Sara Ori, president and co-owner of Portland Nursery. Ori took the nursery over from her dad on Dec. 31, 2020. Photo by Aliya Hall

by Aliya Hall

With two locations on five acres in the Portland metro area, Portland Nursery has embedded itself into the fabric of the city.

The nursery offers a wide variety of gardening options from houseplants, vegetables and roses to fruit trees and unique plants.

“A lot of garden centers are moving towards fewer options because it does make it easier on the customer to make decisions, but we have always had it be that we have a wide selection,” president and co-owner Sara Ori said. “We’re the place where you come if you need gardening advice or something you can’t find anywhere else.”

Portland Nursery has roots going back to 1907. It was founded by Albert Bromwell, who pooled plants from around the Northwest and shipped to customers across the country. The nursery was bought in 1920s by Avery Steinmetz, who elevated the nursery; he became one of the first people honored in the American Association of Nurserymen’s Hall of Fame. He sold the nursery in the 1980s to Ori’s father and grandfather, and she took it over on Dec. 31, 2020.

“[The nursery] was something that I grew up around but not knowing that I would go into it myself,” she said. “When I did start getting involved in working there, I felt a strong connection to people in the industry and plants in general.”

Along with a large selection of plants, Portland Nursery also prides itself on its customer service and educated staff. Their information desk is staffed with people “highly knowledgeable with horticulture,” Ori said.

“People can bring cuttings, samples of fungal diseases or leaves from a neighbor’s plant and ask ‘What is this?’” she explained. “We’re really amazing at figuring that out and answering questions.”

The nursery offers landscape design as a customer service tool too. It used to only be for people who purchased gift cards, but now it’s offered with a small fee to cover costs. They help customers choose where to place plants and ask them what they want from their space, whether it involves a space for children to interact or an environment that looks nice without a lot of maintenance. “We really get them to find what works for people,” Ori said.

She added that it’s also more cost effective for customers because they can use the expertise of a landscape designer but either do the work themselves or pay a smaller fee to implement it.

The biggest challenge in running a nursery for Ori is working with live inventory. “You have to make sure it’s being treated correctly or you can lose product,” she explained.

On the retail side, there’s also more education that goes into training staff that isn’t as necessary in other retail positions.

“People really need that help when they’re new at gardening,” she said. “There’s so many ways to have a conversation with someone on how to prepare their gardens or protect their plants.”

With COVID-19, Ori said that there was the initial struggle with uncertainty in how the virus was spread, but she has been proud of her staff throughout it. “We just pulled together as a team,” she said. The nursery has social distancing measures in place and they’re putting further space between products too. From a gardening standpoint, Ori said they saw a lot of younger, first-time or newer gardeners coming in.

“First off, there was a lot of food insecurity of people not knowing if food would be available,” she said. “We sold out of vegetables for the first time ever.”

Later, customers that were spending more time at home came in to look at renovating their backyards. Ori said that instead of vacations, many dedicated their time to upgrading their living spaces.

Going forward, Ori is excited to grow the company further, but for the time being her focus is getting all her ducks in a row before starting any new projects.

Ori said it’s the people that are most rewarding for her. She said the people who like plants view the nursery as their happy place.

“Gardeners are usually in a good mood when they come in and the employees want to be here and love working outside with the plants,” she said. “I just feel in general it’s a really nice atmosphere to be in.”