Education Committee Chairman Dwight Larimer said.


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KPBS: San Diego’s North County Is ‘Epicenter’ Of Succulent Boom

Original Article
By Alison St John

As the market for water thirsty plants dries up, sales of cacti and succulents are thriving — and San Diego’s North County is ground zero for all things succulent.

Debra Lee Baldwin’s garden in the hills north of Escondido is full of succulents — plants she learned to love as a child, growing up on an avocado ranch with a father who loved succulents’ tough versatility.

“What you don’t realize is that you are in the epicenter of all things succulent,” she said as she sat in the shade of an old live oak. “For decades, for generations, we’ve have succulent specialty nurseries here in San Diego and we’ve had collectors, but they were kind of the geeks of the plant world.”

Baldwin is one of the people credited with popularizing succulents and cacti nationwide. Her first book, “Designing with Succulents,” was published in 2007.

“The general public was getting more sophisticated in appreciating foliage over flowers, just as I was in my own garden,” Baldwin said.

Since then, interest in succulents has exploded, and the drought is just reinforcing the gardening trend, Baldwin said.

“When I was researching ‘Designing with Succulents’ in 2006, when I googled the word succulents, I got maybe several hundred thousand hits. If you do that now, you will get in the tens of millions,” she said.

Sales booming

California nurseries are taking advantage of the trend.

David Ross is a buyer for Walter Andersen Nursery in Poway. While sales of many traditional water thirsty garden plants have fallen, succulent and cacti sales increased 25 percent in 2013 and then another 20 percent last year.

“It is definitely helping our business,” Ross said.

“They keep creeping forward and taking tables from ground cover and bedding plants,” Ross said. “The vegetable sales have held fairly steady, but the flowers have dropped a bit. And then we’ve added tables down the whole fence line to add in some low water use plants.”

Different varieties of succulents are coming in all the time, Ross added, and that is keeping interest in the plants strong.

Cacti and succulents make up just one percent of San Diego’s $5 billion agricultural economy, according to the latest crop report from San Diego County.

But Eric Larson, executive director of of the San Diego Farm Bureau, said that could be an underestimation since some nurseries that grow succulents don’t distinguish them from other drought-tolerant plants.

Larson said San Diego’s Flower and Plant Association lists about 45 commercial growers that grow cacti and succulents.

Largest cacti, succulent grower in nation

In fact, tucked away up a small country lane in Vista is the largest grower of cacti and succulents in the United States, and possibly the world.

Matt Altman is COO of Altman Plants, which has seen double-digit growth every year since it began.

“Ken and Deena, my parents, they started this business about 40 years ago in their backyard,” Altman said. “They were avid plant collectors, they were really into cacti and succulents – it was a different kind of plant mix. Over time they got too many of them and they just started selling some of them, and that’s how the business started – selling them out of their back yard.”

Since then, the company has grown to more than 2,000 acres. And 1,300 of those acres, mostly in Southern California, are devoted to succulents, according to a company spokesman.

At Altman’s Oasis Gardens Nursery north of Escondido, succulent cuttings of all kinds are monitored carefully and watered by hand till they get established.

Altman shows us greenhouses full of rows of pots, planted with red, green and multi-colored succulents.

“This one is called ‘Portulacaria,’ it’s from Africa,” he said, holding up a plant that resembles a miniature tree with a red trunk and little round green leaves. “Its common name is ‘elephant bush’ because the elephants love to eat it, but it’s pretty indestructible and it’s an amazingly drought tolerant plant.”

Altman Plants started supplying big box stores about nine years ago and that’s when succulent and cacti sales really took off, he said.

New varieties
The company employs two full time succulent and cacti breeders who travel the world, bringing back new varieties and breeding new hybrids with names like “Crimson Tide,” “Neon Breakers,” and “Mardi Gras,” some of which take years to develop.

Succulents come in every color except cobalt and royal blue, according to Debra Lee Baldwin. And there are more and more new ones introduced.

“Plants that collectors were over the moon about and squealed with delight are now common place new breeds of succulent,” she said. “And just like a new invention – maybe in electronics – the price comes down. That’s true, too, of anything that’s seen as rare and collectible, now we’re seeing it become more commonplace and more affordable.“

Some of the most respected specialty succulent growers in the country are also based in North County, Baldwin said, like Rare Succulents, in Rainbow.

Baldwin thinks the cutting edge of this trend will be new kinds of cacti, which, though often sharp or spiky, are even more drought tolerant. She is excited about a new variety of cactus apple which isn’t fancy but has no spines.

”I think people are ready to move past their disdain for cactus,” she said, holding a large, paddle-shaped cactus up to her cheek and stroking it.

“The only thing that I have been able to find online that comes close to it is Opuntia Cacanapa Ellisiana, which I call caress-able cactus,” she said.

Baldwin said the cactus, once rooted, not only need no water, it is also fire resistant. She’s planting it along the edge of her garden as a background plant.

Challenges ahead
Perhaps even more challenging than the water restrictions, finding affordable land to meet the growing demand for these kinds of plants is not so easy any more in North County.

“We’re not finding huge tracts of land to grow cacti and succulents on,“ Altman said. “It’s definitely a challenge, but there’s opportunities here and there.”

Altman Plants has expanded its growing operations to Arizona, Colorado and Texas, though most of the succulent nurseries remain in Southern California. But unlike some nurseries, the company has no plans to outsource their operations overseas.

“A lot of our cactus and succulents in particular, a lot of the collection of varieties is unique to us, you can’t find it anywhere else,” he said, “And so to be able to manage the requirements of each of those varieties is difficult and requires some expert care.”

Altman stops and surveys the surrounding hillsides and scattered greenhouses.

