Reading under a gas lamp on a Santa Barbara winery, Mike Astone had no idea that one book from the shelf would soon redirect the course of his life. When a growing manual for exotic protea flowers piqued his interest, his boss at the winery let him in on a secret: He could harvest them in the Santa Cruz mountains.
Soon thereafter, Astone and his wife, Bettina, bought a 25-acre parcel in the Aptos hills where they nested in an airstream trailer with their two sons. In 1981, Astone planted his first batch of South African protea seeds.
"The property was an old apple orchard that was totally decrepit with hardly anything even on it. So we put in a well and got water going first, of course," Astone said. "My plant thing started out very small. I had this 8 by 10 greenhouse, which was plenty for me."
One greenhouse soon turned into two, however, and that eventually expanded to the several thousand proteas the Astones cultivate today. Astone had worked at nurseries in his younger years but didn't feel it was his calling. At nurseries, you tend to grow the same plants all the time and always sell them as soon as they are pretty, he said, adding that proteas are much more diverse, and the work feels more encompassing and enjoyable.
The flowers are native to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and according to Astone, the Santa Cruz hills have almost the same climate and conditions. Much like their original breeding grounds, Aptos offers open hillsides with good drainage, decent sun exposure and cool, coastal air.
Some of the flowers are quite large, while others have smaller buds, and each variety of protea has a unique shape, color and texture. Many have pointed, flat bracts that have a mix of red, green and gold hues, which Astone said can determine their aesthetic appeal.
Maintenance, Astone assures, is pretty easy. He waters every three to four weeks during the two first summers and then leaves it up to the environment to take care of the rest. Weeding and pruning are part of the job, but they are managed by Astone and his wife alone. Between working in the field and making deliveries, Astone often works from dawn until dusk.
"The plants in general don't take a lot of effort to take care of. If they did I could never keep up," Astone said. "What I pick is what I need to prune, and that keeps the plants in good shape."
The Astones' farm produces more than 200 varieties of protea, which allows their season to run for 10 months of the year. Astone said he has everything from small flowers to big bushes and tall trees, and they all flourish at different times of the year.
"Most protea growers grow 10 or 15, maybe 20 varieties. I grow a couple hundred," Astone said. "A lot of them I only have a couple plants of, but I have so much different variety that my season goes very long."
The extended season allows the Astones to sell to florists and at farmers markets almost year-round. At their peak with two sons helping out they were at five markets each week. These days they stick to a few markets in the outer and southern Bay Area.
Depending on which plants are ready for harvest, each week Astone brings a different collection of cuts to sell, which keeps his product new and interesting. He said he sees many of the same faces, because so many of his customers return again and again.
"I've been to these same three markets so long people kind of are waiting for me," Astone said. "I come back, and sometimes I get inundated right when I get back."
The Astones' booth can be found at the Menlo Park market every Sunday, where the couple brings buckets and buckets of fresh-cut flowers. Bouquets are made on sight so customers can pick and choose what they want to include. The cuts usually last two or three weeks, but many people keep them past the expiration date because they're still so beautiful, Astone said.
"I have people come back and tell me they've had them in a vase for a year," he said. "You know they're dead at that point, but that's how much people like them."
In addition to the bouquets, the Astones bring protea wreaths to the markets for the holiday season. If kept on a covered porch, they can last for a full month because the moist air rehydrates the plants at night. They also sell potted plants for $15 for customers to plant in their own backyards.
Astone said anyone with a sunny spot in the garden that never gets watered can successfully grow proteas. At the very least they need half a day of sun and soil that drains well. Planting the flowers on slopes or in sandy soil is best, which can be compensated for by manually mounding the grow site.
"They're such a killer plant, and there is such a variety to grow," Astone said. "I just think they should be grown more, not less."
What: Menlo Park Farmers Market
When: Sundays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., year-round
Where: in parking lot on Chestnut Street, between Santa Cruz and Menlo Avenues, Menlo Park