When Portland Nursery President Jon Denney reflects on the company’s 38 years under his hand, luck gets much of the credit for the independent garden center’s two successful Portland, Ore., locations. But dig a bit deeper and “luck” sounds more like respect for the nursery’s heritage, innovative marketing, and staff whose passions for plants and people are ingrained.

Honoring a rich horticultural heritage

When Denney bought Portland Wholesale Nursery in 1980, the business had an inspiring 73-year history. Through the early 1900s, it brokered plants for the Northwest’s burgeoning nursery industry, leading a cooperative that shipped plants east via railroad cars cooled with ice.

When Denney took over, a move made possible by “luck” and a strong bond with the owner, the company was well-known for horticultural excellence. Denney added retail sales in 1982 and went strictly retail in 1987. A modern-day tagline — “A passion for plants. A nursery for plant people” — fits historic and modern roots equally well.

Creating new traditions for Portland

While history frames Portland Nursery’s identity, its new traditions are winning over modern Portlanders. While other IGCs wind down come fall, Denney and staff wind up for their annual Apple Tasting Festival.

The quaint-sounding event started 31 years ago when an employee-only sampling of apple varieties sparked a public event. Coupons offering extreme discounts on apple purchases lured most attendees in the early years, but a tradition began.

Last year’s festival, held over two three-day October weekends, drew more than 50,000 attendees who sampled 50-plus apple varieties, with a few pears thrown in. On top of free cider, wine tastings, music and kids’ activities, more than 150,000 pounds of apples for tasting and purchase were on hand.

Denney credits the festival’s success to two things: its all-ages, family appeal, and its October timing. “Our conscious decision was to fill a time slot in our year that wasn’t Christmas and wasn’t spring, that we could make ours,” he says.

Celebrating a successful corporate culture

Denney laughs when he says his secret to success is staying in business when others didn’t, but he quickly shifts the spotlight to his staff. “I often joke that my management style is surrounding myself with enablers, but we’ve been extremely fortunate to have so many good people,” he says.

He feels the corporate culture — which he credits to managers and how they train and treat people, more than anything he has done — sets the nursery apart from competition, especially when it comes to competitors that have closed.

He’s especially proud that the IGC’s 84 full-time, year-round employees average more than 10 years of service.

New hires spend two weeks in training, learning the Portland Nursery way. “They know a lot about us before they’re ever involved with the customer,” Denney says. “Our guidance is doing what’s right for customers, even if it means not making a sale.”

Between the two locations, seasonal hires bring total staff to 124. About 20 extras — mostly family, friends and past employees — help out at apple fest time.

We’re fortunate that we have a business that’s recession-resistant. It’s not recession-proof, but it’s recession-resistant. In spring of ‘09, right after the worst of the crunch, our sales were up 9 percent.” — JON DENNEY, PRESIDENT, PORTLAND NURSERY

Navigating zoning and Portland’s growth

Operating in one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities has perks. Denney says the “phenomenal” location of the initial Stark Street store has been crucial to success. But zoning issues there have become the IGC’s greatest challenge.

Zoning changes in the 1980s labeled the site as non-conforming use. Denney has been fighting for changes ever since. In January 2018, after more than 100 meetings, the city finally conceded — not to everything Denney wanted, but enough to grant conforming status again.

Even so, the future’s cloudy. “What’s next is very unpredictable,” Denney says. “It adds another level of uncertainty that shouldn’t be there.” As a result, the IGC’s focus is shifting to the Division Street location, also in Southeast Portland.

“We feel the future of our business will be largely dependent on that property. Because of the superb access it has [and] the superior zoning, we want to make that a showplace that we can expand into,” Denney says.

Newly acquired property in Vancouver, Wash. — just over the Columbia River in what Denney calls “North Portland” — is tagged for a third location. “The metropolitan area is growing. Traffic is getting worse and worse, and people are getting more and more frustrated,” he says. “It will be important that we have a presence there.”

From left: Jill Dunsmuir (Jon’s daughter); Troy Dunsmuir (Jill’s husband); Carol Finney (Jon’s wife); Jon Denney; Sara Ori (Jon’s daughter) holding her daughter, Emerson Ori.
PHOTO COURTESY OF PORTLAND NURSERY
The Apple Tasting Festival has a 31-year history at Portland Nursery and now attracts more than 50,000 people each fall.
PHOTO COURTESY OF PORTLAND NURSERY

Leveraging community advertising, outreach and education

Advertising heads Denney’s list of what Portland Nursery does best. “The old adage is, ‘Only 50 percent of your advertising works; it’s trying to figure out which 50 percent.’ I think we’ve been successful trying to identify the 50 percent that works and do more of it,” he says.

In the early 1980s, the company began advertising on Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB). “It’s still a value for us,” Denney says. Since then, OPB has consistently accounted for about 50 percent of the IGC’s advertising budget.

Denney originally targeted children’s television programming for two reasons: “One, there’s usually an adult around. Two, people starting a family tend to be good nursery buyers,” he says. New generations of shoppers grew up listening to Portland Nursery ads on OPB.

Portland Nursery builds on community connections with expansive outreach and sponsorships, along with free educational events. A class committee of three to four employees at each location take turns developing seminars. With one to two per typical weekend, the popular classes book well in advance.

The IGC also joins with several area organizations for an annual Senior Gardening Day with age-friendly, hands-on activities and demonstrations for the community’s “elder gardeners.”

Addressing complacency and the real competition

A mission statement developed three decades ago still voices Denney’s goal: “To set the standard for horticultural excellence, complete selection and, above all, customer satisfaction.”

A 10-foot-tall helium apple balloon suspended above Portland Nursery advertises the festival.
PHOTO COURTESY OF PORTLAND NURSERY
Caramel apples are on hand for the Apple Tasting Festival.
PHOTO COURTESY OF PORTLAND NURSERY

He urges his staff and other IGCs not to rest on laurels. “We need to take a hard look at complacency and start reinstating some of the things we’ve done over the years,” he says.

One of his season-end favorites, for when staff is “still tired and bruised from a long spring,” is asking every employee three questions:

  • What are the three best things we did this year?
  • What are the three worst things we did this year?
  • What three things do we need to change for next year?

Looking forward, Denney is optimistic. “We’re fortunate that we have a business that’s recession-resistant. It’s not recession-proof, but it’s recession-resistant. In spring of ‘09, right after the worst of the crunch, our sales were up 9 percent,” he says.

A new tagline — “Helping you make your backyard your favorite destination” — was at work.

“People stayed home. They planted things for food or they put in a garden for the first time, because they were scared,” Denney says. “It reinforced what I think is our real competition — the competition for people’s money and time. It’s not necessarily the garden center next door.”