“So I guess, hopefully for many years to come, we can continue to farm here in North County,” he said.

Original Article
By Alison St John

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Altman Plants Texas Bluebonnet Member Profile

Branch of national horticulture company employs some 255 locals

Article By Denise Gamino
Photos by Jay Godwin
[ Original Publication (Page 29) ] [ Printable PDF ] [ More Photos ]


Altman Plant managers, husband-and-wife team Beth and Kenney Verbeek, stand amid the vast array of plants in one of the new, large greenhouses near Giddings.

One of the largest roadside flower attractions in Texas grows just west of this Lee County town, but it’s hidden in plain sight.

Acres and acres of coral, fuchsia and purple flowers bloom inside the giant white greenhouses of Altman Plants. You can’t buy flowers at this commercial nursery, but if you shop for flowers at Home Depot or Lowe’s in the Bastrop, Austin or San Antonio areas, your plants probably grew up here, maybe even from seeds.

“Customers like to know that they’re buying local,” said Beth Verbeek, sales manager at Altman’s. “If customers in Austin and San Antonio knew all their plants were being grown here, it might give them more confidence in their buying decisions.”
Beth Verbeek runs Altman’s with her husband, Kenney Verbeek, operations manager. He’s a second-generation nursery pro, but she’s a social worker by training. They met in 2007 when she worked in a Colorado plant nursery owned by his family.
“My learning curve has been steep” for eight years, she said. The couple live in nearby Paige and have two sons, Adam, 3, and Alex, 2.
The Giddings greenhouse operation is the Texas branch of Altman Plants, the second largest U.S. horticulture company. Based in California, Altman’s was started 40 years ago by a married couple with green thumbs.
“Ken and Deena Altman just loved plants,” Beth Verbeek said. “They had an extensive cactus and succulent collection and they had too many, so they started selling some of them and ended up creating a huge company.”
Altman’s bought the Giddings nursery in early 2014. The Verbeek family had operated it as Color Star plants to service Wal-Mart stores but fi led for bankruptcy in late 2013.
About 255 people work at this Altman’s location. During peak season in late winter and spring, about 150 workers are busy in greenhouses, 30 others drive delivery trucks and another 75 workers are each assigned to a large retail store to manage plants on site.
“They receive the deliveries, put them on the tables, make sure they look good, and keep them stocked as people shop,” Beth Verbeek said. “They’re making sure our plants look good around the clock.” Altman’s grows annuals and perennials year-round as well as chrysanthemums in the fall and poinsettias for the holidays.
New greenhouses dwarf this 140-acre property along U.S. 290 where Kenney Verbeek worked as a boy, watering plants before school each morning to save money for a dirt bike.
Kenney Verbeek jokes that he sleeps in the peat moss because he’s so busy. Greenhouse space has grown as fast as the plants, expanding from half a million square feet to 1.6 million square feet — or 38 acres.
Growing plants in Texas is a challenge. Fans pull air through wet pads to cool these greenhouses in summer, and underground lines filled with hot water heat plants in winter. Rainwater and runoff are captured and circulated back to plants.
Operating the nursery doesn’t allow the Verbeeks time for a home garden. But they do plant one thing on their new property: loblolly pine seedlings to repopulate trees burned in the 2011 Labor Day wildfires.

This is one in a series of profiles of Bluebonnet commercial accounts.

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Greenhouse Grower: Altman Plants’ Online Cactus Shop Shows Strong Sales

[ Original Article ]
Article by Laura Drotleff

Altman Plants recently opened its new Cactus Shop, an online retail store that sells a variety of cactus and succulents in 2 ½, 3 ½ and 5-inch sizes. The store is a take-off of Altman’s original wholesale business, says co-owner Ken Altman. “Our company started as a mail order catalog, but stopped for many years to concentrate on our sales to big box stores, so this is back to our roots.”

The Cactus Shop ships all over the U.S., but in the winter, orders placed for areas with freezing temperatures are held for shipment until shipping can be completed without the threat of freezing in transit. So far, the response to The Cactus Shop has been very positive, Altman says. Customers can choose the varieties they want out of a very large assortment, and the availability will increase over time.

“People like the plants they are receiving, and they are thrilled with the variety they can access,” he says. “They can get the new plants that are coming onto the market first.”

The Cactus Shop offers free shipping on orders over $50, and satisfaction is “unconditionally guaranteed.” The site states if customers are unhappy for any reason, “just let us know within 48 hours of receiving your package, and we will send you a replacement or issue a refund. We want to put a smile on your face when you receive our plants.”

“Customer acquisition is more expensive than the plants, so it’s important to always give great product and be sure people are satisfied,” Altman says.

While he adds the site has potential as a viable growth area for Altman Plants, it would be hard for it to match its sales to the big box stores; however, the margin is significantly higher.

“The real value of the site is that it gives Altman Plants a place to offer our new breeding to those who will really enjoy the new plants, and it also gives us a read on which plants are most appreciated.”

Click here to visit the Cactus Shop.

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San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles Magazine

Our new succulent introductions, Echeveria ‘Imbricata’ variegata and Aeonium ‘Mardi Gras’ USPP 21407 were recently featured in San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles Magazine in the Notable Newcomers section!

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GPN Magazine: Amazing Succulents

Overlooked for so long, these resilient plants are rapidly gaining popularity for their beauty and durability.

During the last 10 years, we have seen a steadily increasing interest in a relatively unknown group of plants. These are the succulents, those tenacious plants that, as a result of evolving to live in harsh environments in arid areas, have developed strategies for “state of the art” drought tolerance. Succulents are very resilient and adaptable, making them long lasting and durable plants in the garden. What is surprising is that these wonders of nature were overlooked for so long, but that is rapidly changing.

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