by Kelly Gates
Christianson’s Nursery of Mount Vernon, WA was originally founded as a specialty rhododendron outlet in 1946. But when the owner was ready to retire, he searched for just the right people to purchase the place, people who would willingly take on the task of running a plant business and all that goes with it.
According to John Christianson, current owner of the company, he and his wife Toni seemed to fit the bill and were awarded the business above all others.
“The previous owner, Bob Hart, had worked hard to build the business and wanted to know he was passing it on to people who knew what they were in for,” Christianson told Country Folks Grower. “He didn’t want a buyer to come along with no experience in the industry and eventually decide it was too much to handle.”
Both John and his wife had worked for other greenhouse companies prior to buying the rhododendron business. In fact, they met and fell in love while working at a nursery.
This hands-on experience with nursery work, coupled with their young age, were the key components that convinced Hart to sell to them, said Christianson.
“When you are young, you have the advantage of being able to tolerate the ups and downs of owning a business better, I feel,” Christianson said. “We knew enough about the industry to give us an edge, but having the energy and willingness to do whatever it took to make it work also enabled us to gain his trust and he eventually chose us as the new owners, despite the fact that other people offered more money.”
The couple took their new opportunity seriously. They renamed the business “Christianson’s Nursery” and set out to expand its offerings to meet the demands of a broader base of customers.
John’s experience at Molbak’s, a major greenhouse operation in the Pacific Northwest, taught him that having a diverse set of products is an effective way to attract the masses. But he and Toni also found that the company’s long-time, loyal customers still enjoyed their rhododendrons.
So they continued selling the spring ornamentals that had made the company thrive in previous years and simply added other interesting species to the mix.
“We didn’t want to abandon the rhododendrons that the company was known for, but we felt that adding a good selection of ornamentals, fruit trees and roses would draw more customers,” said Christianson. “Today, we have the most complete selection of uncommon plants in the northwest.”
Roses quickly climbed to the top of their best-sellers list because they can be planted at virtually any time in the mild-climated region.
According to John, the long-lasting color that roses provide is another factor local gardeners appreciate. In fact, most of the company’s customers are in search of plants that offer constant color.
“We sell a lot of perennials here for that very reason,” he noted. “We have an extensive display garden on our property made up of mostly roses and perennials and we sell more plants that are in the displays than anything else. The entire garden was built around an 1888, one-room schoolhouse that we moved to the property a number of years ago.”
The schoolhouse is one of several historic structures that gives Christianson’s Nursery a unique ambiance. An old seed room from 1895 was disassembled and brought to the site too. It was rebuilt inside the main retail building and is currently used as an eye-catching backdrop for hard good displays.
Many of the newer buildings that the Christiansons had constructed or remodeled over the years were completed using materials repurposed from other old buildings. The blend of historic elements with the owners’ modern marketing methods makes the business a rare find.
“Physically, Christianson’s Nursery has an old fashioned aesthetic,” explained John. “But we have a contemporary approach to business, one that ensures we meet the exact needs of our customers.”
Indeed, the company combines these traditionally-opposing forces on a regular basis.
It offers an array of cutting edge plant and wildlife classes in its 1888 schoolhouse. The company also utilizes an old tractor barn as a gift shop filled with the latest gift items, antiques and books.
The owners and staff have even worked out a seasonal plan that keeps customers coming back throughout the year. This, said Christianson, is a difficult task even in a zone where people can plant and garden 12 months annually.
“We have 22,000 sq. ft. of greenhouses and we use some of that space to tuck away some perennials after cutting them back in the fall,” said Christianson. “That leaves empty spaces in our outdoor display areas that we fill with larger coniferous evergreens. These not only make sense to have on display during the winter season, but having larger trees fills more space overall and takes less time to move than hundreds of 1 gallon containers in the event the weather gets really extreme.”
During this same time period, the company’s large selection of roses are lined up inside, highlighting the many different varieties it carries. The gift shop is filled with Christmas decorations and a wreath machine is offered to shoppers on an hour-by-hour basis.
“People can sign up for one-hour blocks and buy a wreath ring from us for $5 and greenery by the pound. Or, they can bring their own greens,” explained John. “We have a staff member on hand to help if they need it, but most people already know how to use the machine.”
By the time spring rolls around, the crew at Christianson’s Nursery is busy preparing for another peak season. They pull out the rhododendrons, forsythia and assortment of rare ornamentals. Bare root fruit trees are also on sale at that time.
Keeping the company up and running from spring to summer and fall through winter requires a lot of effort, but the owners have fortunately found a formula that works. And in the future, they hope to continue in much the same manner, with their marvelous mix of old-fashioned ambiance and contemporary concepts that have proven the previous owner made the right choice of successors all those years ago.
by Kelly Gates