by Aliya Hall

Despite forming at the start of the pandemic, the SymbiOp garden shop and ecological landscaping cooperative has only grown and expanded its offerings since March 2020.

“We started out as an ecological landscaping company first, and we weren’t planning on opening a garden shop that soon,” JT Yu, marketing and business development lead, said.

Located in Portland, OR, SymbiOp focuses on regenerative gardening and design as well as aiming to be carbon negative. The worker-owned shop carries a selection of native, edible and house plants, along with gardening supplies and locally produced home goods.

SymbiOp found a brick-and-mortar home in July 2021. The garden center took over and renovated what had previously been Naomi’s Farm Supply, a business Yu had frequented for chicken feed.

“I found out they were closing and thought it seemed like the next logical step for us,” he said. “We often buy plants for landscaping work, so it makes sense to buy it from ourselves so we have the right collection.”

In the SymbiOp garden center, Marketing and Business Development Lead JT Yu said they want to be a central source for local, handmade ecological goods that they can provide to customers, but also give back to the local economy too. Photo by Aliya Hall

Yu added the physical presence of a garden shop also helps them spread the idea of ecological gardening and landscaping to a larger audience. SymbiOp officially opened its center on Oct. 1. The mission and values for SymbiOp came from the idea of symbiotic systems, “whether it’s ecosystems or human systems,” Yu said.

Yu has a background in business and tech consulting, and said the idea for the landscaping venture came about through discussions with his friend and housemate, Nutmeg Minneboo, who has been doing ecological landscaping for many years.

“It seemed like, first of all, really important work and, second of all, seemed to be an opportunity to create a bigger impact if we make the business bigger,” Yu explained.

Their plan for the business coincided with the layoffs that plagued the beginning of the pandemic and gave SymbiOp a work force to help push their dream forward. At the moment, they employee 23 people and five of them are worker-owners. Yu said they hold a one year review period before someone is eligible to become an owner, and with the number of people they hired this year for the garden shop, many employees will be eligible for worker-owner status next year.

SymbiOp’s use of regenerative practices is similar to permaculture and echoes indigenous people’s practices, Yu said. “The idea is whatever you do, when you create a system … you want to create it so it outputs beneficial things to its surroundings,” he explained. “That way, the system tends to be more resilient and sustains a bit longer than systems that are ‘do no harm.’”

Carbon neutrality used to be how people talked about sustainability, but Yu said that is no longer enough because there will always be imperfections and inefficiencies that will produce some harm.

“That’s why we really strive to be carbon negative,” he said. “At this point the only thing we’re lacking is we’re waiting for electric trucks to come out.”

On their end, SymbiOp implements landscapes that sequesters carbon and promote how to create that landscape or garden for customers. Yu said one of the things they’re focusing on next year is educating the public on accessible ways for them to start regenerative gardening systems for themselves.

“Native plants are great and I love them, but I had to learn about them,” he said. “I feel there’s a lot of people out there who’d like to learn more and turn their invasive grass lawns into something more beneficial that attracts wildlife… They may not know what to do and I want people to feel welcome here.”

Most of their landscaping clients are based in the Portland metro area, but Yu said they do have clients on the outskirts of the city, depending on their needs and how much impact they can make.

“We have a few projects where people really align with our mission and values, and they have a large property they want to turn into a regenerative food forest that mitigates climate change and restores native habitats – and that’s worth it, because it has a bigger impact even if that means we have to drive a little further,” he said.

Going forward, their goal is to work with nonprofits and government grants to implement food forests in public parks. Yu said creating food forests for individual clients is helpful, but he also thinks about open lawns at universities and people who are unhoused that often feel the climate crisis the most. He posed the question: “What can we do for them?”

“We really want to see it happen, and personally think it has to happen,” he said. “We don’t have a choice. The sooner we can do that the easier it will be.”

In their garden shop, SymbiOp is also working to create a closed loop system. Yu said they want to be a central source for local, handmade ecological goods that they can provide to customers, but also give back to the local economy too. Although SymbiOp has felt the constraints of the supply shortage, Yu said they aren’t feeling it as badly as big box stores.

“We’re trying to source things locally and that makes us more resilient,” he said.

SymbiOp also enjoys giving back to the community. Each month the shop supports a different nonprofit or group. In November, they did a Black Friday fundraiser where 10% of each sale went to the Native American Youth and Family Center.

The most rewarding aspect of the cooperative has been their workers, Yu said. Despite the worker shortage and narrative that people don’t want to work, Yu said hiring has never been a problem.

“Of all the things that was difficult, we have had no shortage of people who want to work for us,” he said. “Maybe it’s because we pay a little higher, maybe it’s because people align with our mission and maybe it’s because our environment is more horizontal and feels there’s more input or they’re more committed because they can eventually become owners.”

While there are always challenges in forming a new business, Yu said that “all things being equal, we ended up having a pretty smooth path.” Their biggest learning curve has been fine-tuning their messaging and marketing to ensure they’re targeting the right people and not excluding customers, but Yu said that’s ongoing process.

“The way people think changes and we have to adapt to that,” he said. “This is where a similar regenerative practice comes in of making dynamic systems, not creating set rules but dynamic processes where we adapt to the external environment.”