By Jill Fales
Meet Ruben Flores, Laguna Beach’s Jolly Green Giant of Landscaping. He is an award-winning landscaper and owner of Visionscape, specializing in landscape design, installation and maintenance. He is also owner of Laguna Nursery – a unique place to purchase eclectic plants, flowers, gifts, art, fountains, furniture and international architectural pieces.
Flores exudes passion for sharing his love of gardening and landscaping with everyone – from the very young child planting his first seed in a glass jar to experienced aficionados with complex and intricate garden designs. He believes the outdoors are meant to be enjoyed by all … day and night. Gain insight and inspiration on one of the Garden Walks he leads, attend a cabaret night at his nursery with live entertainment, or bring your child to a scheduled Kids’ Day for hands-on learning. Flores makes it impossible not to be filled with inspiration … inspiration to go home and transform any outdoor space, small or large, into a small world of beauty.
Flores has traveled and worked around the world developing a deep appreciation for the diverse landscapes and outdoor beauty in far places. But he calls Laguna Beach home, and a “gem of the world.”
I caught up with him for the Coastal Real Estate Guide.
Q: Where did your love of horticulture and landscape design begin?
A: As a child growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, I always had a small vegetable garden. I particularly remember the huge plum tree in our backyard. I remember thinking, “Wow, there is food on that tree!”
Q: Describe the path that led you to become a landscape architect and the origins of Laguna Nursery.
A: I earned a degree in horticulture and in landscape design from Cal Poly Pomona. I went back for my MBA. Shortly after graduation, I decided to jump right in and start my own business. I started Visionscape 25 years ago a landscape design and build firm. I do design, consulting, installation and maintenance. Since then, I have done work nationally as well in Japan, China, Italy, France and Holland.
Laguna Nursery, I opened on a silly whim four years ago. There was a nursery that had been there and it was closing. In its place there were plans to use the property as a storage unit for a local hotel and I just couldn’t just let that happen. I opened Laguna Nursery on the assumption that if you provide quality service and quality product, it will succeed.
Q: At Laguna Nursery, you do more than just provide quality services and products. Tell us about some of the other things you do.
A: I lead the Laguna Beach Garden Walking Tours most Saturday mornings. It is an exclusive opportunity to view private and public gardens, and explore the exquisite neighborhoods of Laguna Beach. We do garden walks to entertain and help people get outside and experience gardens in the area. It gives people an opportunity to expresses their feelings and what they are seeing, as well as providing inspiration for their own gardens.
Q: Coastal Orange County has more palm trees than orange trees now. While the days of orange groves are over, will orange trees ever make a comeback in people’s yards and gardens?
A: I believe we have an obligation to plant orange trees and citrus trees, given we live here and they do the best. I think every child should grow up with a fruit tree. Fruit trees offer a complete way of life: from shade, sun, flower and fruit. Plant a peach tree and in the early spring it gives you flowers, in the summer it gives you fruit, and in the fall when there are no leaves, complete solar penetration. Apple, nectarine and pear trees are very well suited to our smaller homes, as opposed to homes in the east or Midwest where there is more room for larger trees elms and oaks and redwoods.
Q: Nuts have become all the rage. What about nut trees?
A: Most nut trees require a cooler climate. However, tropical nuts like macadamia trees will do well here near the beach. Coffee trees grow great here as well.
Q: Children and gardening: What are the essential components to make a gardening kit for kids and how can we involve them in the growing process?
A: Get the gardening project as close to them as possible. Start with seeds in a glass jar, and a wet napkin, so little kids can see the process of taking root, see something start to emerge. Get them excited – putting food coloring in the water makes it more exciting and personal.
Once every six months at the nursery we have a kids’ day. One fun thing to do is get a peat pot and fill it with seeds. You can put it in the window sill on the balcony until it is ready to plant in the ground. The peat pot can be planted directly into the ground because it’s biodegradable. Another thing we’ve done is have the kids plant seeds in Chinese takeout boxes because they will also biodegrade. They can choose what to plant – watermelons, cucumbers, whatever their favorite seeds are and after about two weeks put the box into the ground. The metal handle of the container can hold a little sign of what is being planted.
Instead of using plastic pots, starting the seeds in biodegradable containers teaches about recycling, too. Part of teaching children to garden is teaching them how to be responsible.
Q: Drought resistant plants: Have you jumped on the bandwagon?
A: Actually, my thesis directly revolved around drought-tolerant plants for coastal climates. That was in 1983. I feel very fortunate that I spent a great deal of my study in that area because my expertise is in this area and has been for more than 20 years.
Q: Exquisite garden designs: What are some necessary elements and where do you get your inspiration from?
A: I did a job in the south of France and stayed with architects during the process. I was the landscape designer for the garden. We woke up at 6 a.m. and just walked outside and everyone sat at the table, and there was a little fire on. We ate a piece of fruit, toast and coffee together. We opened the day together. I wish we could share this type of thing more here. Eating breakfast outside can be easy and as simple as just having a bench and a table that’s ready in your garden. I have been inspired by a lot of the stuff from Italy, Spain and France that reminds me of that simple outdoor lifestyle. We carry a lot of it in our nursery for people to see and buy.
Q: What accessories can make our gardens magical?
A: There are parts of people’s yards they say they will never use. I say of course you won’t, because you have no reason to go there. Put just a simple stone table or bench; make it a place that is beautiful. We did one house that had a wishing well at the bottom of the yard, in a place they didn’t normally go. We put a refrigerator in the bottom of the wishing well with a little backdoor. We installed a bench and a table and there were always chilled wine glasses, wine and a corkscrew on a little holder. Now, they have a reason to use that part of their yard. If you set up your garden so that there is something else of interest – a special treat, piece of art, etc. it will make it inviting. Ask yourself, what have you done to want to make use of that space?
Q: What’s great to plant now as we move into the fall?
A: Succulents and herbs are a must. Also fall is the best time to plant roses and fruit trees such as peaches nectarines and Asian pears, climbing roses, hedge roses, hybrid tea roses and California natives. The reason you plant in the fall is during the winter they will get a great rain fall so roots are structured and ready to go in the spring. It is better to already be rooted for six months, as opposed to waiting to plant in the spring.
Q: Do you find time to tend to your own personal garden?
A: I love my own garden. My house is a 900-square-foot 1920s bungalow with a terraced lot and unbelievable views of the ocean. It is still a place where I regain my energy. The lowest terrace is a stone terrace with a fireplace and outdoor living room. The next terrace up has acrylic and oil paintings and a sitting area with a large English fountain. The upper terrace, closest to the house, is where my outdoor dining room is. I have a chandelier hanging from the pepper tree so you can enjoy a meal and the ocean view at sunset or in the evenings.
Q: You have been a champion of the South Laguna Beach Community Gardens. What is your involvement there?
A: It is a place where people can buy a plot or rent a plot to per year and add to the organic garden. The garden was built by volunteers in the community and Laguna Nursery donated the materials.
Q: Tell me about the award you received last week.
A: I won the Judges Award and Brilliance Award from the California Landscape Contractors Association. It was for an Amalfi Coast-inspired garden in Laguna Beach. The terraced gardens of this home are elaborate and flower filled. There is a citrus orchard, olive orchard, mint encrusted terrace and a formal hedge garden. There is also an all tiled pool. It is an incredible example of the majesty of a true Italian garden. These awards qualify me for the state award competition. Wish me luck!
1370 South Coast Hwy
Laguna Beach, CA 92651