Growing a Vision

From modest beginnings, Log House Plants has become one of the Northwest’s most innovative nurseries

by VALERIE EASTON

ALICE DOYLE AND GREG LEE REMAIN AS COMMITTED to education as when they graduated from the University of Oregon in the 1970s and began searching out property for a free school. A group of idealistic college friends piled into an old Plymouth Valiant station wagon and searched the countryside around Eugene, resolved that if they didn’t find the perfect spot to start a school they’d emigrate to New Zealand or Canada’s Frasier River. To the great good luck of gardeners around the country, the merry band came across 52 acres and an old log house for sale on Rat Creek outside the little town of Cottage Grove, 30 miles south of Eugene. Thirty years later, four of the original group still live together in a much-remodeled log home on the shores of Rat Creek, along with assorted children, a cadre of committed employees, chickens, donkeys, a flock of multicolored cats, and the gentle big black poodle Charley.

For Doyle and Lee, the idea of an alternative school morphed into co-owning a successful wholesale nursery that, along with producing some of the coolest plants around, generates labels as factual as an encyclopedia yet as quirky as The Guinness Book of World Records. Whether it’s their Plant Curiosities series of lovely rarities, Believe It Or Not heirloom vegetables, or Tropical Plants for Temperate Climates, each plant is labeled with a history, description, and cultural information. Raised in 26 greenhouses and shipped out in a fleet of big-box Isuzu trucks, plants from Log House are sold at nurseries in Washington, Oregon, Northern California, and Idaho. They also produce a huge number of pots for Jackson & Perkins every year. Doyle is a pioneer of inventive labeling; new this year are trademarked windowpane labels made of clear plastic so that light shines through, illuminating the color photos on each tag into a lifelike three-dimensional image.

BEGINNINGS

Doyle has one of those endlessly inquisitive minds, which along with her bountiful enthusiasm for plants, has resulted in the current Log House roster of more than 2,500 varieties of perennials, annuals, herbs, and vegetables. A lanky, thoughtful woman with a burst of curls, Doyle exudes cerebral as well as physical energy. If her brain could be transformed into paper and print, it would resemble the Oxford English Dictionary in its capacity for detail.

“We started out in the mid-70s growing species marigolds,” explains Doyle. “Everyone was breeding doubles then, just like everyone was building ranch houses.” Nothing Log House Plants has produced then or since resembles what others are doing. One of the earliest perennial growers in Oregon, they built their first greenhouse from tempered glass salvaged for $35 from a food co-op in Eugene. The old donkey barn houses a piano planted up in seasonal displays of flowers—a graphic depiction of the idea that every color corresponds to a musical note. The tidy, wood-floored old outbuildings are neatly outfitted with a series of nooks for storing seed, with areas set aside for painting pots with stripes or stars. In one building, a row of rusty mannequin hands offers up little vases of flowers and clutches of healing herbs. Another houses a photography studio and darkroom, and yet another is devoted to extracting herbal essences. Thousands of wooden flats (the ultimate recyclable) are stacked up high to form drawers holding labels of plants present and past. Keeping the plant tags sorted is no small task, for all are color-coded with 23 cultural variations, from full sun to part shade, from summer to winter bloom times. The meticulous tagging is all part of Doyle and Lee’s mission to ensure the home gardener’s success without relying on overworked nursery personnel, who may or may not know the plants they sell.

A RECIPE FOR SUCCESS

The 12-acre nursery bristles with industrious creativity, for each of the 25 year-round employees (up to 45 in summer) has an area of responsibility derived from their own skills and interests. “We’re blessed with overqualified employees,” says Doyle about the success of their team-based management approach, as she introduces graduate students, linguists, choreographers, a famous fiddler, artists, and a ballet teacher who are busily sweeping, transplanting, and poking seeds into pots. Doyle consults far more often than she directs, as she winds her way through rows of plants, inquiring about a performance or a child. Does the hum of happily occupied people encourage the plants to grow so large and lush? Can all the burgeoning green be attributed to the benign Willamette Valley climate? Maybe it’s because Log House mixes all their own soil. Or have Doyle and Lee earned good karma from all their community work, including providing all the perennials and annuals for the University of Oregon campus every May? Whatever the reason, from the stuffed greenhouses to the lemony sunflowers towering over the compost heaps, to the flowery hillside of demonstration beds and the huge mossy trees behind the log house, all the plants flourish amid the buzz of so much enthusiastic caretaking.

“We believe in the school of total plant health,” says Doyle of her team’s efforts to give plants the best nutrients, light, and water possible. “Everything has been trial and error for us—we’re not trained in this.” Sometimes plants are moved along five times, from seed to four-inch pot, before they’re sold. The goal is to keep plants strong and healthy so that no pests or diseases bother them. The same nurturing philosophy applies to the employees, who are encouraged to go for a swim in nearby Lake Dorena during summer lunch hours.

Opposite, left: The nursery’s spring tulip display. Opposite, right: Alice Doyle and Greg Lee. Above left: Host plants matched to individual butterfly species. Above right: A rescued piano emphasizes the correlation between color and the musical scale.

WHAT’S GROWING

Log House Plants has stayed ahead of the curve in a rapidly changing industry for decades. Doyle believes this enviable position is due to a quick response to demand and maintaining close relationships with buyers.

While no doubt true, Doyle and Lee have also followed their own enthusiasms as they built their business. In 1986, the International Year of Peace, Doyle figured out where every Log House plant originated and created a popular “Grow to Know the World” map. She also planted up Portland’s Washington Park Zoo to reflect the animals’ farflung origins. Following the Northwest’s changing weather patterns, Log House began producing a series of tropicals in 1997. Heirloom vegetables and a waterwise series have proved timely and popular. They named and introduced short, sturdy ‘New Generation’ lupines and the dwarf ‘New Heights’ English delphiniums, both featured on covers of past Jackson & Perkins catalogs.

This year for the first time, Log House is providing plants for other growers around the country, targeting nurseries and retailers who finish their own plants. “It’s a logical step for us,” says Doyle. “We can help nurseries stay fresh.” This will allow Doyle more time to seek out plants around the world (“I love the hunt,” she says), and build on the success of the double coneflowers and hose-in-hose primroses she found in Europe and which she offers exclusively in the United States.

This season, look for more eclectic and beguiling offerings from Log House. Amaranthus cruentus ‘Velvet Curtain’s is the world’s first all-maroon amaranth, with four-foot spikes of deep burgundy flowers and foliage, while the postage-stamp flower (Schizopetalon walkeri ‘Milky Way’) has fragrant flowers resembling rectangular snowflakes. Doyle’s current obsession is tracking down pop-able seeds other than popcorn. She heard that in Mexico City many years ago a movie house sold popped quinoa—the grainlike seed of a member of the goosefoot family—so expect nonpopcorn plants soon from Log House. Along with the first and only fragrant dahlias and the world’s first black delphinium, both in progress. Doyle describes Log House with her usual infectious, yet precise, enthusiasm: “We’re a small grower with a big punch.” H

Look for Log House Plants at Horticulture’s GardenFair. See page 20 for details.

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