Santa Barbara Natives is an apt name for the nursery that grows locally propagated native plants for Santa Barbara County restoration and mitigation projects, landscape architects, designers, contractors and the general public.
The co-owners, John Warner and Jeff Nighman, are Santa Barbara natives who were born here 56 years ago, went to All Saints by-the-Sea Parish School, were in the same grade at Montecito Union School and played together at the Montecito YMCA.
“Both of us were paperboy carriers in Montecito for the Santa Barbara News-Press back in the mid-70s, riding bicycles with the big, double, over-the-shoulders bag for a couple of years,” said Mr. Nighman. “I had the route below the freeway around the Miramar and South Jameson neighborhood. I lived on Humphrey Road, and John lived above the freeway east of San Ysidro Road. I clearly remember folding up and putting rubber bands on 100-plus papers with the BIG, BOLD headline, NIXON RESIGNS!”
The two friends went their separate ways in junior high school, high school, college and careers before reconnecting in 2004 to run Santa Barbara Natives on a private ranch in Gaviota between El Capitan and Refugio State Beaches.
There they grow 150,000 plants that include shrub species like old man sage, coyote bush, mulefat, coast sunflower and Santa Cruz Island buckwheat along with herbaceous plants like narrow leafed milk weed, mugwort, California morning glory, soap root and California strawberry and trees like white alder, mountain mahogany, island ironwood, hollyleaf cherry and Mexican elderberry.
“We collect our own plant material, mostly seeds, so we can keep track of exactly where they came from, which is mainly the coastal side of the range between Ventura and Point Conception,” said Mr. Nighman. “We know where every seed is from so there is no cross pollination and no exotic weeds or pests.”
“We want to have a positive impact on beaches and creeks. Once the plants are established they don’t require water or pesticides,” said Mr. Warner. “The wildlife in the area love them. They eat the berries or the plants or the seeds and the predators eat the animals. Everything is interconnected.”
UCSB is their biggest client, and others are the Santa Barbara City Creeks Division, Santa Barbara County Flood Control, Calttans and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.
“We just delivered a big truckload of the most popular plants for the garden’s native plant sale, which is on right now. We also sell to private homeowners by appointment for a minimum purchase of $100, which is about 15 to 20 1-gallon plants. Our specialty is growing plants for landscape designers,” said Mr. Nighman, who left Santa Barbara High School early to attend Santa Barbara City College and earn an associate degree in political science followed by a bachelor’s degree in conservation and resource studies at UC Berkeley and a master’s degree in sustainable economics from Sonoma State University.
“I spent most of the ’90s traveling and living abroad — in Australia as a cowboy and agricultural worker and in Japan teaching English for Britannica International Japan. I was in Kobe during the major earthquake in 1995. A lot of buildings were destroyed, and many people were killed. I was in the middle of it,” said Mr. Nighman, who is married to Gwendolyn Kilfoyle and the father of son Kelsey, 10, and daughter, Anika, 8.
After more travel in Nepal and Thailand, he returned to Santa Barbara to earn three horticultural degrees at SBCC — in regenerative and restoration horticulture, horticultural supervision and maintenance and landscape contracting. He has also served as treasurer and president of the Horticultural Consortium of Santa Barbara and chair of the renewal committee at La Casa De Maria Retreat and Conference Center in Montecito helping to guide their landscaping and sustainability policies and projects.
“When I got the offer to buy into Santa Barbara Natives, I thought about it for 30 seconds. I’ve always been nature oriented. I had a garden. I wanted to be outside but never thought I could make a decent living. Now, I find that money does grow on trees, literally, at the nursery,” he said with a chuckle.
Mr. Warner, who is the son of the late Jack Warner, a prominent architect in Santa Barbara, and Gwen Warner Smith, attended Laguna Blanca School and graduated from Cate School in 1981 after which he earned his degree in the Hotel and Restaurant Management Program at Santa Barbara City College and his business administration degree at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1991.
“For nine years, I worked for Mission Linen and Uniform Service in Morro Bay before coming back to Santa Barbara looking for something to be passionate about,” said Mr. Warner. “I worked for the Botanic Garden as a landscape technician maintaining the California native plant displays and educating visitors about California native plants, and I became a certified Green Gardener.”
He graduated from SBCC’s Environmental Horticulture Program with an associate’s degree in landscape maintenance, propagation and landscape contracting. He and his wife, Jennifer Dunn, are managers at the Arroyo Hondo Preserve, which is near the Santa Barbara Natives nursery.
“We feel very fortunate to be stewards of such a natural and cultural treasure as the Arroyo Hondo Preserve and love working with such a dedicated community of environmental and agricultural supporters,” said Mr. Warner, who founded Santa Barbara Natives in 2003.
For more information about Santa Barbara Natives nursery, visit www.sbnatives.com.