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Eisley Nursery celebrates 80 years of growing

By: Gloria Young Home & Garden
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It all started in the 1930s with Lila Eisley’s colorful pansies. This month, as Eisley family members celebrate the nursery’s 80th anniversary, the Nevada Street business occupies 13 acres with 45 greenhouses. Retail manager Earlene Eisley Freeman is part of the third generation to work in the business, A typical day for her means arriving early, then “popping the popcorn, getting the tea and coffee ready and making sure the store is open and ready for business every day. Not only do I order things, I’m at the register. I’m a cashier. … I spend a lot of time talking during the day,” she said. Year-round, the nursery employs 45 to 50 people. That climbs as high as 100 during peak months — mid-March into mid June. Ask a gardening question and you can be sure someone there will know the answer. “A lot of it has been on-the-job training and on-the-job learning,” Freeman said. “There are staff members who have been here 20-plus years.” Among the go-to experts are Patty Thompson, whose specialty is a houseplants and Sheri Jamison in shrubs. Vince DeWitt is the nursery’s tree man. Denise Ferguson knows all about perennials. Bob Bietz handles water plants and roses, Heather Lucas is in charge of pottery and Nancy Newman oversees the gift shop and cashier sales. “Pretty much everyone does displays,” Freeman said. “We all wear a lot of hats here.” Over the decades the nursery has evolved as trends have influenced customers’ gardening needs. Heirlooms — particularly tomatoes — are a current favorite. “Those are a huge hit,” she said. “We grow so many of them.” Workshops, covering a variety of garden topics, have also flourished over the years. This weekend, the subject is canning. It’s something that interested Freeman, so she learned all about it and is now looking forward to passing on that knowledge. “I’m doing a lot of my own canning now that the kids are off to college,” she said. “I’ve got sauerkraut right now, pickle relishes and stewed tomatoes. I do jams. I’m going to get into doing some jellies. I like jam where you have the chunks of fruit. … And my pickled peppers — I do the Eisley waxed peppers.” Eisley waxed peppers date back to 1910, when Freeman’s great-grandfather Adam Ray Eisley purchased the property. It was a chicken ranch back then. “There were these peppers in the chicken barn,” she said. “No one knew what they really were. My grandfather (Henry Eisley) planted them, grew them and we call them the Eisley waxed pepper. We still offer them today and people can grow them.” Henry and Lila’s sons — Earle and Harvey Eisley — got an early start in the business building wooden boxes for the flower purchases. Then, in 1951, the budding nursery got a big boost when the two brothers took down the old chicken houses and replaced them with greenhouses. They went on to start the wholesale side in the late 1950s and early 1960s, according to a press release. Harvey Eisley retired in the late 1970s, leaving the business in the hands of Earle and his two sons — Jim and William. In 1980, Susan and her husband John Flohr joined the nursery and Earlene began working there in 1982. Now the fourth generation is working there, too. In addition to tending the nursery, the family is active in the community. Over the weekend, Freeman was busy with a booth at the Gold Country Fair. There’s also a booth at the spring and fall Auburn home shows and assistance with local community gardens. “We help schools by donating planting materials and getting kids to grow a garden.” Freeman said. The 80th anniversary celebration runs Friday-Sunday, Sept. 21-23, with free hot dogs and chips Friday and Saturday. Sept. 21 activities will include fruit tasting and a fruit pie contest. “You bring your pie in and it needs to be a fruit pie,” Freeman said. “There will be judges and we’re going to give away a fruit tree to the winner of the best pie.” On Sept. 22 there will be a tomato tasting. “It’s a blind taste test,” she said. “Customers go through and sample the tomatoes. They vote for the one they like the most — or the ones, if they can’t pinpoint just one. We tally it up and at the end of the day, we have a winner.” For many years, the Sungold tomato won every time. That one was eliminated from competition four years ago, Freeman said. The contest is very popular. “We get a couple of hundred people,” she said. The day will also include a tomato sale. The Sept. 23 schedule includes a salsa contest. “Folks bring in their own salsa. (They need to) come in ahead of time and get a rules sheet,” she said. Contest participants must prepare two quarts of salsa and put it in Eisley-furnished containers. “Everyone’s containers come in looking alike and we number them,” Freeman said. “They have to be turned in the night before — no exceptions.” Choosing a winner is up to the customers, who taste each one and then vote. There will also be a raffle. “I just want our customers to come in and enjoy a weekend with us,” Freeman said. On?Tuesday, Foresthill resident Dorothy Hindman, a longtime customer, was at the nursery picking out vegetables for her fall garden — cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and lettuce. Hindman said she visits the nursery often because of its selection of plants. “In early spring I come here once or twice a week,” she said. ---------- Eisley nursery 80th anniversary celebration When: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 21-23 Where: Eisley Nursery, 380 Nevada St., Auburn On the Web: www.eisleynursery.com