It started in 1979, when someone suggested to Ruth Scovell of Atascadero that she take her walnuts to the Saturday vegetable market in front of the Williams Bros. grocery store on Broad Street in San Luis Obispo.
A group of a dozen local farmers sold their produce in the parking lot on the east side of the street south of Orcutt Road. Among them were the Righettis offering avocados, the Middlecamps (Tribune photographer David Middlecamp’s grandparents) selling oranges, and young Peter Janke, now the director of the Thursday market, vending his vegetables.
Besides walnuts, Scovell had always grown flowers on her property, and the first March after joining the group she suggested she try selling some of her daffodils. It was a great success, and when the outdoor market moved the next year to Higuera Street on Thursday night, Scovell’s flower stand, the first of its kind, became a popular and permanent fixture.
Thirty-three years later, Scovell is still at the market every Thursday evening with her fresh flowers, walnuts, seasonal seeds and bulbs.
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“I want my bouquets to be as fresh as if for my own table, so I pick at 5 a.m. and make the bouquets in my cool basement during the day,” she explains.
Each week she creates about 20 airy mixed bouquets and 60 bunches of two-tone sweet peas. “People at Farmers Market go crazy over them,” she says. Through the years, she has only missed one week due to hip surgery.
At 82, Scovell still plants, maintains and hand-waters her two-acre property.
“I have always been a farmer, a tomboy and my dad’s girl,” she says.
Her father owned a cattle ranch in Adelaide, where Scovell and her sisters milked 14 cows each morning before they walked to the small one-room Lincoln School. With her five siblings, she completed eight years of her education with one teacher in the schoolhouse, to which she returns for reunions every year. Lincoln School is the only one-room schoolhouse in the county still functioning, now used for monthly Farm Bureau meetings and elections.
Besides ranching, Scovell’s father, John Dyke, was an orchardist, grafting walnut and almond trees for growers in the area. Scovell worked at her father’s side, drove tractors on the ranch and developed a love of flower growing from her mother, grandmother and aunt.
Many of the flowers and bulbs on her property today were originally from her relatives, creating what she calls a “memory garden.” She tends her flowers with loving care, saying, “I never have to think of what to do, as it’s all just waiting for me every day.”
Ruth and husband Ralph Scovell purchased their Atascadero property in 1958. There was a small house sitting among weeds and poison oak on the neglected two-acre parcel. Ruth started planting flowers immediately with bulbs and cuttings she had brought with her. Their three children gathered black walnuts from her father’s orchard, Ralph planted them, and two years later, Ruth and her father grafted English walnuts to the disease-resistant black walnut base.
In 1962, Ralph, a stonemason, completed the family home that he built himself after work in the evenings. Unfortunately, Ralph passed away prematurely in 1980, after which Ruth’s passion for farming and flowers also became her livelihood.
Scovell’s children, nine grandchildren and 18 “great grans,” most of whom live locally, love to visit, usually finding Ruth “somewhere outside” among her flowers. When she gathers the sweet pea vines after the flowers are done, she piles them up on a tarp in the driveway and gets the “great grans” to jump on them, releasing the seeds which she threshes and then bags up to sell at Thursday market.
“I am constantly adding and replacing plants, especially when I’ve lost something to a gopher, I replace it with something the gopher doesn’t like,” she says. A deer-proof 9-foot fence surrounds one acre, where roses, raised bed vegetable plots and flowers stay protected.
Anything that tolerates the deer gets planted on her son, Chuck Scovell’s, four-acre walnut orchard next door. After Chuck tills the land with his tractor, Ruth plants a quarter acre of corn along with sunflowers, safflower, potatoes, zinnias, marigolds, barley and wheat. “I want the great grans to have healthy food, so I plant for the whole family,” Ruth says.
Over the years, she has developed a steady and faithful clientele, including many Cal Poly students. She reports that many of those students return years later with their growing families, and find Ruth, saying, “Are you still here? I can’t believe it!” She especially enjoys meeting the international visitors, whom she describes as, “The loveliest tourists you could ever imagine.” Since her flowers usually sell out before 8 p.m., she spends the last hour of the market shopping and visiting her longtime friends at other stalls.
Scovell likes people and enjoys their enthusiasm. She wants to keep sharing her flowers as long as she can, saying, “I love what I’m doing, and I want everyone to be able to go home with a bouquet in their hands and a smile on their face.”