SIGNAL PEAK — Certified Master Gardener Phil Bond ran his horticultural dreamscape, Avocado Nursery, for almost 30 years before his sudden death in early August.
Bond left friends and family, devoted nursery staff and local customers, for whom he was a fount of knowledge on desert native plants. Bond had always been adamant that should he die, the nursery would not die with him.
But while the staff has vowed to continue to carry on the nursery’s strong reputation, those who worked closely with him admit these past few weeks have been difficult.
“We weren’t expecting it,” said nursery Manager Adel Diego, who started working there 22 years ago. “We all thought, ‘OK, he has a stomach issue or something.’ The doctors just told him to change his diet. He didn’t act any different. Then two weeks before he died, they found it was pancreatic cancer.”
Although Diego said Bond didn’t show any outward pain and was still walking around — begrudgingly — with the aid of a walker, things deteriorated quickly. Bond held a birthday celebration at the nursery on July 31, during which Diego said he looked pale and couldn’t hold food down. A week later, he was gone.
“That week after, it was just horrible,” Diego said. “It was painful. We didn’t know what to do.”
Diego first learned about the nursery because Bond’s wife, Julie, was her professor in business communication at Central Arizona College down the road. According to Diego, Julie Bond helped her out of a jam and hired her to work in the nursery’s office. Gradually, over time, she learned about all the plants in the nursery and how to cultivate them.
“Every plant they would teach us was a learning process,” Diego said. “And of course, I loved it so much, I’m still here!”
Diego also inherited Bond’s adopted puppy, Chad-O, who Diego said had become a de facto mascot at the nursery and gets as much attention as he needs from staff and visitors.
“We are all going to have new roles and responsibilities,” Diego said.
Diego is confident the nursery can thrive even without Bond, but it will take some time. Currently, events are on hold as various staff members attempt to take on some of the teaching assignments and projects Bond was involved with.
That includes work with local FFA chapters, youth classes, running workshops on gardening, irrigation, cuttings and fertilizing, or lectures on native trees for shade, fruit or vegetables. Bond had also tried to get a community garden going at the nursery, the “Black Butte Experimental Garden,” but that project always had difficulty getting regular usage due to commute times from Casa Grande or Coolidge.
Diego said Bond had been training Marisol Rodriguez, another landscaper/designer at the nursery, to take over some of the landscaping design work he’d been commissioned for, either for customers’ yards or larger, municipal designs. The business was willed to Diego, Rodriguez and her mother, Guadalupe Rodriguez.
“When you draw up a design you have to ‘know’ what will look great in the space you’re looking at,” Diego said. “Mr. Bond had a great eye for that. If he had a blank slate, he’d just know what to do and even the doodles look nice.”
One such project the staff hopes to help complete, whose sketches Bond had barely finished, is for native landscaping surrounding the “global temple” at Avalon Organic Gardens and EcoVillage in Tumacacori, 45 miles south of Tucson.
The staff at the nursery is continuing to train and teach young interns or part-time workers on site about plants.
“We teach them the same way they taught me,” Diego said. “We don’t have to throw a book at them. They follow us around with customers, get to know what we are selling, get to know where the plants are, and how they grow, everything.”
By the end of their time at the nursery, Diego said, interns will know about over 2,000 varieties of plants that grow at the site over the course of the year.
At the moment, Diego expects the nursery’s next event to be the Christmas market on Dec. 11, before restarting workshops by January of next year.
The nursery is starting to get in plants for winter gardening, such as broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce. Diego said they will also have annual flowers like pansies and petunias available soon. The atypical rainy season also means that they might start growing their winter vegetables earlier. And the nursery will be growing some water plants, like lilies and duckweeds for ponds.
Due to climate change, the number of fruit trees at the nursery may be curtailed going forward from past years, as Diego said they need to find varieties that require less water and can withstand the Sonoran Desert’s extreme temperatures.
Unfortunately, the emotional void left by Bond may take longer to resolve. Bond lived on the property in a home partly underground, and the campfire setup where he would sit in winter is still laid out. Diego said the staff still expects him to be somewhere nearby, and it’s always tough realizing he’s not there.
Some visitors to the nursery who aren’t aware of the news ask for Phil and the staff must recount his passing all over again.
Meanwhile, the nursery has received thousands of condolence messages either online or in person, a testament to his impact on the community.
“Right now, we all have ups and downs,” Diego said. “He had close relationships with everybody who worked here. We will continue as long as we can in his honor to keep this nursery running.”