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Ruben Flores: Bringing new life to Laguna Nursery

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

To say that Ruben Flores, owner of Visionscape, Inc. and the reinvigorated Laguna Nursery, has a green thumb is stating the obvious.  With a BS and an MBA from Cal Poly Pomona in Ornamental Horticulture and Landscaping Design and Business, respectively, and a last name that literally translates to “flowers” it would be surprising if he didn’t. What is a surprise is the extensive reach of his “green thumb,” going well beyond just plants and flowers to basically anything he sets his sights on.  

If something needs new life, Ruben Flores is the man who can reinvigorate it.

An historic nursery needs saving

Take his Laguna Nursery, for example.  Flores purchased it seven years ago on a “whim”.  Having been a nursery for the past 52 years, Flores felt compelled to save it from its fate of becoming a storage space for a local hotel.  

“The nursery had been through several owners and gone down, down, down as far as it was serving the community,” he explains. Flores decided to fix that, in addition to running Visionscape, Inc., his landscaping design firm now in it’s 26th year.

“That,” however, was no easy task.  Lots of factors are working against the nursery business these days, according to Flores. “There are lots of reasons not to garden,” he says, listing things ranging from people’s aversion to too much sun exposure to the increased interest in drought resistant plants.  “It used to be everyone bought tomatoes and rose bushes.  Now it’s drought resistant plants and succulents.”  Flores is a fan of drought resistant plants and succulents, but since one of their selling points is their heartiness and longevity, they’re not replaced as often as rose bushes and tomatoes. This means less need for people to venture to the nursery.  So Flores had to create reasons for people to come.

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Social media, concerts and, of course, plants

“I brought socialization into the nursery,” says Flores.  “Everybody realizes the value of social media.  I’ve taken that on at the Nursery.  We expanded horizontally.  So we have plants, statues, fountains, but we also have a baby grand piano and do cabaret nights and concerts. 

“This brings in people who might have no idea of planting a petunia on a Saturday afternoon.  They have a glass of wine, listen to music and they see the space with a different brain.”  

Walking through the nursery there is a lot to see besides plants.  Art, from sculptures to paintings, from 32 countries are represented at the Nursery.  With jobs that take him all over the world, as well as the US, Flores has ample opportunity to collect beautiful and interesting objects.  “I want there to be the interest for the exterior that we have in the interior,” he explains.

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An interest leads to a fast start for his business

His interest in the “exterior” got off to a dynamic start.  Fresh out of school and lecturing on coastal plants he was hired to do the landscaping of Laguna’s “Villa Eden”.  As he worked on that job, he got another one down the street.  He tells me his first two jobs were for $25 million dollar properties, laughing, “I have an interest in coastal plants.  The most expensive homes tend to be on these coastal sights.  That was not my intention.”  But it turned out to be a very happy accident. 

“The second house was owned by Severin Wunderman.  “He changed my life,” says Flores.  “He had seven houses and I did all of them.”  Wunderman, who died in 2008, was a well-known art collector and philanthropist who made his fortune in the watch industry.

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Smart business leads to civic involvement

In his landscaping business Flores says he did “the isolation thing.  I’m my own man doing my own thing.” The purchase of the nursery, however, changed that.  “I realized the store can’t exist without support from the community.  I started to reach out, make alliances.” Now firmly entrenched in Laguna Beach civic life Flores’ reach extends to a surprising number of organizations.  

He’s involved with Laguna’s HIP District; he’s on the board of the South Laguna Community Garden and the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, is president of the Laguna Beach Beautification Committee and the Laguna Beach Sister Cities Association.  With such an array of groups, his involvement may have originally been motivated by business considerations, but it has obviously evolved beyond that.  Listening to him speak about the people and projects he’s involved with it’s quite obvious his interest is personal.  

Take the Laguna Beach Beautification Committee, for example. The Committee, which, as Flores explains, had “been around for 65 years” and had done “some very important things for the city,” like preventing high-rises on the beach and getting a public park out of the development of the Montage. As was true with Laguna Nursery before he stepped in, however, it had lost some of its zest, or as Flores puts it, the organization, “Kind of went away.”  With his help, it has since been “brought back to life.”  

The Sister Cities Association is another organization that has caught Flores’ attention and is flourishing as a result. “We are creating three 15’ x 15’ plots at Heisler Park, with room to add two more, for gardens that represent our sister cities: Menton, France; St. Ives, England and San Jose del Cabo, Mexico,” he says.  When Flores gets involved, expect things to grow and get done - two good traits for someone whose life revolves around plants.

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A gift for revitalization

Flores has gotten to the point in his career where he can be selective regarding the jobs he wants to work on.  “I will do your place if it’s photographable, even if it’s just 200 square feet, but it has to have something.  We’ve done most of the notable houses in town so when you’re working on that caliber you want to do things that challenge you,” he explains.  

When asked about trends, Flores’ passion for what he does is palpable. “I’d say succulents and grasses.  We’re foregoing flowers for textures.  There is so much emotion in texture.  People forget about movement.  Even on a hot day we usually get a slight breeze; seeing the beauty in the movement may be enough to draw you out to take a walk through your garden.”  

Talking to Ruben makes you want to be outside.  The Laguna Nursery was created to entice you to do just that.

More than just a place to buy plants, Laguna Nursery represents possibilities - of what you can do to transform your home and what a business owner can do when they are committed to reinvigorating something in need. Revitalization is something Ruben Flores knows a lot about.  Whether it’s plants, an exterior space or a community group, he can’t seem to help but give things new life.