New nursery adds Utopian boost to Mississippi Avenue

Not far from the corner of North Mississippi Avenue and North Failing Street, two young sisters are trying to build the perfect small nursery, with help from two city agencies and a nonprofit lender.

If it works out, they'll have plenty of company in the neighborhood. A short walk away, similarly well-meaning entrepreneurs have established their versions of the ideal small coffee shop, the ideal small vegetarian restaurant, the ideal small bike shop and the ideal recycled housing supplies store.

It's all part of a neighborhood economy that is booming and changing at lightning speed. The Boise community has seen rents and home prices double and even triple over the last decade. A house that cost $50,000 a decade ago now sells for $150,000.

'Boise is sizzling hot,' says Larry Mills, a real estate agent at Windermere Realty Group's North Portland office. 'Houses are selling for more than they're listed for, in two, three days.'

And many of the newcomers are young, politically active people with an ethic of putting their money where their ideals are.

That's exactly the sort of customer that Pistils Plant Nursery is targeting, with a small selection of no-chemical, drought-resistant plants to make urban yards greener places in more ways than one.

It took Amy and Megan Twilegar several years of effort and three failed attempts to get bank loans before they succeeded in opening their nursery, at 3811 N. Mississippi Ave.

They bought a vacant lot for $11 per square foot and spent about $200,000 on a new building. The grounds include a planted 'eco-roof' to soak up rainwater and carbon dioxide and a 3,000-gallon underground cistern that reuses runoff for watering the plants.

The environmentally minded Portland design collective Communitecture offered technical expertise, but the Twilegar sisters did most of the designing themselves.

Amy, 29, and Megan, 31, grew up in Idaho and have been working in the nursery industry since coming to Portland. A few years ago, they began raising plants at Megan's double-lot home in Sellwood. Then last Mother's Day, they tried for the first time to sell their plants Ñ out of an asphalt lot surrounded by a chain-link fence.

They've since grown into a thriving business, with help from the city and the nonprofit lender Cascadia Revolving Fund.

The Portland Office of Sustainability contributed a $5,000 grant to fund the 'green building' touches on the property. The Portland Development Commission kicked in another $12,000 and helped Cascadia put together a financing package with reasonable interest rates.

The Twilegar sisters have received their final permit, and their building is just a coat of paint short of being finished. The business is handsome but compact, with grounds slightly smaller than the average city lot and just 630 square feet of indoor retail space.

Pistils is unlikely to become the next powerhouse in Oregon's $680 million nursery industry. But that's not the goal, Amy Twilegar says.

'In keeping it small, we definitely have an advantage,' she says. The nursery's size allows the Twilegars to sell about half the plants that they raised in Portland. It also helps them to use no chemicals. In a larger setting, insect infestations would be much harder to detect quickly enough to stop without spraying chemicals.

The goal, Megan Twilegar adds, is 'to pack as much variety as possible into a tight space.'

And the species for sale are chosen for environmental reasons as much as popularity, she explains. Red roses, for example, are not available at Pistils. That's because red roses are almost impossible to cultivate properly without adding a lot of chemicals that can be bad for the environment.

Ideals peddled with products

Ten years ago, the five blocks of industrial businesses, shops and homes that make up the heart of Mississippi Avenue would have seemed an odd choice for an urban, 'sustainable' nursery. Now it couldn't seem more in place, as the neighborhood continues to gentrify.

The new Mississippi is filling up with small, distinctive startup firms like Pistils. Many are owned by entrepreneurs who entered the business world with idealism and who now market those ideals as well as their products.

Their products Ñ the medicinal teas of the Himalayan Tea Co., the vegetarian breakfasts of the Purple Parlor Cafe, the salvaged sinks at the ReBuilding Center, the vegan baked goods at the Fresh Pot Cafe, the chemical-free plants at Pistils Ñ are sold as more than mere commodities. Part of the marketing effort is the notion that the world would be a better place if people were to ride bikes instead of drive cars, eat broccoli instead of beef and use Dr. Earth Fertilizer instead of chemicals.

Of course, the big question involving any mix of idealism and capitalism is: Will it make money?

For every Ben and Jerry's ice cream, there are hundreds of firms that wanted to change the world through capitalism and failed.

Amy Twilegar says she's confident that won't be the case at Pistils.

'There's no shortage of people buying plants in this city, or in this neighborhood,' she says. 'Every day new customers stop in and say, 'I've seen you building this place. I like what you're doing here, and I want to see you survive.' '

Contact Ben Jacklet at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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