Nursery Owner’s 60-Year Career Still in Full Bloom

July 2, 2009
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The gorgeous, super fragrant Pink Promise from Coiner Nursery

The gorgeous, super fragrant Pink Promise from Coiner Nursery

At 80 years young, everything is coming up roses for owner Jim Coiner. He along with his son James, operations manager, and John Mellon, general manager, run Coiner Nursery, which boasts operations in Wasco, Calif. (San Joaquin Valley), El Monte and La Verne.

This is no budding operation. In particular, Jim has spent more than 60 years in the nursery industry, 50 years directly associated with the rose industry. Coiner Nursery plants 1.25 million rose cuttings annually, not to mention he grows shrubs, shade trees and fruit trees planted on more than 300 acres. He has patented 14 different roses.

Among them is the Pink Promise he hybridized (created), a highly fragrant hybrid tea rose that has large, pink blossoms set against, lush, dark green foliage. The All American Rose Society (AARS) thought so much of the Pink Promise that the AARS selected it as its 2009 winner from thousands of submissions from all over the world. For form, color, fragrance and disease resistance, there is no better rose. The Pink Promise is also the official rose of the National Breast Cancer Foundation. A portion of Pink Promise’s royalty goes directly to the support of research and the early detection of breast cancer.

At the end of this year, Jim will turn his eye and nose to judging the Pasadena Tournament of Roses parade floats, one of only three people a year to receive that highly prestigious honor.

Before the Bloom

Jim’s life, however, wasn’t always so rosy.

Jim’s family came west from Kansas in 1937. The Dust Bowl drove his mother Lenna and father Alan, bankrupted wheat farmers, to California along with his seven siblings, all eight children from 16 months old to 16 years-old, packed in a four-door Chevrolet sedan. Jim was 9-years-old, squeezed right in the middle.

Do you remember anything from that trip?

“Yeah, we were glad to get out of the car once in a while,” Jim quipped. “We stopped in Blythe.” From dust bowl to hell hole. “The crickets were so horrible,” he said.

It was a tough time. His father Alan had been robbed of his livelihood by the unpredictable ravages of nature, but he blamed his family’s misfortunes on himself. “It’s pretty sad when you see a person just get hammered,” Jim said.

During World War II, Jim’s family lived in a rented house on property that a Japanese family had also leased to grow fruit trees. After the internment of the Japanese, Jim asked the property’s Long Beach owner if he would give him a job. He did.

“I thought I’d get a dollar day,” Jim said, sitting behind his desk in his “B” Street trailer in La Verne. “At the end of the week, he said to me, ‘Hey, kid, look what I’ve got for you – a brand new dollar.’

Jim Coiner at the B Street Nursery in La Verne

Jim Coiner at the B Street Nursery in La Verne

“So I got a dollar for working a week, but it taught me a lesson. Always ask what you’re going to get paid.”

At El Monte High School, Jim was student body president and a wrestling teammate of jockey Billy Shoemaker (as listed in the yearbook), who went on to become one of horse racing’s all-time greats under the moniker, “Willie Shoemaker” or “The Shoe.” Then in 1944, at age 16, Jim started driving Caterpillar tractors for his uncle. When Henry Conklin, a San Fernando Valley rose grower, began growing roses in the San Gabriel Valley in Bassett along Puente Avenue, Jim’s uncle asked him to help Conklin prepare the ground for his first seedlings.

“Mr. Conklin and I became extremely close friends,” said Jim, adding that he just visited Conklin in McFarland, Calif. for the nurseryman’s 94th birthday celebration.

In his early 20s, Jim had gone to work in the La Puente stockyards where his father also worked. At 23, he suffered an industrial accident, costing him his right leg.

“Here I wasn’t going to be able do the things I was doing to make a living before, so I went to Sawyer’s Business College to become a bookkeeper,” Jim recalled. “I needed something that I could sell – my work.” 

At the time of the accident, Jim, who married in 1948 at age 20, had a daughter and his wife was pregnant with his first son.

“Then Mr. Conklin finds about it, and told my uncle that I should go see him, so I did and went to work for him, taking care of his books.”

Losing a leg was life-altering, but Jim said the loss didn’t necessarily make him more strong-minded. “It made me a little more determined,” Jim said, “but I was pretty well determined before that.”

Jim stayed with Conklin for five years before going to work for a large retail landscape contracting company in Ontario. Conklin wooed Jim back again under his new company, Great Western Rose, where Jim was a salesman and a manager traveling the state of California. Jim might have remained with Conklin forever had it not been for Conklin’s partner, Consolidated Nursery, who felt that Jim was too young to be president of Great Western Rose when the position became available. Passed over for someone from Connecticut, Jim worked under the new president for more than two years.

