Edible Monterey Bay

EDIBLE NOTABLES

Full Circle

Salinas Valley wreath makers aim to bring their business home

By Deborah Luhrman 

Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 4.11.13 PMLarry and Carol Umbarger raised their four children on a 160-acre ranch near the southern Monterey County town of King City. They grazed cattle, pastured seven horses and grew vegetables, but Larry always had a day job to make ends meet. When it came time to send the kids off to college, Carol started looking for a way to make extra money.

She spotted bouquets of red California pepper berries tied with raffia at a Santa Barbara antiques shop selling for $12 a bunch and thought about all the pepper trees growing on her ranch back home. Soon she was harvesting those pepper berries and driving all over in an orange and white Volkswagen van with a tall ladder looking for more. “I just went up to neighbors’ houses and complete strangers’ and knocked on the doors asking for the berries,” she recalls. Though her kids cringed about the VW van crammed with the red pepper berries, the business took off and they named it Creekside Farms.

Carol sold the ornamental berries to a woman in Marin County who worked with Smith & Hawken, a label that now belongs to Target but at the time was the nation’s first high-end garden lifestyle brand. They asked for more dried flowers and she started with the easiest ones to grow—hot pink and violet Sinuata statice. Two years later they began making their own dried flower wreaths for Smith & Hawken on top of the pool table in their rec room. Larry quit his day job and after decades of hard work, they now count among their clients most of the country’s top home decorating companies, including: Neiman Marcus, Gump’s, Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, Frontgate, Harry & David, Orvis, Jackson & Perkins, Sur La Table, Restoration Hardware, ProFlowers, VivaTerra, NapaStyle and Norm Thompson.

Creekside designers create dozens of lovely wreath styles, some with cooking herbs, others with dried flowers and others with ribbons, bows and greenery for the holidays—in addition to swags, lavender sachets and centerpieces.

As the company grew, the Umbargers moved it from their ranch to a 20-acre farm just east of Highway 101 in Greenfield. Visitors are welcome with advance notice, and you can pick up wreaths there that you’ve pre-ordered on Creekside’s website.

The farm is a sensual delight, especially when everything is blooming in early summer. Rows of colorful herbs surround a work- shop that’s heady with the fragrance of herbs drying on wood and wire racks. There are purple-tinged ornamental oregano, marjoram, yarrow, ammobium, globe thistle, feverfew, cockscomb and a brand new deep magenta celosia—just to name a few. Everything is grown organically.

Lavender is Carol’s favorite crop. “Classic English and Spanish varieties don’t dry as well and are better for ornamental gardens,” she explains. “We plant a French hybrid, Lavandula intermedia gros bleu, which is brighter and taller.” She already grows seven acres of lavender at the King City ranch and is getting ready to put in another nine acres, which will make Creekside the largest lavender farm in the state.

Still, despite becoming a spectacularly successful national business—shipping wreaths all over the country—the family-run operation remains relatively unknown here at home.

So now, as the buy local movement is energizing consumers to seek out locally produced food and lifestyle products more than ever, Creekside’s focus is on raising its profile in the surrounding region. The hope is to increase direct online sales of their fragrant wreaths, especially with customers located right here in the Salinas-Monterey- Santa Cruz area.

On a personal note, the Umbargers were not only successful in their goal of using their wreaths to help send their kids to college— their business also now provides their boys with an opportunity to make a living while working together: Larry and Carol are handing the reins over to son, Allen, who is now general manager; his wife Teri, who is in charge of marketing and sales; son, Aaron, the company’s shipping manager; and son, Scott, who runs the farm. Even the eldest of the 11 Umbarger grandchildren works on the farm in the summer.

Just like the wreaths it creates, Creekside Farms is coming full circle.

Creekside Farms • 42195 Oak Ave., Greenfield 831.674.1234 • www.creeksidefarms.com