Carlsbad's fields of flowers that drive folks wild

God's dirt

Ranunculus need a mild winter climate and sandy soil.
  • Ranunculus need a mild winter climate and sandy soil.

The people who grow the flowers overlooking the freeway in Carlsbad did something last spring that diverged from San Diego floricultural tradition: they encouraged the public to come onto the growing grounds. An estimated 125,000 people responded between March and early May of 1994, and upon many of them the ranunculus flowers cast an eerie spell. According to one of the women who sold bouquets there, a steady stream of mentally disturbed individuals were drawn to the site. "They would just sit and look and when they left, they seemed a lot calmer."

Edwin Frazee: “We burned the house down when we was kids [in 1924]. We was left home alone to take care of ourselves.”

Edwin Frazee: “We burned the house down when we was kids [in 1924]. We was left home alone to take care of ourselves.”

Other visitors shed inhibitions. The bouquet-seller, for instance, recalls one teenager who somehow sneaked in when the fields were supposed to be closed. He disregarded the plastic tape set up to protect the rows of plants, “And you could see this head bobbing up and down. He was literally having a field day, running through the blooms.... When people get to the top of the hillside, they just go crazy. They see the view and they think, ‘I have these flowers; they’re all around me, and nobody will tell me I can’t do this.’ ”

Ranunculus blossoms. It’s possible that Frazee knows more about farming ranunculuses than anyone else on the planet.

Ranunculus blossoms. It’s possible that Frazee knows more about farming ranunculuses than anyone else on the planet.

I was among the ranunculus visitors last spring, and although I stayed on the path and observed all the rules, I could see how the flowers might induce an altered state. There’s something surrealistic about the scale and the stark geometry of the plantings. The scene forces a constant shifting of focus. You look at the ball-shaped ranunculuses close to you, tight masses of ruffled petals borne two feet above the ground on slender stalks and saturated with a color so pure, so absolute, that it shocks your eyes. But your gaze is also drawn outward, across the acres, to where the hues fuse into something a bit more muted but grander.

Out of the 51 acres devoted to the flower last year, workers extracted roughly 10 million of the spidery tubers.

Out of the 51 acres devoted to the flower last year, workers extracted roughly 10 million of the spidery tubers.

Walking amidst those glowing colors feels cinematic, Oz-like. But no cartoonish Munchkins intrude. The sea breeze and the warm sun and the smell of the earth reign here.

The ranunculus growers noted the public’s enthusiastic response last year — more than 30,000 bouquets were sold, and more packages of ranunculus bulbs were purchased than at any other single location in the country. This year the growers are expanding the welcome — setting up two flower stalls instead of one, offering tours. Ranunculus T-shirts will be hawked, along with children’s gardening kits. Agri-tourism appears to be on the brink of rescuing a more than 60-year-old San Diego County institution.

Mike Mellano: "We taped the field and put up signs asking people not to go into the fields. And we put someone out there patrolling."

Mike Mellano: "We taped the field and put up signs asking people not to go into the fields. And we put someone out there patrolling."

Also crucial to the rescue has been a 77-year-old Rancho Santa Fe resident named Edwin Frazee. It’s quite possible that Frazee knows more about farming ranunculuses than anyone else on the planet. Over the years he’s visited those who have grown the flower overseas — in Australia, in South Africa, in Israel. But for many years he was the only commercial ranunculus bulb grower in North America. Had the crop vanished from San Diego County — as it seemed destined to do two years ago — it would have survived within his heart and his profusion of memories.

John Stickles got to observe how the ground must be soaked, so that the bulbs come out spongy and swollen and pliable. Then they must be dried.

John Stickles got to observe how the ground must be soaked, so that the bulbs come out spongy and swollen and pliable. Then they must be dried.

He can remember when he first saw ranunculus planted — probably the first ever to grow in San Diego County. The year was 1922. Edwin had been born the second child and first son of a farmer named Frank (“He grows lima beans,” Edwin’s birth certificate declared of the father). By the time Edwin was five, Frank Frazee was sharecropping English peas for a horticulturist named Luther Gage, who’d moved down from Montebello to a ten-acre site between Tamarack and Chinquapin avenues (just west of where the I-5 freeway runs today). Besides the peas Frank tended. Gage also planted several varieties of flowers. “They had some little beds of ranunculus, about three by ten feet long,” Edwin Frazee recalls. “Had ’em covered, and you had to go water them by hand. When Luther Gage was gone, my dad went over there each day or twice a day and watered the seed with the little sprinkling can.”

Eric Larson:  “Ranunculuses tend not to work well in arrangements.”

Eric Larson: “Ranunculuses tend not to work well in arrangements.”

