by: JIM CLARK In 1979, Don Howse and his partner Lloyd Porter founded Porterhowse Farms in Sandy. His partner died in 2007, but Howse maintains the 7-acre retail nursery and arboretum with help from R&R Nursery. Howse welcomes groups and garden clubs to the arboretum, where he offers picnic facilities and guided tours of the gardens.

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

The Arboretum at Porterhowse

'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.

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. 'That 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.'

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