Monrovia Nursery Company History
Azusa, California 91702
Telephone: (626) 334-9321
Fax: (626) 334-3126
Sales: $145 million (2002)
NAIC: 111421 Nursery and Tree Production
Since 1926, Monrovia has prided itself on providing plants that are Distinctively Better. To us, that mean producing ultra-healthy plants that arrive at the garden center looking vigorous and beautiful.
- Wight Nurseries is founded.
- Berryhill Nursery is founded.
- Harry Rosedale founds a nursery in Monrovia, California.
- The company's operations move to Azusa, California.
- Miles Rosedale is named CEO.
- Wight Nurseries and Berryhill Nursery merge.
- Richard VanLandingham is named CEO.
Operating as Monrovia Growers, privately owned Monrovia Nursery Company is one of the leading nurseries in the United States, supplying more than 5,000 garden centers with approximately 22 million plants in over 2,000 varieties. Plant offerings include more than 45 varieties of camellias; citrus, including limes, lemons, grapefruit, tangerines, and an assortment of oranges; conifers in all shapes and sizes, including pines, fir, cypress redwoods, and spruce; ferns, grasses, and bamboo; perennials such as geranium, lavender, peony, sage, and periwinkle; rhododendrons; shrubs; topiaries (plants trained and trimmed to form ornamental shapes); trees in varieties found around the world; and vines and vine-like shrubs. Monrovia is constantly introducing new plants, relying on its own researchers as well as professional plant hunters who scour the globe for exciting new plants. Monrovia operates nurseries in Dayton, Oregon; Visalia, California; Springfield, Ohio; La Grange, North Carolina; and Cairo, Georgia. All told, Monrovia's operations cover more than 4,700 acres. The plants are shipped in refrigerated trucks, either in a container or as ball-and-burlap. Since the mid-1950s Monrovia has maintained its headquarters in Azusa, California, close to Los Angeles, where most of its growing operations were once conducted. Since 2004, however, Monrovia has begun the process of transferring most of the work to its largest operation in Visalia.
Monrovia was founded in 1926 by Danish immigrant Harry Rosedale. He started his nursery on ten acres of land in Monrovia, California, and named his business after the town. Rosedale was a visionary in the nursery field. He played a pivotal role in developing the practice of growing plants in containers, thus avoiding the stress involved in uprooting a plant for sale. His revolutionary method resulted in more successful transplants for his customers. He also established the Monrovia tradition for continually searching for new ways to improve production and provide customers with healthier plants. Rosedale also made significant innovations in the way nurseries did business. In the 1940s, Monrovia became the first nursery to follow a set schedule for truck delivery of its plants throughout California and Arizona. Monrovia was the first grower to forego brokers in favor of hiring its own sale force to negotiate directly with garden centers. Then, in the 1950s, Monrovia became the first nursery to begin successfully shipping its container plants across the country, another practice that revolutionized the nursery industry.
Rosedale's innovations resulted in a thriving business, one that by the mid-1950s outgrew its acreage in Monrovia. In 1956, he transferred his operations to Azusa in the lush San Gabriel Valley, although he retained the Monrovia name. Ultimately, he would acquire some 450 acres and become the largest nursery in America. Throughout the 1950s, he continued to build on his record of innovation. Monrovia became the first nursery to establish a research department, which then pioneered the creation of special soil mixes, containing blends of minerals and fertilizers, that helped plants to put down roots quicker and adapt to a new landscape. During the 1950s, Monrovia became the first nursery to replace clay pots with plastic pots in liner production. Monrovia also made news on the business side. It became the first nursery to maintain a sales force in more than one state, and it created a reservation system, allowing retailers to order plants in advance. In this way, Monrovia was better able to match production with demand, and customers were better served as a result. Furthermore, Monrovia became involved in retail, opening a string of Rosedale Garden Centers.
A Trendsetter in the 1960s
Monrovia remained an industry trendsetter in the 1960s. Company researchers continued their work on soil mixes, incorporating time-release fertilizers that extended the shelf life of plants in garden centers, keeping them healthy and flourishing even after they left the controlled conditions of the nursery. Monrovia replaced hand pumps with an automated watering system that included liquid feed, an idea that was then transferred to the nursery irrigation system. In this way, plants received nutrients as they were being watered. In the greenhouses, Monrovia developed a system to spray a mist of water on plants, a practice that helped cuttings to resist disease and resulted in stronger growth. This idea was taken outdoors, leading to the creation of heated outdoor mist beds and a significant increase in the number of rootings that took place.