Edwin’s family lived on a section of the old Agua Hedionda Ranch in what is now eastern Carlsbad, in a house owned by a distant relative. “I can remember going out to get the cows in the morning to bring them in to milk. I was six years old.” Edwin conjures up those days. “I’d get up just at daylight. Boy, everything looked so different in the early morning, when there’s still dew on the ground. You could see where all the quail laid their eggs and see the little quail hatch and where all the rabbits were and where the roadrunners had put their feet up in the cactus. I knew where every flower was on that ranch out there. Where the sweetest violets were and where the wild onion grew and the chocolate lilies. All my early life was spent out there, studying mother nature.”

Catastrophe interrupted that life one day in 1924; Frazee narrates the tale in an offhanded manner. “We burned the house down when we was kids. We was left home alone to take care of ourselves.” His sister was nine, he was seven, and there were two smaller brothers, five and three. “We were fixing some lunch at the old kerosene stove and got the wick turned up too high and caught the paper behind the stove in the fire. There was no water out there; we hauled the water from Carlsbad. And no electricity, just living out there like these Mexicans live.” As the fire raged, the children dragged the family’s possessions — an old sewing machine, a phonograph, the mattresses off the beds, the dresser drawers — out the door, then they began the several-mile walk to the field down near Jefferson and Las Flores where their parents were picking cucumbers that day. “We got there in the afternoon, and we hid in the back of the old Model T Ford. The folks come in about dark, they asked us what we were doing.” By the time the family got back, they discovered that the fire had caught all the items the children has wrestled outside. “Only thing we had left was the clothes on our backs. Nothing to eat,” Edwin recalls.

Neighbors and relatives helped them to survive the immediate crisis, and Edwin’s father soon got a job on an asparagus farm in San Luis Rey that included a house for his family to live in.

(“It had electricity,” Edwin recalls. “That was something.”) Frank’s brother Earl then stepped in to work for gentleman farmer Luther Gage.

When the asparagus ranch was sold in 1928, Frank moved his family back to south Oceanside. “We had to have something to do,” says Edwin. He says his uncle talked his father into trying to grow freesias.

Freesia bulbs were then very much in demand, according to Edwin. This was back “when there was only a certain time that every flower bloomed,” he explains; year-round carnations and chrysanthemums and roses hadn’t yet been developed. But the freesia bulbs could be shipped back east to greenhouse growers, who planted them the following fall and forced some of the first flowers of the year on the East Coast.

Edwin’s father did well enough at freesia growing, and by 1931 he moved to an extraordinary piece of property near the railroad track in south Oceanside. In the late 1920s, a developer had come into the area and had created hundreds of 60-by- 100- foot lots. He’d laid out streets and installed sidewalks, piped in water, even erected some street signs — only to go bankrupt in the Great Crash of 1929. Since few people could afford to pay the taxes on the lots they’d purchased, most of the land fell into the city’s ownership. The city in turn leased out some of it, including three acres to Frank Frazee. “You could turn your cultivator around on the sidewalk,” Edwin recalls.

By 1933, when Edwin was 16 years old, his father decided to add ranunculus to his output. “He brought a little bag of seed down, and we went along the gutter where the water washed sand that was pretty pure.” Father and son mixed the sand and seed together, then “My dad made the rows, and I sowed the seed, and we covered it with a mulch and manure. That’s how I got my start,” Edwin says.

One of the biggest problems bedeviling the would-be ranunculus farmer had by then been solved, according to Edwin. The so-called ranunculus bulbs (they’re actually tubers) are tough, resilient things that resemble tiny bunches of bananas that have dried up till they’re brown and stiff. Even an inept gardener can plunk them in the ground and be clipping flowers from them in about three months.

That’s why the vast majority of home gardeners clamor for bulbs rather than seeds. The seeds not only take far longer to yield blossoms (four to six months) but they also rank among the world’s most fragile. They look a bit like miniature flakes of oatmeal, so thin that they’re almost transparent. In the early 1920s, there seemed no way to plant them in an open field. “How do you irrigate something like that?” asks Edwin. A water droplet of any size “washes the sand over them and cuts them,” he adds. But eventually a California grower named Skinner devised an irrigation system that produced a spray diffuse enough to moisten the seed without harming it. “All it is is just a pipe with very fine holes drilled in it,” Edwin says. Out of the holes shot a fine straight spray. “But you had to keep moving that pipe to keep the water from puddling.”

By 16, Edwin had quit high school to devote all his time to his father’s flower-growing enterprise. He was the only child in his family to drop out of school. (His brother Robert wound up going into politics and served as a state assemblyman for 18 years, while his other brothers eventually joined him in the flower business.)

Edwin doesn’t seem to regret the premature end to his formal education. He’s a robust elder, a man with shrewd intelligent eyes, slicked-back white hair, and a nose so thin and delicate that it looks incongruously feminine.

He and Mabel, his wife of 54 years, live in a sprawling, comfortable house set on a lush and spacious piece of property just a few blocks from some of the most ostentatious mansions in San Diego County. Their evident prosperity made me wonder aloud if they had ever experienced any disasters in their years of flower farming.

At the question, Edwin and Mabel both burst out laughing.

