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Living Creations gives Ceres family 'second chance'
When the economy came to a slow grind, general contractor Brian Merrell of Ceres nearly lost everything with his spec home venture. On top of that, he was dealing with surgeries to repair a body battered by years of physical work.

He never would have thought that building small planters for succulents would offer him a new beginning.

"Maybe this is our way of getting a second chance," said Merrell, an upbeat 53-year-old who is on permanent disability.

His wife, Mary Merrell, struck upon the idea of designing and building wooden planters, filled with succulents, for Christmas gifts for friends and family in 2010. Brian, who's endured 21 surgeries for blown-out knees and shoulders - he now needs a hip replacement - got busy with the products. Mary designed square windows with panes and Brian "just started playing around in the garage."

"Once I got up and around it gave me purpose."

Living Creations got off the ground on April 1, 2011.

"I'm just calling this Christmas presents gone wild," chuckled Brian, who has lived in Ceres for 23 years.

The enterprise uses old fence boards recovered from a local fencing contractor to produce unique wooden planters for succulent plants. Living Creation products were displayed in the recent Ceres Street Faire.

The enterprise is a family affair. Mary designs them, Brian and sons build them. Son Everette Merrell designs letters by a computer drafting program. Brian's stepson, Richard Michaelson, who is a teacher, is also getting involved. Once the planter pieces are cut and nailed together, plastic-coated chicken wire is stapled into place to hold a bed of moss and dirt. The ingredients are then contained by a plastic-liner backing to hold everything in place. Succulents are then planted through the chicken wire and watered until they root before sending off to market.

"We've got it down to a pretty good science," said Brian.

So far their product line is limited only by imagination. Planters are created into the shape of letters, bird houses, wishing wells, umbrellas, crosses and patio center pieces. The products come blank or filled succulent plants he purchases from a Castroville nursery.

Currently all of Living Creations are being sold through Morris Nursery (1837 Patterson Road, Riverbank). But Brian is planning to go on a sales tour on the coast to expand d his product to higher end nurseries.

"Man, they are moving," said Brian. "We've sold over 600 of them without even trying. They're shipping to Wichita and Hawaii for people wanting them."

Letter planters sell well, he said. They average 18 inches tall and up to 17 inches wide and range in price from $25 to $40 without succulents.

His biggest project, a gazebo filled with 1,500 succulents, is on display at Morris and will be on display at the Stanislaus County Fair to draw attention to his products.

Merrell said he hopes his business continues to expand and is applying for a grant to employ disabled veterans to assemble planters.