by: Jim Clark Brent Jordan discusses plant grafting inside the grafting green house at Skipper & Jordan Nursery.

With spring five weeks away, local nurseries and garden centers welcome gardening novices and lifelong green thumbs to their grounds. Four of these local businesses from Gresham and Boring shared their stories.

Skipper and Jordan Nursery

Law and gardening.

It may sound like an unlikely mix of careers, but Brent Jordan, a deputy sheriff, and his father-in-law Bob Skipper, the former Multnomah County sheriff, have straddled the two spheres since they officially opened Skipper and Jordan Nursery after Skipper's first retirement in 1994.

'This is what I love to do,' Brent Jordan says. 'The Sheriff's Office, I obviously enjoy but it's completely different. This is really relaxing for me.

'And the trees don't talk back,' he adds, laughing.

The nursery dates back to 1967 when Skipper started planting Christmas tree seedlings on his farm in Gresham. Then he started offering U-Cut Christmas trees in 1972. In 1978, the nursery went wholesale and branched into shade trees that were shipped across the country.

By popular demand, Jordan and Skipper opened their retail center on Orient Drive after Skipper first retired in 1994, and now the family business has expanded to four farms and a garden center that continues to ship plants across the country.

Open year-round, Skipper and Jordan offers several hundred varieties of plants, including conifers, flowering and shade trees, hanging flower baskets, evergreens, grafted ornamentals and potted shrubbery. For spring, Jordan says the nursery has an abundance of fruit and nut trees.

'Food growing is good business right now,' Jordan says. 'Everyone still wants to eat.'

One of the unusual fruit plants he explains is a grafted apple tree bearing several different types of apples from each of its limbs.

The nursery has also become popular for its Christmas wreaths, swags and garlands.

Skipper and his wife Ilona own the nursery with Jordan. Their daughter and Jordan's wife, Teresa, has been involved in the family business, as well as their son Ted Skipper and two granddaughters, Corrine Konell and Candice Jordan.

Al's Garden Center, Gresham

In 1948, Mark Bigej's grandfather, Al, opened a roadside fruit stand in an unused chicken coop on Highway 99 in Woodburn.

The stand evolved into Al's Garden Center, now one of the largest family-owned garden centers in the state with three locations: Woodburn, Sherwood and Gresham.

Though Al died in 1989, his son, Jack, and grandchildren, Mark Bigej, Darcy Ruef and Dorothy Russo, carry on the family business. And, Al's 13 great-grandchildren grow gourds, pumpkins and cornstalks to sell for their college funds.

'This reminds me of where we started,' Mark Bigej says of the Gresham center, which opened in 2004. 'It's small and intimate.

'As I get older and more involved in the industry, it's really amazing to see how friendly people are in this industry -- how they share,' Bigej says. 'That's not very common but it makes the job really enjoyable.'

One of Bigej's favorite early memories is pitching watermelons from the back bed of a truck into totes.

'Dad started bringing me to the store when I was really small,' Bigej says. 'We were always working with plants. I never thought of doing anything else.'

At Al's, bright purple is the signature color so that employees stand out from the colorful blooms and plants. Al's of Gresham offers a variety of annuals, perennials, trees, shrubs and vines, edibles, houseplants, and bulbs and seeds, many of which are grown onsite.

It also offers garden care products and garden accessories, including ceramic containers and fountains.

Named a 2012 Revolutionary Garden Center by Today's Garden Center Magazine, Al's produces its own quarterly magazine, 'Al's Bloom,' with tips, trends, event listings and feature stories.

'Get out and garden,' Bigej says. 'It's healthy for you.'

Boring Bark and Landscape Material

At Boring Bark and Landscape Material in Boring, Connie Giusto's philosophy reigns.

'She says, 'Everyone should have a beautiful garden, no matter what their annual income is,' ' Giusto's daughter, Erin, says. 'Everyone should be able to walk out their door and enjoy a beautiful, outdoor space.'

The phone number and hound dog logo remain from the previous owners, but Connie and Steve Giusto's business has grown tremendously since 2000, transferring to a 5-acre site and expanding beyond a landscape material and garden center to construction services and Cat's Moon Coffee roasting.

The business also offers yard maintenance and installation of garden features, such as fountains.

The Giustos' children, Erin and Pat, and daughter-in-law Jessica are all involved in the business, which buys from local growers.

'I'll often hear, 'Is Connie here? She's so nice. I love walking around the garden with her,'' Erin says.

'My mom will find a plant and it might look dead, but she'll cut it back, put it back in the ground and it will end up looking great.'

