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Business is blooming.

How two women are turning a passion for growing into a thriving business

I discovered Oregon and gardening 10 years ago. Gardens here seemed an unabashed celebration of Nature over man, with the most humble buildings made lovely by flowering vines, tree-size rhododendrons, azaleas and, oh, so many roses. Scouring nurseries and eccentric gardening outposts became a passion. One small gardening center in Southeast Portland, housed in what may have been a gas station, lured me with its exuberant patch of poppies that bordered the little parking lot.

The owner tended her vision of a garden experience among geraniums, garden annuals, perennials and shrubs; she recommended fertilizers to ensure blooms, sprays to tame mildew. On rainy afternoons, she worked in the shop with its array of clay pots and garden tools, telling any friendly ear about the financial impossibility of trying to keep a seasonal business afloat. She sold me sunburned poppies and leggy baby plants at a discount, telling me how to revive them. Oregon welcomed a new gardener.

Fast-forward to the comer of Northeast 24th Avenue and Fremont and meet the new look of gardening. Last May, poppy-box gardens launched its concept in one of Portland's oldest neighborhoods.

Poppies appear as window graphics. Rough pots in red clay, burnished black or with crackled glazes of blue, celadon and pale translucent yellow, line shop shelves. Display islands cross the gleaming floor, showcasing rocks of various tones and textures, potted ferns, vases, cut flowers. A ramp winds around a second room, and then you're outdoors, amid a variety of plants, each one perfect. in fact, perfection is the poppybox signature.

This is what Oregon gardening looks like when an investment banker fails in love with gardening, invents a niche, secures local investors and recruits her retail-marketing sister to help her make a statement.

Cheryl Crane and Allison O'Connor grew up in Portland and worked at Nordstrom before setting off from the Pacific Northwest. Cheryl became a venture capitalist specializing in retail, and Allison was a marketing executive with Abercrombie & Fitch Kids. Oregon's appeal lured both back home, where Cheryl fell madly in love with gardening in her Lake Oswego yard.

The two women developed a business plan to provide the very best of Oregon's superb range of plants to people - whether master gardeners, novices or apartment dwellers - with a guarantee that each would succeed. They offered a guiding spirit of customer service acquired growing up in the Northwest, revering the early sensibilities of Nordstrom and Starbucks and what Cheryl refers to as Powell's "temple of books." Fine-tune that with inspiration from English gardening shops' products, expertise and owners' personal expression.

In their first store the poppybox logo appears on every visual and printed element, down to the tissue paper that cushions a purchase. The look sizzles without intimidating the brown-thumbed. This is a haven for shoppers who take comfort in a clean corporate-dictated marketing style.

Still, you can see the women's fingerprints all over it. It may or may not be just a pleasant accident that poppybox opened within shouting distance of two elementary schools in a mature neighborhood. Cheryl likes the "messiness of life," where children touch merchandise, older people have unobstructed access, and the curious can browse and find the best darn plant on the market.

A second store is scheduled to open in Tigard and, the sisters vow, neither it nor the other 50 they intend to open in the West in the next five years will be a cookie-cutter of the others. Each will reflect its neighborhood and respect its microclimate. Cheryl envisions stores where gardening is both sacred and fun. Allison foresees poppybox introducing new materials, artisans and products.

I'll bet both visions will materialize. The boho poppy-rimmed shop may have evaporated, but gardening in this country has become a multi-billion dollar market, and doing it right will surely stimulate even more interest in digging in the dirt. As Portland gets glossier and the world smaller, it is thrilling to see two local women branding Oregon-style gardening and service all over the West.

Deborah D 'Luzen has worked with the Portland Oregon Visitors Association; directed destination marketing in North Carolina and Arizona; and juggled media and marketing initiatives for CityPass, the Nasdaq, resorts and the Oregon wine industry.
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Title Annotation:poppy-box gardens
Publication:Oregon Business
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2000
Previous Article:LETTERS.
Next Article:Staying on the edge, but out of the abyss.

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