“Disasters!” Edwin gasped between guffaws. “We had disasters to where we didn’t know where the next meal was coming from!"

“Funny how we ever survived,” Mabel marveled. “That’s the mystery.”

They reeled off horror stories. There was 1938, for instance, the year Edwin moved the family’s farming operations up to leased land on Rancho Santa Margarita (later Camp Pendleton). Soon after the first ranunculus sprouts appeared, a savage east wind blew for two days, and the sand cut most of the tiny plants level with the ground. “A few flowers survived, but the rains washed gullies six feet deep through the middle of the field,” Edwin said. “Then in March we had another wind from another direction. From the whole crop that year, we didn’t get enough to pay just the laborers. Not to mention all our other expenses.”

“We had to wait until all the disasters were paid for before we could get married,” Mabel said. By the time they did have the wedding, in 1940, Mabel must have been prepared for the life upon which she was embarking. “My wife was with me out in the field from day one,” Edwin commented on another occasion. “We got married on a Sunday. Monday I had to plant the rest of the ranunculus, so she came out there and helped me plant it.”

Despite the daily mountain of chores, despite the calamities, Edwin also glimpsed something else as he settled into the flower-growing routine. He says, while still in school, he had decided that if he was going to farm, “I wanted to get into something...where I could be number one. You get into raising corn or something like that, and you’re just another corn grower. Instead you have to find some place where you’re gonna fit and you can reach the top,” he resolved. And in the North County coastal fields, Edwin concluded, the ranunculus grower commanded powerful advantages.

“Ranunculus need a mild winter climate,” he explains. “And they need sandy soil to grow in, that’s well-drained. They’ll grow in a heavier soil, but the problem with that is digging.” The commercial ranunculus grower has to dig all the bulbs out, “and the digging can be so costly that it will take all the profit out of it,” Edwin says. Also essential to harvesting the bulbs is a dry summer. “If you get rain, it’ll rot the bulbs. There’s a lot of areas in this world, like New Zealand, that are similar to here. But they have summertime rains. Florida has summertime rains.” Edwin concludes, “I’ve looked the world over, all up the coast here and back east, and nothing will compare with this area right here for ranunculus growing.”

He nonetheless wasn’t satisfied with enjoying the climatic superiority. Even as a teenager, he turned his attention to trying to develop a strain of ranunculus that surpassed what nature alone had produced. What Edwin started with was the member of the buttercup family known as the Persian buttercup, or Ranunculus asiaticus. (The word ranunculus comes from the Latin rana for “little frog,” an allusion to the wet places favored by buttercups.) Back in the 1920s, the Persian buttercup’s buds typically opened to reveal five wedge-shaped petals around the central stamens and pistils. This is what gardeners today refer to as a “single” — pretty, perhaps, but unspectacular. Moreover, when Luther Gage first planted it, the Persian buttercup was “dirty colored,” Edwin says. “There were no pure whites. There weren’t any clear yellows. Everything was mixed.” All the early ranunculus also had black pollen, which washed down onto the petals, further streaking and muddying the color. But a few mutants among the gold flowers had green stamens and yellow pollen, and Edwin says Gage and his uncle started trying to select out such blooms and get a greater percentage of the variant. Eventually they were able consistently to grow a pure-gold flower with a light-colored center. Edwin says they also separated out a pure white. “Then over the years, I started selecting other colors,” he continues. “I got the yellow, the red, the pinks, the sunset, all the other ones separated out.”

He also aggressively scouted for something else: flowers that happened to have more than the average number of petals. Although at least half of those early ranunculuses were singles, some were “semi-doubles,” boasting six to ten petals. “Very seldom, you’d get one with a dozen petals on it,” Edwin recalls. Over time, he developed from these more and more offspring that were “doubles” — so crammed with petals that their central reproductive parts are cloistered. Fully double ranunculuses look almost globular, they are to singles what a woman in a floor-length hooped ball gown is to one wearing a simple sheath. By the early 1950s, “We had some real good quality,” he says. “You could recognize our flowers any time, any place.”

All his efforts paid off in more than just aesthetic satisfaction. As nurseries and gardeners all over the country slowly became aware of the superior ranunculus bulbs, Edwin’s competition dwindled. Whereas at least a half dozen other California farmers were raising ranunculus in the early 1930s, Edwin eventually became the only commercial grower in the United States. He also had by then become a major gladiolus producer; he and his father had started with the distinctive ruffled spears back in 1929, and Edwin also plunged into selecting and eventually hybridizing them. (Today it’s hard to find a gladiolus catalog that doesn’t contain varieties developed by him.) Although ranunculus and gladiolus were his biggest crops, he also grew dozens of other types of flowers throughout the years: anemones, freesias, tratonias, delphinium, oxalis, stock, even carnations. By the end of the 1960s, he was growing flowers on more than 1000 acres of land leased through northern San Diego and southern Riverside counties.

