A few others grow herbs and spices in Southern California, but none grow as many as Cindy and Mark Pearson, whose Pearson’s Gardens & Herb Farm features close to 700 varieties.
“They have the largest, and most diverse, selection of herbs in San Diego County,” said Nina Fox, president of the San Diego County Herb Society. “Cindy Pearson is extremely knowledgeable about the herbs botanically, medicinally, culinary and ornamentally. The nursery is very efficiently run.”
Mark Pearson formerly was a commercial fisherman in Newport Bay with a green thumb who loved to garden. He wanted to continue with an outdoor occupation as fishing dried up along the Orange County coast. Cindy Pearson had experience with spices and a family involved in the Santa Barbara sed business.
The Pearsons began operations in Leucadia in 1984. They moved to two acres in Vista in 1989 where they established a thriving wholesale herb business catering to customers from Santa Barbara to Mexico. The temperate Vista climate cuts growing costs by allowing most of the production to take place outdoors, year-round.
A few years ago, the Pearsons also began selling to the general public. That portion of their sales now accounts for 15 percent of overall business. They employ three people.
“We try to cover all the major interest areas, which would be cooking, medicinal, landscaping herbs as well as for wreath making, aroma therapy and even edible flowers,” Cindy Pearson said. “No other herb grower in Southern California offers the selection we do.”
Herb growing is very labor intensive, requiring top management and organizational skills. Every crop is a specialty crop requiring specialized growing techniques.
“I take a lot of joy in this work,” Mark Pearson said. “”There is always a learning curve. You could have a doctorate in horticulture and still not be able to do this.”
Cindy Pearson added: “We choose the herbs partly from public request and partly from our research, and reading on the Internet. A lot of it is done by trial and error. If we get information about it, it can grow on the area, and people want it, we’ll give it a try.”
Seed germination takes from five days to two months, depending on the variety. A typical herb can take anywhere from six weeks to six months to grow to four inches, suitable for sale.
“Every day is different and diverse which is nice,” Cindy said. “You never get bored, There is always something to do, This is very hands-on.”
Wholesale herbs and spices go to well-known local retail garden centers such as Sunshine Gardens in Encinitas, Walter Anderson Nursery in Poway, and Anderson’s La Costa Nursery.
The Pearsons also supply landscaping herbs to the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park as well as Disneyland, where Tomorrowland features many of the Pearsons’ edible herbs including oreganos and other herbs for ground cover.
San Diego Specialty Produce buys herbs and spices wholesale from the Parsons before re-selling to some of the top gourmet chefs in Southern California.
When buying directly at the Pearsons’ Vista farm – which is about 40 miles north of downtown San Diego – customers pay retail prices $1.95 to $2.95 for a small potted herb and up to $19.50 for the largest varieties. The greatest selection of herbs occurs in late spring.
The Pearsons wouldn’t disclose exactly how much they sell although Mark Pearson once said it was closer to $500,000 than $1 million annually. The only other large-scale herb grower in San Diego County, Herban Gardens in Fallbrook, with perhaps half the varieties, said it did $400,000 in sales five years ago.
In the end, herbs and spices may be just as much about the people and gardening as it is about straight-out dollars and cents.
“It’s a really nice group of unusual people in this business,” Mark Pearson said. “People in it are in it because they love it.”
Pearson’s Gardens & Herb Farm is located at 1150 Beverly Drive in Vista. It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily, and may be reached by phone at call (760)726-0717, or visit pearsonsgardens.com.