South LA

South Los Angeles’ oldest nursery is the work of one woman: Maria Luz Lopez

Lopez founded Avalon Nursery & Ceramics from the trunk of her car over 35 years ago, and she has no plans to slow down.

"A photo of Maria Luz Lopez holding a tray of plant sheet pots at Avalon Nursery & Ceramics."

In South L.A., nestled between a mini-mart and a pupusería, sits Avalon Nursery & Ceramics, a fantastical vision of greenery. The nursery will celebrate its 35th anniversary in June.

Behind the nursery’s success stands one woman — Maria Luz Lopez.

Originally from Guadalajara, Lopez was always business savvy, running a small market that sold dinners in her hometown. Every night, she sold tacos, enchiladas and tamales before eventually following her family to the United States 43 years ago.

Lopez mostly speaks Spanish, so her granddaughter, Carolyn Ramirez, helped translate for this piece.

Lopez’s father was one of the first members of the Lopez family to come to the U.S., often working the fields in California as a member of the Bracero Program. Eventually, both of her older siblings moved to the U.S., and it only took Lopez around two years to follow suit.

Made difficult to believe by the almost 10,000-square-foot lot she now owns, Lopez’s nursery began in the trunk of her car, where she displayed plants she got from her sister and sold on 86th Place. Eventually, she signed a lease with a local burger restaurant to park her car in the lot, but this did not mean anything to law enforcement.

As she was starting her business, she received multiple police citations claiming she was selling “illegal stuff.” Lopez would not stand for these fines and went to court four times to fight off the charges. Despite her successes, the time in court became too much. When an officer suggested she get her own place to avoid the fines, Lopez did just that.

She bought the lot that Avalon Nursery & Ceramics still sits on for $35,000. At the time, the lot was nothing but a dirt patch that Lopez parked her car on and continued to sell plants out of her trunk. But slowly, Lopez cultivated the land, transforming it into the vision of foliage that can be seen today, even purchasing the adjacent lot to meet the demands of her growing business.

The nursery is so filled with fruit trees, ferns and other greenery that Ramirez lovingly dubbed it “the jungle” as a child.

“[The nursery] is all I know,” Ramirez said. “My after schools were spent here. I used to think it was like ‘The Jungle Book.’”

"A photo of Avalon Nursery and Ceramics' greenhouse."

The lot didn’t mean the business came without struggles. Lopez cites the language barrier as the most difficult obstacle to overcome.

“In the 90s and 80s, when she moved in, she and her other neighbor were the only Hispanics on the block, so it was hard,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez divulged some of the other struggles the nursery faced in its three and a half decades.

“She did get robbed here a couple of times at gunpoint. One time my little brother was here and they got robbed at gunpoint. My little brother was four or five,” Ramirez said. “When the Rodney King riots happened, the place next door got burned down.”

Still, Lopez persisted and has no plans to slow down now.

“I’m going to be here until I can’t work,” Lopez said. “I’m more stressed at home.”

It was only a couple months ago that Lopez’s family was able to convince her to cut down hours to a six-day work week.

When asked about her favorite part of running her nursery, Lopez responded, “everything.”

“She gets very emotional when she talks about the nursery, she cries,” Ramirez said. “It’s like ‘wow, this is my business. I made it.’ She came from nothing, and came to this country without speaking English and was able to make a business from pretty much nothing.”

The pandemic brought a rise in business as people used their time at home to begin gardening. However, the lockdown still took a major toll on Lopez, forcing her to close the nursery in March 2020.

“She was going crazy when the pandemic happened,” Ramirez said. “She says that she would be crying because she missed being here. She was at home like, ‘oh, my plants!’”

"A photo of the exterior of Avalon Nursery & Ceramics. A sign reads: 'Avalon Nursery & Ceramics: Trees, Shrubs, Roses, Indoor Plants, Fruit Trees, Plants Foods, Soil, Fertilizer, Insecurities, Fungicides.'"

Since the start of the pandemic, Ramirez has become more involved in the nursery. She noticed the nursery’s lack of social media presence and created the Instagram page, @avalonnurseryla, which now boasts over 1,800 followers.

Ramirez has also made it her mission to share her grandmother’s story.

“It’s always good to learn from an OG, like my grandma. She’s done this for 35 years and most businesses fail within the first five years of business, it’s inspiring,” Ramirez said. “Maybe there’s someone out there that wants to start a business like ‘oh, I don’t know English,’ they might get inspired by her.”

“I want to make sure she is recognized. I want to make sure she feels it,” Ramirez said. “I know a lot of people struggle with renting their space, but she owns it. I think that’s another thing she should be proud of.”

Following in her grandmother’s footsteps, Ramirez has big plans of her own.

“My goal for the nursery in the future is to get more involved with the community, like sponsor elementary school gardens and get the kids excited and involved in gardening,” said Ramirez.