On three separate occasions. National Geographic magazine sent photographers to document the splendor wrought by Edwin on this Southern California acreage. Edwin says he appreciated one aspect of such publicity. “We said, ‘If people didn’t enjoy those flowers in the first place, we wouldn’t be in business at all.’ ” On the other hand, any publicity tended to exacerbate what Edwin saw as a colossal nuisance. “If I had one penny for every picture that’s been taken in those fields, I’d be a rich man,” he says. “People just stormed in like cows after fresh com.” And they didn’t just take pictures; they also helped themselves to the blooms. Edwin still groans when he tells how television announcer Harold Greene once announced over the air that the flowers were free for the taking. That wasn’t true; although the Frazees saw the ranunculuses as being primarily a bulb crop, they also always cut and sold some of the flowers, shipping them up for sale on the wholesale market in Los Angeles. They were a valuable commodity, not a free good, but people just seemed to ignore that. “You’d try to run somebody off in one spot, and over there were 40 other people cutting,” Edwin says. “The police couldn’t do anything about it because it was open.... We lost so much it was unbelievable. It’s been that way for years and years. Twenty, 30 years ago, we used to sit out in the field every Saturday and Sunday to keep people from pulling stuff.”

I asked why he didn’t fence the fields, and Edwin replied, “There wasn’t enough money into it to fence it. Only thing you could do was to raise a few extra acres to take care of those (people) that pulled.”

By about 1975, Edwin had had enough of this and other headaches, and he retired, leaving the flower-growing in the hands of his two sons, John and Jim. It wasn’t long after that the Frazee sons moved the ranunculus crop from near Ponto Drive in Carlsbad, where Edwin had been growing the flowers since 1958, to the current location on the Carlsbad Ranch. Located just off Palomar Airport Road and up the hill from where Pea Soup Anderson’s brandishes its phony windmill at Interstate 5, this huge piece of property had been acquired back around 1951 by Paul Ecke, Sr., the pioneering poinsettia grower. His son, Paul, Jr., says there was no water on the ranch, so local growers had been producing mostly dry lima beans and oat hay there. But Ecke and his father had a well drilled east of the Rancho Carlsbad trailer park and piped the water to Carlsbad Ranch. They grew poinsettias out in the open there until 1965 (when all the poinsettia production moved into greenhouses in Encinitas, their current home). Although the Carlsbad hillside proved a perfect location for the ranunculus, other elements in the complex chemistry didn’t work as well after Edwin’s retirement. After some years, the sons divided up the company. Edwin says he came out of retirement six or seven years ago to assist Jim with the growing. But by 1993, Jim Frazee had decided that it wasn’t economical for him to grow the flowers. He told Paul Ecke, Jr. he wanted to terminate the lease.

“We were saddened to hear that he was planning to discontinue the operation,” Ecke says today. “We’re basically farmers, and it was a wonderful crop that we enjoyed.” Besides its beauty, the crop also represented a pool of knowledge, Ecke says. “I thought it would be sad to lose all the things that Ed Frazee had learned over all those years. That art would have been lost.” And yet another powerful consideration must have figured in Ecke’s response. Along with Carlsbad officials, Ecke’s Carltas land development company was then courting Lego decision-makers, who had announced an interest in building a $100 million Lego amusement park on the Carlsbad Ranch. According to the Carltas plans, the ranunculus fields were to be the dramatic and colorful gateway into a complex that would include a 700-room luxury hotel, a winery, biotech research facilities, a golf course, the headquarters for the Gemological Institute of America, and, with any luck, Legoland.

So Ecke took a number of steps. He had Carltas apply for a $420,000 loan from the Carlsbad Agricultural Improvement Fund. This fund, administered by the state Coastal Conservancy, was created with fees collected from developers of agricultural property in Carlsbad between 1981 and 1984. The loan was granted in August of 1993, by which point Ecke had also lined up a couple of other key players in a venture to keep the ranunculus fields blooming. He’d gone to Edwin Frazee and had won Edwin’s pledge to donate his advice about the growing of the crop. “Paul Jr. was the only one that could have gotten to me,” comments Edwin, who worshipped the late Paul Ecke, Sr. and credits him with rescuing the Frazees from the brink of disaster more than once. So Edwin agreed, with one caveat. “One thing I told PE2 (his nickname for the Ecke scion] was that if it wasn’t a profitable crop, I didn’t want to get into it. If it was just for show business, it would be no challenge to me. ’Cause you could put any junk out there and have it look pretty. It had to make money.”

By August of 1993, PE2 had also had found a grower who saw a profit potential in the ranunculus. Mike Mellano wasn’t Ecke’s first choice to manage the ranunculus production. Ecke says instead he first called a number of bulb growers whom he knew, all around the United States, asking each of them to farm the property. “It’s not a very big fraternity of people who are good at doing that kind of work,” he says. But all the bulb growers turned him down, and Ecke finally turned to Mellano, a San Luis Rey grower who thought there might be new ways to exploit the venerable old crop.

