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Nursery has growing reputation

Editor's note: Anne Jaeger is on the road to gardening spots around the metropolitan area. Her new column, Road Trips, appears on Tuesdays throughout the spring.

Wayne Hughes has an award-winning garden often featured in national magazines. So what ends up being one of his favorite Portland destinations?

Portland Nursery.

Hughes, a Portland gardener for 15 years, and his partner, Danny Hills, make frequent treks to Portland Nursery's store on Southeast Division Street. He compares the nursery and its competition to the difference between cookbooks.

'Specialty cookbooks are good for a challenge once in a while,' he says. 'But you always need the standbys like 'The Joy of Cooking' and 'Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book' for the real meat and potatoes information.ÊSpecialty cookbooks are fun, but you can't depend on them to fill out a meal.'

Portland Nursery Ñ which has two locations Ñ is considered by many as the best full-meal-deal in town. It's sure to have the old favorites you remember, but it's always on the cutting edge with new plants, too. And unlike the big-box stores, which often ship from out of state, the nursery strives to buy 90 percent of its plants from growers in the Northwest.Ê

Specialty nurseries will have fabulous collections of two or three things, but Portland Nursery will have a few of those and everything else. If you see a plant in a magazine or on Mike Darcy's television garden show, they'll either have it or tell you when they will.

Owner Jon Denney says the key is 'cutting your staff loose to choose' the best plants to sell. He wants people to go home with a passion for plants, not just a plant.

'I've always loved plants,' agrees General Manager Suzy Hancock.Ê'For me, personally, I've had the freedom to find new growers and new plants, which gives us the ability to put the plant in a customer's hands, quick.'

Knowledgeable people are the strong suit at Portland Nursery. When employees tell you how to care for a plant, they aren't just blowing smoke or making it up as they go along.

'I always get very reliable information from them,' says BettiRae Willis of Lake Oswego.

Expertise and sound advice makes Willis more inclined to drive out of her way to get it.

And even in this age of automation, the nursery folks still hand-water every single plant because each has different needs.

What does all this add up to?ÊRepeat customers and record sales: 2002 was Portland Nursery's best year ever. Nursery Retailer Magazine rates Portland Nursery as one of the top 100 in the nation. Of course, if you ask owner Denney about his best year in business, he says, 'It's the one we haven't had yet.'

The roots of Portland Nursery go all the way back to 1907.ÊIt was the first local nursery to export Oregon plants all over the country in refrigerated rail cars. But even with its established history, by 1975 gross sales were dismal and the business was dying. In walked Jon Denney, with a horticulture degree from Iowa State.

The plant business ran in the family. Bob Denney, Jon's father, ran an orchard in Iowa and was a county extension agent and a nursery salesman. Naturally, Jon's dad got him his first job, where he learned a lesson about the power of plants.

At 10, Denney was paid to move bundles of juniper bushes, but he did the job without wearing protective clothing. Denney laughs about the nasty rash on his arms from the volatile oils that spread from juniper needles and berries.Ê(Let that be a lesson to those of us with juniper bushes that need pruning!)

In 1980, just before the housing market slumped, Denney decided to put all his eggs into one basket. He sold his home on Sauvie Island and invested the whole ticket in Portland Nursery. 'If I was going to make a risky venture, better to do it when I wasn't married and didn't have kids,' Denney says.Ê'I mean, I started from nothing; I could start over from nothing.'

A family followed, and three years ago Denney brought his two daughters, Sara, 14, and Jill, 12, into the business. Their successful television commercials tout the famous tag line, 'A passion for plants, a nursery for plant people,' and that pretty much says it all.

This year's trends

• Planting in pots: Portlanders who don't have much space are planting minigardens in one container.

• Oregon natives: 'More people are finding out that plants growing in nature don't need extra water or chemical sprays,' Hancock says.

• Rugged perennials: Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan) and Echinacea (cone flower). Hancock prefers 'new varieties of flowering perennials, which are tough, shorter and more compact.'

Road Trips appears weekly in the Tribune. Jaeger's Web site is at www.gardengal.tv.