Al’s Garden Centers & Greenhouses has three locations in Oregon and grows 75 percent of its plants sold throughout the stores. Plants include annuals, perennials, poinsettias, trees and shrubs.

Back in October 2014, Mark Bigej, COO of Al’s Garden Centers & Greenhouses, said building the third store in Sherwood, 16 miles outside of Portland, Ore., was a big risk for the family-owned business.

When they built the Sherwood store in 2005, they were “in the middle of nowhere.”

“It was just a big gamble,” Bigej had said at the time about the 10.5-acre store. But sometimes, big gambles result in big rewards.

Since building the third store, Oregon has experienced a population boom, especially near Portland. According to the most recent Census data, the metropolitan area added some 2.5 million residents between 2014 and 2015.

Tomatoes are a “gateway to gardening” for Al’s customers, and the most popular varieties are Sun Sugar, Early Girl and Roma. Calibrachoas are outselling petunias 2 to 1 this spring.

“The Sherwood store sits right on the urban [growth] boundary. As a result, there is now new home building occurring all around us,” says Darcy (Bigej) Ruef, CFO.

Al’s, like many other independent garden centers, strives for excellent plant quality and customer service, Ruef says. But creative, beautiful visual displays that draw new and loyal customers are also a key ingredient.

“We also learned very early on that visual display is critical to ensuring that a garden center is an inspirational place to come,” she says. “In addition, we offer workshops and seminars for adults every month, along with a planting project at Kids Club.”

Understanding their primary customer base and what drives new gardeners has also been rewarding for Al’s.

“We think that vegetable gardening is the gateway for many people to start gardening, and tomatoes are a universal favorite,” Bigej says, adding that the company sells 30 varieties, and that Sun Sugar is a best-seller. “We host two large edible sales, one for 1 gallon tomatoes for $2.49, and an edibles sale where you buy three, you get three free.”

Growing 75 percent of their own product allows Al’s to offer these kinds of deals and have better control of their inventory and plant availability. This year, they’ve expanded their calibrachoa selection to 24 varieties, all of which they grow, to accommodate the huge popularity of the plant.

Mark Bigej, COO

“Calibrachoas are outselling petunias almost 2 to 1 this spring,” Bigej says, adding that yellow and orange are the most popular colors. “Customers like the compactness of the calibrachoa and the multitude of colors it comes in as well as the fact that they don’t have to worry about the budworm attacking them. We hear from our customers repeatedly that they love petunias but don’t want to have to [spray] for budworm.”

The greatest challenge for Al’s, according to Ruef, is capturing the interest of the next generation. But Al’s has a pretty good grasp of the lives, interests and needs of its current customers.

“The first [customer type] is between 45 to 65 plus, a homeowner with a secondary education and employed. She is a gardener,” says Laura Hammond, marketing director of Al’s. “The second is 35 to 55 plus, she’s a little younger and has more income. She also is a homeowner ... she is not necessarily a gardener, but more of a decorator. She sees her home and garden as an extension of her good taste.”