From No Power to Full Flower

“We had a definite personality conflict, so he fired me,” Jim said, recalling how the Connecticut Yankee uprooted him from the only real business he had ever known. Jim was out of work with a handicap, and a wife and three children to support.

“So I started a company,” Jim said.

It was 1961, and with $1,000 to his name, he opened Coiner Nursery. Jim started buying roses from Conklin, and plants from other people, brokering whatever he could to turn a profit. Fortunately, the Southland was a hotbed of growth. New homes were springing up, along with small gardens thirsty for his rose products. He started supplying private nurseries, builders and small and large retailers, like Akron, Kmart, Market Basket, Green Arrow and Green Thumb. “Anybody who had the money to pay,” Jim said.

Jim also sold shrubs and fruit trees to his growing list of customers. “But mostly roses,” Jim said. “I knew a little bit about them.”

In the late 80s, Jim joined the All America Rose Society, sending new roses to 32 test gardens that “run the length and breadth of the United States” to be studied and judged for the most desirable characteristics in their respective classes, such as the best of the floribunda, hybrid tea and other varieties. Jim branched off and started hybridizing (crossing) different roses (“pulling from one flower and putting on another”).

It wasn’t until this decade that Jim got serious about entering his roses in official competitions.  Jim’s first entry came in 2003. In 2005, Jim submitted what would become the Pink Promise. It won in 2007 and fully hit the market only this year. The Pink Promise is a large, upright grower with long stems and strong green foliage with high-centered fragrant five-inch flowers containing from 25 to 30 petals each.

“It was more good luck than good management,” Jim said, playing down his amazing accomplishment.

Whether caring for a Pink Promise or some other variety, Jim said roses let you know what they need.

Growing Tips

“Initially location is important,” Jim said. “They like full sun and they like deep watering.  They’ll take partial shade, but then mildew is more of a problem if they’re in shade. They just like to be taken care of. The more you cut a rose, the more flowers you’re going to get.

“Most people when they go out to pick a rose, they cut a very short stem. The Pink Promise, in particular, needs to be cut real deep, because it just branches out more.”

Depending on care you give roses, they can last 30 years, Jim said.

Jim cares for his workers the way he cares for his roses. The next day, he was headed with his son James and general manager John Mellon to Wasco in the San Joaquin Valley for a budding party — the celebration of the grafting of the roses.

“We have a little party,” Jim said. “Everybody who works for the nursery will be invited. There will probably be 50 people or so.”

The celebrations help even out the tougher times.

“It’s a frustrating, fascinating, rewarding business,” Jim said without hesitation. Water and politics help contribute to the frustration. His roses and the 200,000 fruit trees he grows require lots of water.

“Every piece of ground we plant in the San Joaquin Valley has to have canal water,” Jim said. “We won’t plant unless we have a well, because they turn off that water the first of November or the first of December depending on the year, and don’t turn it back on again until sometimes the first part of February.”

On a bulletin board, Jim keeps a list of rainfall records over the last 100 years. “The last time we really had a lot of rain, 31 inches, was ’97-’98. The normal is 14 inches for Southern California. In Wasco, the average is 7-inches, or half of what the Southland gets. The heaviest rainfall recorded was 1883-84, and it was 38 inches.”

At the same time, Jim has had to guard his “growing” assets against extreme cold. “Four years ago, we had a bad, untimely freeze here, and we had 3,000 15-gallon avocado trees that took a tremendous shellacking,” he said. Insurance is prohibitive, requiring almost 50 cents on the dollar to insure against losses. So if a big freeze decimates his plants, it’s Jim loss. “We can’t share it with anyone else,” Jim said, speaking from experience.

Today, Jim’s customers include Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Costco and other retail giants, but he, James and John are always cultivating new customers. Many independents have gone out of business, taking some of the romance and charm out of the business.

“New young people don’t want to start a nursery and the older people they just say, ‘I want to quit,’” Jim said.

The Rosier Side

On the rosier side, Jim counts his blessings more than his setbacks. “I’ve had a very interesting life. I really have. I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve been able to do a lot of things.”

Jim has traveled all over the world, often with nursery groups, from Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, to Tiger Baum Gardens in Singapore.

“I definitely enjoy the business,” he reflected. “I really do. Somebody has to help this stuff grow. I think there is a supreme hand somewhere that does this. It’s just amazing to watch stuff grow.”

The plants might not talk back, but “they’ll give you a message if you don’t take care of them.”

Jim is also trying to take care of himself. He said he lost the man who made his artificial right legs in the past. He was masterful at getting the socket and alignment to fit perfectly. Jim’s going to pick up a new leg this Friday that will get him back on track.

“People who know me, and knew me, never knew I was an amputee, even though my leg is off above my knee,” Jim said. “I’ve always gotten along pretty well.

“Just one day at a time.”

The same as his beautiful, award-winning roses. They do best when cared for one day at a time.

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