In a Year that Decimated Small Businesses, This Family-Owned Portland Nursery Hit a Sales High

Cornell Farms reported a more than 40 percent increase in sales in 2020 over the year before.

By Elizabeth Dye March 10, 2021 Published in the Spring 2021 issue of Portland Monthly

Cornell Farms has acres of plants in addition to an onsite cafe.

Nurseries and garden centers were one of the few business categories allowed to stay open through the quarantine shutdowns, providing a much needed outlet for the many housebound Oregonians looking to better themselves and their yards. Southwest Portland’s Cornell Farm, which had its beginnings a century ago as a dairy and has been a retail nursery since 1987, reported a more than 40 percent increase in sales in 2020 over the year before, with owner Deby Barnhart estimating as many as half of the customers were newbies.

Why was digging in the dirt, specifically, so many people’s new favorite hobby?

“Gardening can meet you wherever you are,” Barnhart says of the relatively inexpensive pastime embraced when so many other amusements were off limits. And with more than 800 varieties of annuals and perennials, an impressive array of large-specimen trees, and a bucolic hilltop setting surrounding a historic farmhouse, it’s no surprise Barnhart’s five-acre, fifth-generation family farm was where so many people chose to explore their newfound obsession.

The nursery is divided into zones, with types of plants and projects grouped together. Expert display gardens let you see specific planting schemes in situ. But before you start potting geraniums or breaking ground on your potager, Barnhart advises rookie gardeners to start with an interest they already have. A passion for cooking might lead you to explore edible plants and herbs for your kitchen—packets from the Kitazawa Seed Company feature a selection of hard-to-find Asian greens like jeok gat and gai choi, while veggie seedlings give more impatient harvesters a jump start.

Concern for the planet may nudge you toward native plant species and creating habitat for local fauna—options abound to drive your backyard finches wild with joy. Live in a small space or apartment? The houseplant greenhouse can supply your “jungalow” with stylish pots and low-light leafy species that thrive indoors.

What if you have a black thumb and lose a plant here or there? “Don’t worry about it,” says Barnhart. “It’s fresh air, it’s exercise, and the pace is nature’s pace.”

A colorful smattering on display at Cornell Farms.

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