“Two hundred and fifty thousand cars drive in front of that field every day,” Mellano points out. “I do agree with Mr. Frazee that you can’t grow just the bulbs and make money.” But Mellano says when he and Ecke sat down and looked at the numbers, they figured that if they could capture an average of just ten cents per car in tourist revenues over the course of the flowers’ growing season, that would add $25,000 to the bottom line. “If we could get a dollar per car, that’s $250,000!”

Despite the sound of those words, Mellano doesn’t come across as some slick marketeer. At 56 he’s a short, unassuming-looking man with a head of dark, unruly hair. His father, Giovanni, came from Northern Italy to America in 1921, intent upon working with a brother-in-law in the flower business in Northern California, then returning to his homeland to buy a farm and raise a family. But “when Giovanni arrived at Santa Cruz, he soon learned that the 'flower business’ consisted of scouring the local forests daily in search of wild ferns,” according to Profiles in Flowers, a history of San Diego floriculture published by the Ecke family in 1989. If Giovanni was disappointed, he persevered, and by the late 1930s he had moved to Los Angeles and acquired a share of the Los Angeles wholesale flower market. Giovanni did return to Italy in 1932, and he did find a wife there, but he decided to bring her back to L.A. There they reacquired a share in the wholesale outlet, and they also bought a farm in Artesia, where they began growing field flowers.

Although Mike Mellano grew up on that farm, it wasn’t always clear that he would be a farmer. In fact, he got a Ph.D. in plant pathology from UC Riverside and planned to become a university professor. Then Giovanni had a stroke and the Mellano family faced a critical juncture: “Either get bigger or convert the assets to something else,” Mike says. He says he talked it over with his wife and decided to turn his back on academia instead to grow things. He says today he has no regrets. “I liked the university,” he says with a shrug. “But I also like the flower business.” The latter tends to be an especially thrilling sector of agriculture. “It’s not for the faint-hearted,” Mellano says. “It’s pretty high-risk because they’re very, very, very, very perishable. When the flowers are bloomed, you have to pick ’em. And you have to sell ’em. Otherwise you throw them away. It’s very intense. Let’s say you’re sitting there with 515,000 or $20,000 in the field, and it rains. And you can’t pick. You throw that money away. If it’s hot, it burns ’em. If it’s cold, it freezes ’em. Some years you make a killing and some years you don’t. It’s always been like that. But I’ve been in this business my whole life, so to me I’m kind of used to it.”

Today the Mellano family owns about 220 acres in the San Luis Rey valley (they phased out their Artesia operations in the 1970s). In addition to their own acreage, they lease another 450 to 500 acres in San Luis Rey, most of which they rent to a number of small fruit and vegetable growers. But on about 225 acres, the Mellanos continue to grow and ship flowers ranging from agapanthus to kangaroo paws to waxflowers. They grow some things, iris and liatris, for example, from bulbs, but the Mellanos buy those bulbs from a broker. Despite his lack of experience in bulb-growing, Mellano says he felt reassured by the offer of Edwin Frazee’s expertise. And he also found John Stickles to shoulder the daily burdens of growing the new crop.

Stickles, who’s now 40 years old, was born and raised in Oceanside. He’s done two main things since graduating from Oceanside High School: work as a carpenter and grow fruits and vegetables. He says his stint in construction was a reaction to growing up on a farm. “My father and grandfather are farmers, and I watched them. They worked seven days a week. When we took family vacations, a lot of times my dad didn’t go because he had to stay on the farm. As a teenager, I thought, ’No way! I’m not going to do this.’ That’s why I pounded nails and did things like that for a while.”

Then when he was 22, Stickles had the opportunity to get back on the farm for a little while. To his amazement, he loved the work. “I said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I just changed my mind completely.” Challenges in which he’d had no interest now struck him as fascinating. “I said, ‘I don’t mind working six and seven days a week. I don’t mind working 12 hours a day. Because I enjoy it.’ ”

Stickles became partners with his brother Don, and together they leased land from the Mellano family. At various times, they grew a wide variety of vegetables — tomatoes, squash, “everything under the sun,” John says. “Strawberries and raspberries are my fruits.” In 1988, they won a contract with Driscoll, the world’s largest marketing agent for strawberries and raspberries, to begin growing a unique raspberry variety. Whereas all other raspberries bear fruit in the summer, this one is an “everbear,” says Stickles. “We start picking in November, and we’ll go to about the end of May. A flat of raspberries today is about $22,” he told me one morning toward the end of January. “Normally in the summer it would be $8. Basically, we’re the only people on the continent of North America that are producing raspberries in the winter. In fact, there are 30 days when it’s pretty tough to find a raspberry in the world, unless you’re buying ours.” He laughed; the sound was joyful.

