Planting a Legacy

For 80 years, Whitfill Nursery has been the Valley go-to for everything from petunias to palms.

By Nora Burba Trulsson

For decades, Whitfill Nursery has occupied a five-acre plot on Glendale Avenue in north Phoenix. Shaded by huge ficus trees and palms, and given character by resident macaws and peacocks, the nursery is a cool oasis in the midst of a street filled with strip malls and shopping plazas. But it’s wrong to pass it off as a neighborhood, mom-and-pop spot to pick up annuals for flower pots or the occasional tree to fill a gap in a back yard.

Indeed, the nursery is a mom-and-pop operation—family-run—but that aspect is the tip of the iceberg of a flourishing business that includes retail locations in Gilbert and south Phoenix, a 300-acre tree farm in Stanfield, 600 acres of citrus in east Mesa and Hyder, several hundred acres devoted to growing palms in Yuma County and a partnership in a research farm with the University of Arizona in Maricopa.

“We are the largest grower of palms in the state,” says owner Brian Blake, who runs the business with his wife, Janice Blake, three of their five children and a staff of more than 250. “Right now, we also have the only citrus packing shed in Maricopa County.”

Design professionals—with names like Steve Martino, Jeff Berghoff and Donna Winters having specified plant materials sourced from Whitfill—have long been clients of the nursery’s. But Whitfill’s roots are modest and based on one family’s hard work.

“My grandparents, Les and Floris Whitfill, came to Arizona in 1929, driving a Model T,” explains Brian Blake. “They had been farmers in Texas, who made ends meet by selling pies and making whiskey in a still.” After arriving in Arizona, the entrepreneurial pair opened up a pie shop near the intersection of Van Buren Street and Grand Avenue in downtown Phoenix, then Les Whitfill accepted a position as chef for the Arizona Club, an exclusive business club once housed in the upper floors of the Luhrs building, also downtown.

Agriculture, though, was in the couple’s blood, and in 1945, they purchased the five-acre property on Glendale Avenue, which was then a citrus grove, providing many varieties of fruit to locals and growing trees for customers’ own gardens. Les—perhaps the  OG of the Arizona farm-to-table movement—used his own citrus in his cooking, and split his time between his chef job and the orchard. Soon after buying the land, the Whitfills built their own adobe home on the site, shaping the mud blocks in the back yard and including details like a coved ceiling for the dining room and a sleeping porch in back. Today, the mint-green home is used by the nursery to display seasonal decor and home accessories.

Blake started out in the business as a child of 5, selling citrus to passersby from the fruit stand on the side of the road. By the age of 12, he was in charge of watering and negotiated with his grandmother to take out a row of citrus to introduce plants and nursery products to the mix. At 14, with the help of his parents and grandparents, Blake essentially ran the business, transitioning it from citrus grove to retail nursery by the 1970s.

“Today, we really don’t have any of the original citrus trees left on the property, except for some sour orange hedges,” says Blake, who is a familiar voice on KTAR and KFYI radio stations, with his shows that proffer tips on landscaping. What is available on the original nursery property is variety—herbs, vegetables, shrubs, flowers, citrus for planting, desert trees and palms. Garden accessories, hardware, fertilizers and decorative pots round out the offerings. Landscape contracting and design services are also available. During the holidays, poinsettias and Christmas trees (grown in Washington, Oregon and Northern California) are major sellers, including Sources for Design editor and publisher Larry Lake’s 17-foot-tall tree that annually graces a corner  of his abode.

But beyond Whitfill’s retail scope is the firm’s work with design professionals and developers. “Besides Arizona, we’ve provided product to big projects in California, Nevada, Texas and Florida,” says Blake, pointing out that trees and plant materials at places like LAX, JW Marriott Desert Ridge in Phoenix, Tulane University in New Orleans and Hard Rock in Florida originated from Whitfill. “We’ve done work for Charles Keating when he had The Phoenician resort and for Howard Hughes, when he was doing development.”

At the farms, Whitfill grows more trees and plants, offering some 20 varieties of  palms, numerous types of citrus and even obtaining a patent for its American mesquite, a hardy, stable cross between the native mesquites of Arizona, Texas and Argentina. And, says Blake, they’re always on top of landscape trends. “Plants always cycle in and out,” he notes. “When parts of Paradise Valley were being developed in 1972, we planted cactus and agaves in the front yards back then. Desert landscaping has always been around.”

For now, Blake, his family and his team continue on an eight-decade trajectory. “We have everything from a geranium to a 35-foot-tall palm,” he says. “We’re happy to sell plants to anyone who needs them.”