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Warren's Nursery in Los Osos: The greenhouse that beauty built

Warren Lilly works meticulously in the midst of hundreds of Reiger begonias. Warren’s Nursery in Los Osos is renowned for its superior begonias.
Warren Lilly works meticulously in the midst of hundreds of Reiger begonias. Warren’s Nursery in Los Osos is renowned for its superior begonias. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Indoor plants brighten gray winter days when not much is happening out in the garden. Cheerful flowering plants that thrive indoors shed less than a dog and are welcoming, too.

They are available in our local nurseries and flower shops because Warren Lilly and his family are committed to excellence.

Lilly, owner of Warren’s Nursery of Los Osos, a wholesale grower, has perfected the art and science of consistently producing beautiful ornamentals.

When he came to San Luis Obispo, Lilly planned to study landscape architecture at Cal Poly, but he found that work was limited when it rained. He was encouraged to study ornamental horticulture by the late Howard Brown, then head of the ornamental horticulture department, a man whose passion inspired thousands of young men and women.

Warren’s Nursery of Los Osos is renowned for superior African violets, Reiger and Rex begonias, azaleas, and tropical foliage plants. Retailers from hardware stores to high-end florists throughout Central California clamor for his plants.

Warren was named Los Osos Citizen of the Year in 1983. He was a Boy Scout leader, helped build the Los Osos Community Center, started the Los Osos Kiwanis Club and was — and still is — a member of the Los Osos Chamber of Commerce, said his wife, Connie.

Three generations of Eagle Scouts testify to the importance of family life. Warren, son David and grandson Ryan all hold this honor.

Lilly said the main benefit of having his house next door to the nursery was that he could see the kids off to school and home again and the same with the grandkids. There was no two-hour drive to work and back.

Greenhouse operation expanded over 40 years

Several greenhouses and a Spanish-style home are nestled in the oaks off Los Osos Valley Road. The perfect climate and sweet water of the area helped the industrious Warren and Connie Lilly establish their nursery business 40 years ago.

For the first eight years, Connie said, it was just the two of them.

The expanded operation now includes greenhouses off Clark Valley Road near son David and wife Jessica Lilly’s home. Jessica and manager Warren handle the office, while David, as assistant manager, is his father’s right-hand man.

He is as knowledgeable in plant science and growing practices as his dad. But there’s a lot to learn. Warren Lilly is also an electrician, plumber, chemist, statistician and sometimes collection agent. Business owners wear many hats.

Everyone in the Lilly family pitches in and helps during the year. In fact Warren praised all of his long-term staff for their dedication.

While most farmers only grow a couple of crops a year, Warren’s greenhouses are consistently producing 29 different crops, a complex task. Highly detailed lists of what was planted when as the plants move through their growth cycles are critical to their success.

“It’s a logistical nightmare. Plants that come in are assigned a color code so we can track them. Suppliers are contacted a year in advance,” Lilly said. Lots of notes are taken throughout the process to cull any underperformers and highlight the real stars.

Every two months, 2,500 African violet cuttings and 400 cuttings of mini-violets arrive at Warren’s. They are extremely popular because they thrive once customers take them home. But it’s a yearlong path from cuttings to sellers.

“Our plants aren’t forced. We make sure the violets have lots of buds so people have success with them,” Lilly said. When florists were initially nervous about carrying them, he offered free plants so they could see how easy they were to grow. Soon the plants sold themselves.

The variety of plants currently growing in the nursery range in color from magenta-leafed begonias to brightly tipped violets. Row upon row of peace lilies push their white flowers toward the sky.

Barkev Abadjian, owner of Albert’s Florist in San Luis Obispo, was quick to praise Lilly. “He does one of the best jobs in the 33 years I’ve been in business. He’s a great guy. He has an immaculate business and is very conscientious. What he does is perfection. If you go to his operation, it’s like a doctor’s office — very, very clean. I really appreciate his business. I’m proud to have somebody like him operating a nursery in this area.”