Also keeping the Giustos company are five grandchildren who grew up around the family business: Landon, Alexis, Mallory, Lily and Garret, and the 'guard' dogs they chase after, Cocoa the Pomeranian and Stella the Pomchi (Pomeranian-Chihuahua). Erin says the nursery industry has been touchy, and it's hard watching the effect on local growers with whom the business works so closely.

'People are not as concerned about finding beautiful plants when they're struggling with their mortgage payments,' she says.

But 2012 is looking better. With varied services and customers who find out about Boring Bark mostly via word of mouth, the business continues to grow.

'It's been hugely important to diversify in the small-business world,' Erin says.

Boring Square Garden Center

At the end of each week, Karen and Gordon Watkins donate extra produce their customers bring in to SnowCap Community Charities.

Over the course of the last year, they donated 2,500 pounds of produce.

'We have very good relationships with the community and other garden centers,' Gordon Watkins says.

Another example: During the Boring Fire District's Christmas Basket Drive, the Watkins share their red Radio Flyer wagons, which double in purpose as basket haulers.

The Watkins' have owned Boring Square Garden Center since 1985, when they took over Virgil Wells' garden center that they had helped develop.

Their son Eric, who works for the city of Depoe Bay, carried on the green thumb and tends to two greenhouses, while their daughter Michelle lives in Hawaii -- a convenient spot for them to visit when they shut down November through January.

Right now, the Boring Square Garden Center carries a variety of fruit trees, berries, vegetable starts, trees, shrubs and potting soils, all from local growers.

The Watkins' lease a space on their property to Schedeen's Fruit Stand and let Tom, a black and white cat, make the garden center his home.

Boring Square Garden Center holds a variety of free seminars, with the next one about selecting the right soil for plants 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, March 24.

At 11 a.m. April 14 and 1 p.m. April 22, the store will feature the seminar 'How to grow giant pumpkins and vegetables.'

The Arboretum at Porterhowse, Sandy

'Plant addict' is a fitting nickname for Don Howse, who has accumulated more than 2,000 rare conifer species during the past four decades.

Howse owns Porterhowse Farms, a 7-acre retail nursery specialized in rare and unusual plants in Sandy.

'It just comes automatically,' Howse says. 'I know my plants. They're like my kids.'

After growing up in Southern California and studying ornamental horticulture at the University of Idaho, Howse moved to Oregon in 1972, initially working for Duane Sherwood's Northwest Nurseries Inc. in Boring.

After Jean Iseli bought the nursery in 1975, Howse become Iseli's personal assistant. 'He was my mentor,' Howse says.

Howse and Lloyd Porter founded Porterhowse Farms in 1979 and worked together as business and life partners until Porter died in 2007 from pancreatic cancer.

Now Randy and Rita Oster of R and R Nursery in Estacada help Howse with the day-to-day operation of the arboretum and wholesale distribution.

'They came in with their crews and took over after my partner died,' Howse says. 'I have a big debt to them.'

Howse's love of plants has taken him all over the world. In 1997, he visited Yunnan, China.

Sept. 11, 2001, Howse was about to embark on a 30-day trek collecting seeds from rare plant species in northern Pakistan.

When his plane touched down, he learned of the terrorist attacks in the United States -- that his would be the last flight into or out of the country for an indefinite time.

'We found out how the world had changed while we had been flying,' Howse says.

Howse and his friends continued their tour, visiting remote alpine villages and gathering seeds from rare plants, until they were kicked out of Pakistan 12 days later and traveled instead to southern Spain.

Interlaced with trails that wind around springs, ponds and onto a rocky hillside, The Arboretum at Porterhowse features an assortment of plants from succulents to exotic broadleaf trees to flowering bulbs to ornamental grasses.

Howse welcomes groups and garden clubs to the arboretum, where he offers picnic facilities and guided tours of the gardens.

He jokes that the complete tour of Porterhowse Arboretum and Gardens only takes two hours.

'It's hard to retire from this, but I'm slowly letting go,' Howse says.

If you go

• Al's Garden Center is at 7505 S.E. Hogan Road in Gresham. For more information, call 503-491-0771 or visit

• Boring Bark and Landscape Material is at 30265 S.E. Highway 212 in Boring. For more information, call 503-668-3219 or visit

• Boring Square Garden Center is at 28150 S.E. Highway 212 in Boring. For more information, call 503-663-9797.

• The Arboretum at Porterhowse is at 41370 S.E. Thomas Road in Sandy. For more information, call 503-668-5834 or visit

• Skipper and Jordan Nursery Inc. is at 29690 S.E. Orient Drive in Gresham. For more information, call 503-663-1125.

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