Stickles says one lure for him to work as the ranunculus ranch supervisor was that the Ecke/Mellano partnership offered him 20 acres there on which the winter raspberries could be grown. That was attractive; the ranch happens to be “ideal” for the fruit, he says. But Stickles also had long harbored the thought that “it would be very enjoyable” to grow ranunculus. “My grandfather and father had farmed next door to the Frazees on Camp Pendleton. Actually, the Frazee family helped my family — my father and grandfather — get into business.” Although John had never cultivated the flowers himself, he felt as if he had grown up with them. “Nothing that (the FrazeesJ were doing was unfamiliar to me.” So he took the job in Carlsbad; his brother continues to farm another 20 acres of raspberries in San Luis Rey.

On the day I talked with Stickles, the ground was still soft from the series of storms that had just passed through. But the sun was shining, filtered by some gauzy clouds. Stickles’s office is in a well-worn trailer set midway between the raspberry stakes and the flower fields. Off one end of the trailer stand two identical totem poles, about four feet high. Only up close could I see that they were made of Legos. Stickles explained that one had been at a YMCA park in San Diego for a year, during which its colors had faded. So Lego representatives had built the twin and sprayed it with an ultraviolet inhibitor. “If they build the park, they’re worried about the Southern California sun fading the plastic,” he said.

In Spanish, he issued some rapid instructions to one of his held hands, then he ushered me into the trailer where two large aerial photos of last year’s ranunculus crop adorn the walls. Stickles can look upon those pictures much as other men glance at their children’s framed faces. He supervised every aspect of the crop’s production, a cycle that consumes the full calendar year.

He started working with the ranunculus in the summer of 1993, helping Jim Frazee to harvest his last crop of bulbs. Stickles got to observe how the ground must be soaked, so that the bulbs come out spongy and swollen and pliable. Then they must be dried, and there’s a trick to this that Edwin Frazee learned from Luther Gage 70 years ago. “If you dry ’em out in the sun, the bulbs just shrink up too small,” Edwin says. Big bulbs have always commanded more money than small ones (about 22 cents each at wholesale versus perhaps 6 cents for the most compact ones). This makes no sense, according to Edwin, who says they’re both as likely to produce flowers, with the big bulb more apt to generate less-desirable singles. But “It’s a fickle public,” Edwin declares. “How come people want a big apple instead of a little apple? They taste the same. But no, they pay more for the bigger one.”

Another trick that Edwin learned as a boy was to roll the bulbs as they dry. This forces the fingers to curl inward and makes it less likely that they’ll break off during handling. “The food is stored in the fingers,” Edwin explains. “The little fuzzy crown in the center is where the plant comes out of.”

After Jim Frazee’s last crop was excavated. Stickles oversaw the “fairly extensive” soil preparation. He says a “deep rip” followed by disking down to a nice loose texture allows water to be able to penetrate the shallow-growing plants. “This is God’s dirt out here,” he commented about the ground under his boots. It looks unremarkable, a light brown that from a distance resembles sun-tanned flesh. Soil conservation practices at the ranch over the years haven’t been great, according to Stickles. Much of the best silt from the top of the hillside has tended to leach down to the bottom. Toward the top of the hill, “We’re now down to more of a subsoil,” he says. “Harvesting the bulbs the last two years we found that our digging time was a lot longer up on top because we’re in a little heavier texture soil. Then we get halfway down the field and boy, the pace just comes up.” But overall it’s still a remarkable piece of earth, he declares. “If you asked me to find some tomato ground or some raspberry ground, I could find that just like this.” He snaps his fingers. “But if someone said, ‘Well, go out and find some more ranunculus land,’ I don’t know where I’d tell you to go.” Although the ranunculus will grow in heavy soil, “We grow to harvest the bulbs, and if you grow them in heavy ground, they come out with dirt clods which we’re not set up to get off. In sandy soil, you harvest them and the dirt just falls off them.”

Stickles says that after preparing the soil, he starting planting his first ranunculus seeds in October of 1993. “The rule of thumb is you want to finish before Thanksgiving.” According to Edwin Frazee, the seed takes a certain number of degree-hours of cold to germinate. Stickles says that last year the weather was perfect. “We had just the right amount of rainfall.” By the first of March 1994, the first dots of vivid color were appearing.

At that point. Stickles and his crew couldn’t put their feet up, lean back, and enjoy the splendor. He says about a month after the first color burst forth, he and Edwin Frazee began overseeing a huge project designed to counteract what had happened to the ranunculus since Edwin retired. “You see, when the Frazee sons took the operation over, they stopped parent selection,” Stickles says. “It’s an expensive process. You don’t see any gains from it other than holding your quality. And everyone has to look for ways to pinch pennies nowadays,” he adds sympathetically. All farming costs have skyrocketed: water, energy, fertilizer, pesticides, labor. “But you can pinch pennies so much that it comes back to haunt you. And [Edwin’s sons] probably pinched pennies in the wrong area,” judges Stickles. “They were given something that was already up there at the top. But by not selecting every year they were unaware that every year [the local ranunculuses] took a step down the ladder in quality.”

