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Puppy love turns to romance with plants

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but Max and Hildy don't own the garden store out U.S. Highway 26. Although their fame lives on posthumously, Max and Hildy never really did own the nursery.

I mean, really, how much would a Rottweiler and an Airedale know about gardening, let alone business?

Yes, the store is named after two dogs. Hildy, the Rottweiler, belonged to one of the garden center's actual owners, Bob Iwasaki, and Max was Hildy's best friend. Back in the 1980s, the garden center out in Hillsboro was no more than a lean-to on Northwest Cornell Road. Now the business is running with the big dogs, with 8,000 square feet of buildings on the same spot.

The Iwasaki family made a name for itself growing annuals that the business sold wholesale to other garden centers. For years, they turned visitors and potential buyers away and focused on the wholesale business, then slowly started offering their wares from a little shack on the site.

As the high-tech industry grew in Hillsboro, so did the houses. And all those houses needed bedding plants, trees and shrubs. So Iwasaki and business partner Terrence Bean took the plunge into full-scale retail sales about a decade ago. Another arm of the business still grows many of the plants the nursery sells.

Wink and Joyce Brooks of Rock Creek remember when it was 'just a little shed out back.'

Today they're looking for orange day lilies. 'They're really good about special orders or finding plants you're looking for,' Joyce Brooks says.

In fact, that's a house specialty, says manager Clare Argast, who's been there six years. Argast says finding just the right plant can take awhile, but the staff won't give up.

'We still have 60 to 70 people waiting for the hardy gardenia 'Chuck Hays,' and I'll keep looking until we help them,' she says.

That's a nice touch for a place that has tens of thousands of bedding plants alone moving in and out in spring.

The other trick is keeping one step ahead of the trends. At the moment, for example, Argast notices that 'hot colors seem to be big, like purple, blues and oranges, while people are moving away from the rosy, Victorian styles.'

In order to guess the game before it begins, Argast says, she goes to a lot of meetings, travels and reads, and then for good measure she'll 'hope and pray we've got it in stock when the big story hits.'

There's also a trend toward smaller plants and trees. Max & Hildy's tries to have a lot of plants on hand but just a few of any one of the big-ticket items.

It takes a handful of people all day, every day, just to water it all. It's a constant challenge. For Argast, 'The best part is when it is 5:30 in the afternoon and the day has flown by. You know those people who look at their watches and wait for the end of the day? It's never like that for me.'

Max & Hildy's crew members enjoy finding new plants and adding sales space. The two dogs memorialized on the sign outside probably wouldn't even recognize the place now.

'Your Northwest Garden with Anne Jaeger' airs at 7 p.m. Saturday on KGW (8). Contact Jaeger at www.gardengal.tv.