Couple 'retires' to nursery
Updated: Saturday, September 15, 2012 12:31 AM
'It's kind of crazy to start a nursery when you're thinking about retiring'
By KELSEY THALHOFER
Jim Lewis and Jenni Burkhead were in their mid-50s when they got an offer they couldn't refuse.
So rather than wrap up decades of work in the nursery business, the couple decided to jump back in -- this time as entrepreneurs.
"It's kind of crazy to start a nursery when you're thinking about retiring, but this is our retirement," Burkhead said. "It's a lifestyle."
Six years ago the owners of Jeddeloh Farms in Gresham offered the couple their plants, customers and mentorship, and J Farms was born.
"Without their plant material, we would be nothing special," Burkhead said. The Jeddelohs, with family ties to a large nursery in Germany, brought several previously unknown conifer varieties to the United States.
Burkhead sold plants for the nursery before the couple expressed an interest in retiring and selling the business to pass on their legacy.
Because the conifers they produce are slow-growing, starting from scratch would have added years to the process, and developing a customer base would have been another battle.
"It just happened, but I'm glad that it did," Lewis, who had started conifer programs at other nurseries, said of the opportunity to have his own. "It was always kind of a dream."
In 2008 they bought the 5.5-acre property in Amity where they now live and grow their plants.
"It worked out great for them, and they do a really good job," Linda Jeddeloh, of Jeddeloh Farms, said. She was glad to hand the business to Burkhead, who already had knowledge of their plant material and customers, and still keeps in touch with the couple.
Burkhead and Lewis specialize in propagating dwarf conifers. Their slow-growing and low-maintenance cedars, pines, spruces and firs offer a more manageable option for home growers who want the colorful and care-free features of the trees without having their small yards overtaken by massive trunks and branches.
As "contract grafters," the couple only makes new plants when they receive orders. They produce 50,000 to 65,000 grafts from 150 varieties at their nursery each year. Many nurseries plan to grow the plants for another five years before placing them on the retail market.
The couple met at an industry function 13 years ago; Lewis was a nurseryman, Burkhead a plant saleswoman. Now he specializes in production while she does administrative work and helps around the nursery when needed.
Their proudest creation is a plant discovered by Lewis and named by Burkhead: Green Penguin. It's a dwarf Scotch Pine that grows 2 to 3 inches a year and maintains its bright green hue through all seasons.
Burkhead believes Green Penguin, along with the other plants at the nursery, has been "underutilized" in home landscapes. It requires no pruning, maintenance, fertilizer or special soil, and has survived trials in the harsh weather of Duluth, Minn. The couple has watered their conifer field only once this summer.
"It's a value that people are starting to see," she said.
They launched Green Penguin last summer at the Farwest Show's new varieties showcase, where it drew attention as a hardy and care-free alternative to large conifer varieties.
"It's all just an education process," Burkhead said. She plans to teach visitors at this year's Farwest Show about the merits of potted conifers. Often consumers are unaware of the species' diversity, she said. "Maybe the offerings they see readily available are older varieties."