Today Edwin Frazee declares bluntly that French ranunculus strains are better than the Frazee’s Tecolote variety. Over the years in which no selecting was done, the Carlsbad field began to yield a higher and higher percentage of single ranunculuses. Stickles says certain viruses have also invaded some of the plants, and these, again, only can be culled through painstaking selection. Even the leaves of the local flowers betray their degraded state. “If you look at the French plants, every leaf looks the same,” Stickles points out. The Tecolotes, in contrast, have developed three different leaf types.

“One looks like a parsley, one looks like a strawberry leaf, and one looks like a celery leaf.” All these details have damaged the Tecolote strain’s reputation and whittled its share of the bulb market. But the Mellano/Ecke partnership, guided by the Frazee patriarch, seems determined to win it all back. Stickles says last year he and Edwin trained two workers to search for perfection in one of the flower field’s five huge blocks. No flowers were cut from that section. Instead the workers moved through the plant rows armed with tags and flowers stuck through their lapels. “Mr. Frazee came out, picked a flower [for each], and said, ‘Just keep looking at it! That’s your color chart.’ ”

Working color by color, the selectors tagged a total of about 50,000 plants — 5,000 archetypal golds, pinks, reds, roses, sunsets, whites, yellows, pastels, salmons, and picotees (a variegated strain in which the petal edges are tinged with a color different from the main part). Last summer, the bulbs of the chosen flowers were dug up by hand (rather than by the digging machine that extracts the bulk of the crop) and sent up to San Luis Rey. There Mike Mellano planted them around the first of December in order to extract their seeds this coming June. The seed that’s planted in Carlsbad in September and October thus will all come from flowers whose color met the standard.

Besides digging up the bulbs of the selected flowers, the workers also extracted their seeds, keeping those of every plant separate. Then last fall all these seeds were planted in one section of the Carlsbad ranch. I visited it with Stickles on that January afternoon. “I call this my cemetery,” the farmer said, referring to the little white sticks — reminiscent of headstones — that broke the rows into two- to six-foot segments. Within each segment, all the seeds came from just one of the chosen plants. “Everything has a number, and we have notes explaining why we chose it.” Here in the field, each flower was being put to a test, and the diversity of the contest was astonishing. Although all the seeds had been planted at the same time, some segments of ground remained barren, while others were bursting with emerald growth. More than just the seed’s initial viability would be coming under scrutiny, according to Stickles. He says the Ecke/Mellano partnership has hired a geneticist to come in and scan the experimental plants for many things, including the crucial ability to burst forth with double flowers. “The ones that looked so good when they were young might be terrible at bloom time. (The geneticist] might say, ‘Look at it. It’s full of buttercups — singles. It’s not gonna fly. Because we want doubles.’”

It’s not a contest that will be decided in a single season. “You have to prove to yourself that what a plant shows you one year, it’s going to do the second year and the next year,” Stickles said. “Eventually we’re going to get it narrowed down. Every year you condense it to where at some point along the line you can say, ‘This one and this one and this one are the winners.’ ”

Stickles says he and his employers are “hoping to be back in the swing of things in five years” — that is, to be producing bulbs they can rely upon to yield healthy plants with one type of leaves and big double flowers that come in pure, consistent colors. Also on their wish list is to develop a variety of ranunculus short enough to be grown in little pots. “You want a plant that's about eight inches tall, maximum. You can sell that to the homeowner who would like to have it in her kitchen window. I personally feel that that’s going to be one of the easiest things to achieve — the shortness. I think that in our selections this year, we’ve picked some winners, and next year when we plant the seeds off those plants, we’ll find that we’ve hit some from which all the children are little guys.”

If the plant selection process offers little in the way of instant gratification, at least the number of bulbs that came out of the ground last year in Carlsbad pleased everyone. Out of the 51 acres devoted to the flower last year, workers extracted roughly 10 million of the spidery tubers — about 200,000 an acre.

“There was nothing wrong with the bulb crop,” says Mike Mellano, who had more than one reason to feel gratified by that news. Although the Frazees had always harvested a small percentage of the flowers, Mellano says the conventional wisdom was that cutting too many of the flowers would have some negative impact on the bulbs. “That didn’t sound logical to me,” he says. “And when I started to ask why, I didn’t get a real good answer.” So he trained a crew of 25 to 30 workers to harvest and grade the flowers. In January of 1994, “We started to tell all of our customers nationwide that we were going to have ranunculus to sell. We even sent one shipment to Holland — just to see how it would work.”

In the months that followed, “There were very few weeks when we couldn’t have sold more (ranunculus),” Mellano says. “But one of the things you’ve got to be careful of when you’re in the fresh flower business is that things can get out of hand, management-wise.” To maintain his quality control, he chose not to try to satisfy the extra demand. But for this year, he was planning to train a crew of 50 people. “We’re setting up to double the sales,” he declares.

Mellano figures that even if he achieves that, he’ll still be removing less than 25 percent of the color from the hillside. “First of all, you can only pick off of a plant a little bit, and then the flowers start to deteriorate.” Secondly, the hillside explodes with a staggering quantity of blooms — somewhere between 50 million and 150 million every year.

