Scott and Dianna King took over 13th Street Nursery in 2018, 98 years after it first opened. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

Generations of Salem area residents have counted on a small nursery off Southeast 13th Street for quality plants and service.

On Sunday, 13th Street Nursery will celebrate its 100th year in business.

It’s a belated occasion. The plant shop turned a century old in 2020, but Covid delayed plans for a 1920-themed party until this weekend.

Co-owner Scott King said the core principle others might learn from that has kept the nursery around is treating customers right.

“Every customer here - I don't care if they're buying a plant for $2.95 or they're spending $200 - we want to make sure that they feel like they just had a really great experience at our nursery, and that’s what we do,” King said.

That requires training staff, he said. It also means dropping what you’re doing and just saying hello when someone walks in.

“They don’t need help right away,” he said. “You don’t have to follow somebody around, you don't have to put pressure. If they ask, they’ll ask.”

One of the biggest changes since he and his wife, Dianna Brainard-King, took over 13th Street Nursery in 2018 their selection, which he said is second to none.

“We don't have 100 of one thing, we have 100 different items with anywhere between 15 and 30 of each item,” he said.

The semi-indoor nursery has rows up front of perennial plants that return every spring, including daisies, daylilies, rosemary and oregano. Further back are sections for herbs, plants needing shade, roses and tomatoes, with trees and edibles such as grapes available outside. 

The other notable change the Kings brought with them is an array of indoor plants, which Dianna said “exploded” during the pandemic and drew customers who had never owned one before. They added an expanded indoor room for houseplants as well as a room for indoor plants needing low light.

A semi-outdoor room with plants native to Oregon and the Willamette Valley has a large sign on the wall that reads “Plant’s Garden Center,” from when Art and Flora Plant first opened the nursery in 1920. 

It remained the family business for decades but was eventually taken over by Karen and Glen Maki in 2000, who ran the nursery for over 17 years.

Scott King said he has tried unsuccessfully to find early photographs but still hears about the nursery’s history from customers.

He said one woman who has lived in Salem for 65 years recently visited and said she recognized the kiwi plants that were planted there and are now 70 years old. “They used to just fill up the entire roof of the place,” he said.

Before taking over the nursery, Scott worked in sales for Cascade Collections while Dianna was an executive assistant for the state Department of Transportation.

With Dianna having gardened her whole life, they planned to start growing plants at home and selling them at the Saturday Market until they learned in 2016 that 13th Street Nursery was closing. 

They went back and forth for a year trying to buy it but eventually had to walk away when the previous owners got an offer from a dental office. The nursery stayed closed for about a year and half in total.

“We were all waiting for a dental office to be built here and that just never happened,” he said.

Almost a year later, Dianna saw a big red lease sign in front of the property, pulled over and called Scott.

“I don't care what you're doing, where you're at, you call this number right now and find out what's going on,” he recalled her saying.

They took over the business at a time when the industry was already largely occupied by large chains and didn’t have to cope with the same major changes the previous owners did.

But Scott said competitive pricing is integral to the nursery’s longevity. Anytime they get a new product, they research what Walmart, Lowes, Home Depot and Amazon are selling it for.

13th Street Nursery’s prices are “right in between most of them” he said, even without the discounted pricing the others get from buying in bulk. 

“You’ve got to do your research,” he said. “You can't put a plant out there that you want to charge $40 for, but other places are actually selling it for $9.95. It's just not gonna work because you'll never sell it. But you can price it at hopefully $29.95 And you'll sell them all out because of the difference in location, customer service and plant knowledge, and we see that every day.”

King said the work is tiring but rewarding. “The smiles, and when they say, ‘Really, thank you’ and ‘we’re so glad you’re here,’ it just makes up for everything.”

“It's a really good mix,” he said. “People say you can't work with your spouse. Well we've been doing it for five years and we're getting better.”

He said both he and Dianna love when people come into the nursery with questions.

“From the experience of not being a plant guy to now being a plant guy,” he said, “I would have bought something and planted it anywhere in the world, I didn’t know. And now I know what will kill it and what won’t, or what to plant where and what suggestions to make.”

The 100th anniversary party will be Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 13th Street Nursery at 1298 13th St. S.E. It will include live, 20s-style music, food, face painting for kids, cake, sale items, wine, product vendors and prize giveaways.

 Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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