Nora Rose Mueller

Where To Find Rare Plants for Drought Gardens

As anyone with an Instagram, Pinterest, or pretty much any other form of social media knows, succulents and cacti have been and are continuing to have A Moment. Their popularity makes sense: they’re easy to grow and come in a wide range of shapes and colors, making them a simple, affordable way to infuse spaces with dynamic greenery. Moon cactus and echevaria are among the most common varieties you’re likely to encounter at your local nursery, but for those looking for a more discerning edge, The Dry Garden is the Bay Area destination for rare and unusual cacti and succulents.

Nora Rose Mueller

Located at the edge of Oakland, California, near the border with Berkeley, The Dry Garden has a classic East Bay vibe: ever so slightly rough around the edges, but with an eclectic, nonconformist charm. Bowling balls are tucked into beds, tiny figurines poke out from behind plants, a giant statue of Buddha above a fountain grounds the back half of the space. Dotting the lot is a variety of art, courtesy of owner Richard Ward’s personal friends Mark Bulwinkle and ceramicist Marsha Donahue, the latter of whom lives around the corner. That commune-esque community seems to perfectly encapsulate the kind of effortless, first-gen bohemian cool that The Dry Garden exudes.

Much of that authenticity stems from Ward’s long-standing and deep rooted passion for plants. “I was working as a waiter in the 80s in Nashville, Tennessee, and then a friend of mine and I got together and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to move to California and start a nursery!’,” Ward tells GC of The Dry Garden’s origins. The two spent five years saving up $10,000 each before moving out to the West Coast, but it was another few years of balancing wait staff jobs before The Dry Garden became a self-sustaining, viable business.

Beyond Ward’s profound knowledge of succulents and cacti, The Dry Garden’s continued success has been as a result of its strategic market and location. “I had done some reading while I was in California and had found out that there was a fifty year drought in the 1600s and to me, that was the lightbulb moment,” Ward explains. “[My friend and I] decided to do drought tolerant plants. We opened in June of ’87 and I think the next year or the year after, there started a five year drought.”

Today, Ward runs The Dry Garden with the help of a former Tibetan monk, Wang Chen Nyima. “He’s probably the smartest person I’ve ever met– he remembers everything. Absolutely everything,” Ward marvels, adding that Nyima also knows seven languages despite never having gone to school. “He started working for me when he was about 20 years old– his first job ever, and he’s been with me ever since. I couldn’t run the nursery without him.”

In addition to The Dry Garden, Ward travels the world on various botanical adventures. Along with two friends, Ward runs the Bay Area Horticultural Society, nicknamed ‘The Hortisexuals’. “That gets our foot in the door with the horticultural magazines and newspapers and radios and television– they love the tittering name of ‘The Hortisexuals,'” Ward adds, amused. More than just a tantalizing name, the Hortisexuals organizes yearly trips to extravagant gardens around the world (this year’s is to France; previous years have included outings to Bali, Singapore, Borneo, Morroco, and Mexico). “We don’t charge for our time,” Ward explains, saying that the cost of the trips is solely air fare and lodgings– once more reinforcing Ward’s work as being truly born of and propelled by his own passion for the plants.

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