“Even if they do a slam-dunk job of marketing the cut flowers, you’ll never notice any of them missing from the field,” predicted Eric Larson. “They could go out and just cut and cut and cut day and night, and the fields would still look exactly like they do every year — because there’s just so many of them out there.”

An Encinitas native, Larson is the president of the San Diego Flower Grower Association, and he also runs San Diego County’s wholesale flower market, located not far from the ranunculus fields. Over the past ten years, he’s witnessed the amazing transformation that has occurred in the local flower industry (see sidebar page 30). And he agrees that ranunculuses hold great potential as a cut flower. “The crop’s always been here, but the cut flower has been something of a byproduct,” says Larson. “Now Mike Mellano is saying, ‘We’re close to the markets. We know the supermarkets can move huge amounts.’ Mike’s smart to try and develop that.”

Ranunculuses do have one big drawback as a cut flower, according to Larson. “They tend not to work well in arrangements,” he says. He’s not making an aesthetic judgment. “They would look great,” Larson continues. “But in an arrangement, you have to put flowers into floral foam, and they tend to last a long time.” Although the ranunculus stems look thin and wiry, they’re fairly soft, Larson points out. “So for a florist to take it and cut it and stick it in the foam — it just doesn’t work as well as a rose, which has a really stiff stem. Or a carnation. Or a chrysanthemum.”

Instead ranunculuses “tend to work best just as a bunch of them in a vase by themselves,” Larson says. “That’s the style of flower consumption in most parts of the world except the United States. We tend to buy flower arrangements. We give them as gifts. But if you travel to Paris or London or Amsterdam or Berlin, you’d see huge amounts of flowers being consumed, more flowers than here. And what the people are buying are bunches, just like they came from the growers. They’re taking them home and plopping them into a vase.”

Larson says the entry of flowers into supermarkets has helped to educate Americans to the alternate style, and he thinks if Mellano can get the ranunculuses into those mass channels, “Everyone will be real happy. You can’t argue with the greatness of the colors.” The crowds that streamed into the flower fields last spring seemed eager enough to snatch up bunches destined for vase-plunking. To avoid the nightmares that Edwin Frazee experienced, Mellano put up a fence, with only one opening through which all the visitor traffic was funneled. “It was only a few thousand dollars,” he says with a shrug. “We made a lot more money off the tourists than we thought we would.” (Despite that success, Mellano says he and the Eckes haven’t yet recovered their start-up and first-year growing costs, but they always figured that would take two years because bulb sales follow a two-year cycle.)

Besides fencing the property, Mellano says, “The other thing we did was we taped the field and put up signs asking people not to go into the fields. And we put someone out there patrolling. Now when we first started, some of the people that had been used to coming weren’t used to that. But I would say that 99 percent of the people cooperated.”

The remaining 1 percent did do some damage, John Stickles acknowledges. He says he didn’t put up tape along a few of the field edges (“to save some pennies”) and “In two days, I had a bed completely trampled because people were laying down on their backs, having someone take a picture of them laying in the flowers. Or, we had people last year, trying to sit on the ends of the sprinkler rows. You know, to get their picture taken down low with the color at head level. A couple of those people leaned hard enough that they cracked the last plastic nipples. So when I turned the water on, all of a sudden you got — whooompf!

“Hey, anything that anybody wanted to do, I could relate to last year.” Stickles says he sympathizes with the people who wrote comments in the visitor’s notebook complaining about all the fences and tape and regulations. “But I also saw why you had to have the rules. I came out one day with my family about three years ago, when the Frazees were here, and the place was just out of control. I couldn’t believe that you would open up your door and have all these oddballs coming in and doing whatever they wanted. Some pretty kinky stuff was going on out there. You’d be surprised!” In deference to the public craving for closer contact with the flowers, the ranunculus growers this year have created some access into the midst of the flowers, so that people will be able to take pictures without harming the plants. A four-acre picnic area has been created nearby, and at a spring celebration planned for Saturday, March 18, tethered hot air balloon rides (costing $5) will even enable people to take aerial shots. I asked Stickles what he thought of the novel combination of farming with tourism, a first for the county, by his assessment.

He replied that he long has believed that the public knows far too little about where agricultural products come from. “You ask people, ‘Where do you get the milk?’ ‘Well, the supermarket.’ ‘Where’d the strawberries come from?’ ‘Oh, we bought them from Safeway.’ They forgot that there’s some guy out there, beating his brains out every day.... So I think it’s an asset to be able to pull people back in and let them see what’s involved.”

Edwin Frazee’s assessment comes from a different perspective, although the final judgment is similar. “Any business has to grow to exist,” he asserts. “The whole community, all the world, has to grow. Every day the sun comes up and it’s a new world. Just like the people fighting Lego over here. They don’t want to live anymore. But to me, the whole world has to change every day, ’cause we got new people coming on. That’s what life is all about, is change.”

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