By 1970, Monrovia had to face up to the environmental impact of its operations. Containerized plants required twice as much irrigation as regular plants, because extra water was used to remove excess salt from the soil mix. However, this practice led to an increasing level of nitrates in the groundwater. Moreover, the nursery knew that it would also be facing a future water shortage. To address these problems, Monrovia became the first nursery to develop a water recycling system, so that runoff water was captured, purified, and reused. It took eight years to create and implement a viable water recycling system. In the system's final form, water flowed into sedimentation pits located at the lower ends of the nursery. Here, gravel, sand, and silt particles settled. Next, flocculating and coagulating agents were introduced to bind fine clay particles, which could then settle out quickly. The water was then pumped through a tall clarifier tank, so that the clay could settle while the clarified water emerged at the top and could then be filtered through a thick layer of anthracite coal, followed by a layer of sand and gravel. Finally, the recycled water was mixed with an equal measure of new water and pumped into the nursery's 1.6 million gallon reservoir. In addition to tainted water, Monrovia also produced a great deal of refuse, such as discarded plants and packaging, prunings, and scrap lumber. These items were subjected to composting, resulting in an organic material that was in many ways superior to peat as a growing medium. For example, it had the ability to suppress plant disease, something peat did not do.
Monrovia pioneered advances on other fronts in the 1970s. It completely replaced traditional metal containers with new plastic pots. Instead of using rubbing alcohol to disinfect pruning shears, the nursery was the first in the industry to rely on the more environmentally compatible monochloramine, which would also play a part in Monrovia's water recycling system. Another first that took place in the 1970s was the introduction of new propagation mist beds. Instead of gravel on dirt, they were crowned with concrete and used copper tubing. Because of the even transfer of heat, the new beds significantly increased the levels of propagation. During the 1970s, Monrovia also became the first nursery to be certified as snail free by the State of California. As a result, the nursery was able to ship its products to many areas of the country where California plants had previously been banned. Also of note, Monrovia shut down its Rosedale Garden Centers in 1971 to concentrate on its thriving wholesale business.
In 1981, Harry Rosedale's son, Miles, joined the company on a full-time basis. Heading the nursery at this stage was Martin Usrey, who had been with Monrovia since 1931 when he started out as a water boy. It was Usrey along with colleague Clifton Comstock who took the lead in expanding the market for container-grown plants during the late 1940s and early 1950s, a time other nurseries had not yet adopted the practice. Usrey was also the one responsible for establishing the first research department in a nursery, which he staffed with trained horticulturists. Moreover, he personally held the patent on 18 plants, such as Mint Julep and Gold Coast Juniper. In 1988, he retired at the age of 76 and was replaced by Miles Rosedale.
Monrovia continued to maintain its reputation as an industry innovator during the 1980s and 1990s. It was the first to use citric acid as a pH water conditioner to replace more caustic inorganic substances. It was also the first to employ a wind tunnel to test the effects of high winds on container plants, information not only useful to garden centers in providing wind protection but also helpful to Monrovia in its selection of new nursery sites. During the 1980s, Monrovia developed natural ways to control weeds such as Liverworts, which plagued Camellias. Researchers discovered that pecan shells included in the mulch of container plants killed Liverworts. Eucalyptus waste was also introduced into container soils to eliminate other weeds. In terms of marketing, Monrovia introduced a number of changes. It provided garden centers with color posters that educated customers about the bloom varieties of a number of plant categories. Monrovia also began to include an information label with its plants that informed customers of the best way to care for their purchase.
Under the leadership of Miles Rosedale, Monrovia expanded its operations, opening wholesale nurseries in Visalia, California, and Dayton, Oregon. The younger Rosedale took over the company during a time of significant change in the nursery industry, which became increasingly driven by the retail side, as big-box retailers like Home Depot, Lowe's, and Wal-Mart gained an increasing share of retail plant sales. To satisfy the needs of these giant customers, who insisted on better service from suppliers, nurseries began to diversify and broaden their plant offerings. Because growing plants required specific expertise, it was understandable that nurseries would begin to consolidate their operations to get a handle on the new status quo. One manager and one nursery could oversee the growing of 100 varieties, but the amount of expertise needed to take on 1000 varieties was beyond the scope of a small grower. The nurseries had to combine to survive, and even a giant like Monrovia had to adapt. In 2001, it merged with Wight Nurseries, a 113-year-old nursery based in Cairo, Georgia, with additional operations in La Grange, North Carolina. Wight also brought with it Berryhill Nursery, located in Springfield, Ohio.
