From his hilltop cactus farm, the gardener has unobstructed views of the Santa Catalina Mountains and deep into the bustling construction at Oro Valley Marketplace.

Since 1999, Kurt Keller, owner of Keller Nursery and Landscaping, has lived and worked at the 5-acre plot near the corner of Tangerine and Oracle roads.

His land seems to straddle the line that separates the past and the present.

But Keller, 59, embraces the future.

He greeted as an opportunity the specter of a Wal-Mart Supercenter, replete with a garden center, rising out of the once-fallow lot across the road.

“I’ll get on their vendor list and sell them plants,” Keller said.

He’s watched that site change over the decades — from cow pastures and alfalfa fields to the massive retail center sprouting from the land today.

Hundreds of truckloads of soil were brought in when construction began there last year. Drainage problems led the developer to fill the basin with hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of soil.

“All we could smell was truck brakes,” said Keller, recalling the dirt-laden trucks barreling down Oracle.

When people lined the street to protest the Wal-Mart groundbreaking, Keller said he went over to see what the commotion was all about.

Seeking an ally, the protestors asked how he felt about the store and the possibility it might run him out of business.

But Keller and wife Laura, 43, gave an answer many of the demonstrators didn’t expect to hear.

“It was actually good for us,” said Laura, Keller’s wife of two years.

Big-box stores undoubtedly have taken a toll on many family-run businesses.

But in the nursery and landscape industry, the picture isn’t as clear, according to Jonathan Bardzik, of the American Nursery and Landscape Association.

Some of the association’s members have welcomed the attention and traffic that the large retailers bring, Bardzik said.

Others have found ways to distinguish themselves through service and specialty products.

“A lot of independents are finding ways to compete,” Bardzik said.

For the Kellers, landscaping and custom-brick patio construction has distinguished their company. They sell most of their plants to their landscaping customers.

Still, people do come in off the street to peruse the potted plants, fruit trees, cacti and succulents that fill much of the Keller property.

He reared most of his plants from clippings or seeds gathered over the years.

People like his product, he said. They tell him his locally grown flora does better than the stuff the big box stores truck in from California greenhouses.

He’s been in the plant and landscape business for more than 30 years, but the roots for his love of gardening stretch back to his childhood.

“The first thing I did was plant cactus under my mom’s clothesline,” Keller said while picking his teeth with a needle he snapped off an agave.

His family moved to Tucson from Indiana in 1959 when Keller was 10 years old. He watched the area change dramatically.

“Back in the 60s, when I was a Boy Scout, we used to hike on Oracle Road,” he said last week as he watched cars on the highway race past his property.

But he doesn’t resist the changes or long for the days of light traffic and scare development. In fact, he sees change as part of nature.

“I understand growth and progress,” he said. “In this business you have to be patient.”

In his personal life, too, Keller has rolled with the changes, even unwelcome ones.

Keller and past wives have had 10 children, ranging in age from 6 to 34.

Today, eight of his kids remain.

In 1987, he lost a 20-year-old son to a motorcycle crash.

Last year, tragedy struck again. This time his 22-year-old daughter died in car crash.

He doesn’t deny the losses took a toll, but he talks about the tough times almost as if they were blessings.

Like in 1975, when Keller struggled to make ends meet for his young family.

“I was out of job and had a broken truck — and I thanked God for my broken truck,” Keller said.

In conservation, he refers to the power of prayer.

After he scraped together enough money to fix that broken truck, he noticed a landscape plan sitting on the desk in the mechanic’s office.

He questioned the plan and the mechanic asked if he wanted the job. Keller accepted and has been in the plant business ever since.  

Of all the changes Keller’s endure, a recent one has him worried.

The Oracle Road widening project, Keller fears, could leave his tiny nursery isolated and inaccessible from southbound traffic lanes.

As earthmovers pass in front of the property, Keller points to a copy of an Arizona Department of Transportation plan that calls for an extra traffic lane in each direction.

The plan also would eliminate the lane that allows Keller to make a left onto Oracle and others to turn onto his property.

Without the cut-through, the Kellers worry about losing customers.

Even with the development all around him, Keller said his property supports an abundance of wildlife.

A group of deer used to frequent the area, Keller said.

It wasn’t long after the deer started coming around that mountain lion tracks began to dot his property. The deer have been scarce ever since.

More recently, a young bobcat took up residence in a plant enclosure at the back of Keller’s land.

“I really appreciate him being here,” Keller smiled. “He keeps the packrats down.”

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