ADDRESS: 3290 SW Willamette Ave, Corvallis, OR (by appointment only)
OWNER: Esther McEvoy
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 15
NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: Varies by season
WHAT THEY SELL: Native plants – Wholesale and Retail
WHY YOU SHOULD GO: For a wide selection of native plants, offered with expert advice
As soon as Esther McEvoy opens the gates to Willamette Gardens, you know you’re entering a very special place. The beds of perennials, ferns, grasses, sedges, and other natives are attractively arranged, giving the appearance of gardens, rather than a nursery. Esther’s love of native plants and the wildlife they attract shines through as she describes different species, whether it’s a red-flowering currant shrub that draws hummingbirds or milkweeds that are vital for the survival of Monarch butterflies.
When and why did you decide to start your business? I opened Willamette Gardens in 2000. I’m a volunteer with the Native Plant Society, and we’d been sponsoring native plant sales through the Spring Garden Festival. There were always plants left over. In 2000, there was a real excess, so I took them back to my yard. When a lot next to ours became available, we bought it. It was a mess – mostly exotic hawthorns. So my high school-aged son helped me clean it up. The only native was a small oak and an Osoberry shrub. We spent several years fixing up the lot. Then we bought an additional lot in 2007. (I was holding out for that one because it had an abandoned well!)
If you want to attract birds, you need to plant more native vegetation. They’re a wonderful source of food, shelter and provide nesting areas for wildlife. I love observing the wildlife, which are attracted here because of the natives.
What led to your interest in native plants? When I was a child, I was always playing in the dirt. I lived in an old house in San Francisco, right near Ansel Adams’ house. My first love was birds. When I was quite young, I built a bird feeder out of two boards and attached it to a window in the breakfast room. We put out some bird food, which was fine until we looked out the window and saw a mouse eating the food!
My parents were both European, and they liked to take walks, so we did a lot of hiking, especially on Mt. Tamalpais. In high school, I did my first plant collection on Mt. Tamalpais. I made a pressed plant collection, the type that goes into a herbarium for permanent storage. (We have a large herbarium at OSU in the bottom floor of Cordley Hall.)
After receiving an art degree from Lewis and Clark College and a degree in science from PSU, I went to work at the Malheur Field Station. That’s where I got hooked on botany. I fell in love with plants! I took classes and worked as a cook and teaching assistant for Botany and Soil Invertebrate classes for four years at the field station in the summer. Then I worked as a range technician at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Burns. I was a botanist with a focus on rare plants. It was while I was working there that I found out about the Native Plant Society of Oregon.
Following two field seasons at the BLM, I got a job with the Forest Service, working on old growth forests in the Coast Range. It was the hardest job I ever had since it was so steep and wet. After that, I was at the EPA lab in Corvallis, working on studies of the toxic Superfund sites. At that job, I grew crop seeds in the water that went through contaminated soil, and it made me realize that contaminated water is a serious concern for everything from crops to all parts of the ecosystem.
Tell us more about your products and services. What are your specialties or favorites? I sell plants that are native to the Willamette Valley, the mountains, and the coast, including some that are also found in northern California. All the plants are sold in containers from 4” pots and 5 gallons. I also sell bulbs and some bareroot plants in the fall. The two non-natives I sell are red maples and green Japanese maple – the red maples because I rescued them, and the Japanese maple because it’s a good small tree.
I also do landscape design, although I’m not a certified landscape designer. And I provide a lot of advice!
What does being featured as the Local Business of the Week mean to you? It means more people will be aware that I’m here, since I don’t do much advertising. I’m very careful since my business is located in a residential neighborhood. Also, I’m pretty low-key.
Do you fill an unusual niche? Why should folks patronize your business? Willamette Gardens is for people who want to find natives at a reasonable price. There’s a growing interest in using more plants that are drought-tolerant, bring in the pollinators, and help the butterfly caterpillars.
What challenges have you faced as an independent local business owner, and how have you met those challenges? Being small is really hard. Sometimes people spend a lot of time with me, and then they don’t buy anything. My time is really precious, so I ask people what they want. I supplement some of my plants with plants from Seven Oaks Nursery, a wholesale nursery. Nurseries are starting to carry more natives because people are asking for them.
What do you feel is the impact of local independent businesses on Corvallis? It adds diversity. You don’t have to travel far to get what you’re looking for.
What do you enjoy most about owning a local, independent business in Corvallis? What excites or inspires you, makes you keep changing, improving? I have some great customers who share their enthusiasm about attracting wildlife. By planting natives and not using sprays, I always find new things happening in my garden.
What is your relationship to the community? What charities/nonprofits/civic organizations do you support and/or participate in? In 1981, I started the Corvallis chapter of the Native Plant Society of Oregon, and I’ve been active in it ever since. We’ve also supported the Greenbelt Land Trust since the beginning. Willamette Gardens is a partner in the Sustainability Coalition, and I also belong to the Audubon Society of Corvallis and the Marys Peak Group of the Sierra Club.
How many people do you employ? Right now, I have three part-time employees, but the number varies throughout the year.
How important is sustainability to you and/or your business? Have you taken steps to save energy, reduce your use of resources, decrease your carbon footprint, reduce waste, etc.? I think it’s really important for us to be aware of how we impact the earth. I collect rainwater and use only rainwater and well water for irrigation. I don’t use any City water. Also, I don’t use any herbicides or pesticides.
Please give us your one-sentence take-away message about your business. Willamette Gardens is a small, unique native plant nursery with a personal touch.
(Interview and article by Annette Mills – August 16, 2015)
The Local Business of the Week program is designed to help the Corvallis community identify our locally owned independent businesses by featuring one business each week. The program is part of the Buy Local First campaign co-sponsored by the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition and the Community Independent Business Alliance (CIBA).