Wight was founded in Cairo in 1887 by J. Byran Wight, a minister who needed to supplement his income. He started out growing fruit trees and nut trees and his descendants grew the business from there. It was run by two succeeding generations, then in 1982 was sold to Weyerhaeuser Co. Nevertheless, a family connection remained in the form of Richard VanLand- ingham, whose uncle, John B. Wight, Jr. had been the head of the nursery when Weyerhaeuser took over. VanLandingham stayed on as vice-president of operations. He first started working for the nursery in 1965 when he was just 14 years old. After attending Georgia Tech University, dropping out, and moving to California, he returned to Wight in 1972. He became president of Wight Nurseries in 1990 and a year later put together a management-led buyout of the business. In 1995, he oversaw the acquisition of Berryhill Nursery, founded in 1915.
By acquiring the Wight and Berryhill operations, Monrovia was able to bolster its position east of the Mississippi. Moreover, Monrovia broadened its product line by adding Wight and Berryhill's selection of large trees and shrubs. While Monrovia and Wight combined their sales and marketing forces, Wight and Berryhill continued to operate as separate entities. All the growing locations, however, began to offer the same expanded product line. Because Monrovia had operations spread across the country, it was now able to better serve customers, offering greater availability of plants, faster and cheaper delivery, and smaller minimums. Monrovia also reorganized its production approach, establishing two product lines, one to meet the needs of retailers and another for landscape contractors.
New Century Brings New Leadership
VanLandingham was named president of Monrovia's new East Coast operations, and in 2003 he became Monrovia's chief executive officer. He reorganized the business, creating two separate divisions. The Monrovia Nursery Division, which included the California, Oregon, and North Carolina operations, focused on Monrovia's branded products, while the new Wight Nurseries Division used the Georgia and Ohio facilities to produce non-branded products for retail, wholesale, and landscape customers. When VanLandingham took over, he was also charged with selling the Azusa operation, which was now surrounded by suburban sprawl. For several years, the nursery had been attempting to sell a major portion of the property for a housing development, but the plan met with community opposition. As the matter came to a vote in a special election held in May 2004, VanLandingham had to deal with a problem of a different sort, one that potentially threatened the very existence of the company.
In February 2003, it was revealed that camellias at the Azusa nursery had tested positive for Phytophthora ramorum, the sudden oak death pathogen that had killed tens of thousands of trees along the California and Oregon coasts since it was first discovered in 1995. Although scientists knew that the pathogen had hosts beyond oaks, it was not believed to be able to survive in the hotter climate of Southern California. Some scientists predicted that if it spread, P. ramorum could rival the large-scale devastation caused by Dutch elm disease a century earlier. Its appearance in Monrovia camellias, therefore, took the industry by surprise and caused some panic. A few state departments of agriculture took the extreme measure of banning all plants from California. VanLandingham and his staff responded quickly, destroying some 200,000 camellias, many of which were not infected but were merely located within ten meters of an infected plant. Monrovia also assured its customers that it would give full credit for any of its plants that had to be quarantined and would pay for any cleanup costs. Despite a rash of negative publicity, the episode passed without the pathogen spreading. According to VanLandingham, the company's open and decisive reaction to the problem actually served to improve its reputation. Moreover, Monrovia was now the most tested nursery in the country and had put in place preventive fungicide rotations, so that blocks of host plants were kept separate. In this way, the number of plants that would have to be put on hold were limited. Employees also became extremely vigilant about keeping an eye out for symptoms. In truth, no one knew how P. ramorum showed up in Azusa in the first place, so there was no assurance that it might not make another appearance in the future.
In May 2004, Azusa voters approved a development plan for the 300 acres Monrovia wanted to sell for a housing development, and the company could now begin transferring workers and operations to the 1,000-acre Visalia nursery. The company retained 100 acres and planned to keep its headquarters in Azusa, where it would also continue to cultivate a handful of varieties that benefited from Southern California's milder winters. Monrovia was well positioned to enjoy ongoing growth and maintain its well earned reputation as an industry leader.
Principal Subsidiaries:Wight Nurseries; Berryhill Nursery.
Principal Competitors: Color Spot Nurseries, Inc.; Griffin Land & Nurseries, Inc.; Hines Horticulture, Inc.
- Blizzard, Peggy, "Monrovia Nursery Co. ... U.S. Biggest," Southern California Business, July 1, 1986, p. 7.
- Dardick, Karen, "Harry Rosedale Pioneered the Concept of Growing Plants," Pasadena Star-News, October 12, 2001.
- "Grower of the Year," Nursery Management & Production, November 2004, p. 29.
- Logsdon, Gene, "Where's the Waste at This Nursery?," BioCycle, May 1993, p. 64.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 70. St. James Press, 2005.