Green Thumbs Up

Five of our favorite locally owned nurseries

Vassey Nursery

Vassey Nursery is set deep in a residential area near downtown Puyallup. Like many small nurseries, Worth Vassey’s began as a hobby. His greenhouse was full of geraniums, fuchsias, and tomatoes.

Owner Steve Vassey and long-time employee Nancy Shank. Photo by Joanna Kresge

Owner Steve Vassey and long-time employee Nancy Shank. Photo by Joanna Kresge

He overwintered fuchsia baskets for many gardeners in the area and began to grow a business. Then his son, Steve Vassey, kicked it up a notch. Vassey is now a thriving neighborhood nursery with 14 greenhouses and a beautifully landscaped compact ornamental garden that skirts the well-grown trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals.

Walking through Vassey is nothing short of inspirational. The nursery is well-known for its hanging baskets, especially geraniums and mixed plantings. Carrying on the tradition of his father, Steve grows a wide variety of tomatoes and has added hardy fuchsias to his plant portfolio.

Nancy Shank has been on staff at Vassey Nursery for 12 years. She is one of those intrepid “go-to” horticulturists with experience you can get only by being an avid gardener yourself. “Nancy will know” is usually a safe assumption. If you are lucky enough to live near Vassey, you will recognize Nancy. 2424 Tacoma Road, Puyallup

The Barn

The Barn Nursery on old 99 near Rochester has been a community resource in Olympia for 30 years. It is the largest of these independent nurseries. The Barn has grown into a popular destination nursery partly because of the accumulated experience of its staff.

Chris Watkins, employee at The Barn. Photo by Natalie DeFord.

Chris Watkins, employee at The Barn. Photo by Natalie DeFord.

Horticultural experience in an independent nursery can’t be overlooked. Along with personal service, it’s what sets one apart from the big guys. Customers catch on to this.

Chris Watkins is a perfect example. Watkins has been at The Barn for about 25 years. Why does she like working there? “Why the plants, of course, and the people I meet on a regular basis … the ever-increasing changing world of plant offerings.”

Her nursery experience naturally spills into her home garden, which she admits is a garden of “trials and errors.” It’s far too tempting to be surrounded by new plant varieties in the nursery and not take them home to try them out. After many years of experimenting, she knows the “tried and true” plants that grow well. She can confidently answer questions about plant habits and make suggestions to meet her customers’ needs. Whatever the plant, she probably grew it, and if you don’t grow it, you don’t really know it. 9510 Old Highway 99 S.E., Olympia

Gardensphere

Travis and Gabe Valbert, the Gardensphere brothers, have created a unique neighborhood nursery on a small lot at the lower end of the popular Proctor District in Tacoma.

Travis and Gabe Valbert, owners of Gardensphere. Photo by Natalie DeFord.

Travis and Gabe Valbert, owners of Gardensphere. Photo by Natalie DeFord.

They started the nursery 13 years ago, when they were 21 and 18. They began with a landscaping business and then opened the nursery. They soon discovered that they liked the nursery work better.

Travis is the plant nut and Gabe handles more of the business end, but Travis is quick to point out, “We’re both strong on chickens!” This urban garden shop is a source for all things chicken coop-related, a trend that doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Gardensphere is like Cheers without the bar where everybody knows your name. It has a quiet energy about it. Travis says that their customers come back because of the attention they know they’ll get. 3310 N. Proctor, Tacoma

Gartenmeister Plant Shop

Gartenmeister Plant Shop in Puyallup is one of those timeless nurseries that somehow feels familiar. It sits on about 2 acres of a working nursery. It hasn’t changed much since 1983, owner Clem Manuel’s parents opened the doors. And his customers like it that way.

Gartenmeister Plant Shop owner Clem Manuel. Photo by Joanna Kresge.

Gartenmeister Plant Shop owner Clem Manuel. Photo by Joanna Kresge.

According to Manuel, staying small is one reason Gartenmeister is still here after 33 years. Staying small allows the staff to know both customers and plants. Manuel says his longtime customers have become friends. One did complain a little because he dared to paint the walls in the small customer service area. He even moved a rack from one side of the room to the other. Oh no! Sometimes change is just wrong.

Visiting Gartenmeister is a little like going back in time. No website. Nothing flashy. No computer-generated signs. Just a friendly atmosphere and people who know what they’re doing, and know what they’re talking about. 16015 81st Ave. Ct. E., Puyallup

Old Goat Farm

Old Goat Farm in Graham is one of those Google Maps challenges, but once you find it, you won’t want to leave. There’s something comforting about it.

Horticulturist Greg Graves and designer Gary Waller run the nursery and tend the garden that runs along one side of a Victorian farmhouse.

Horticulturist Greg Graves and designer Gary Waller of Old Goat Farm. Photo by Joanna Kresge.

Horticulturist Greg Graves and designer Gary Waller of Old Goat Farm. Photo by Joanna Kresge.

Behind the house and garden is a critter-filled farm with goats (of course), ducks, geese, chickens, and lots of birds. It’s worth visiting just to see Casper the white peacock when he decides to fan out his enormous feathers.

They also grow five species of peonies that Graves starts from seed.

The garden near the nursery area is filled with 25 truckloads of plants that Graves and Waller moved from a previous garden into Old Goat Farm. They called those truckloads their “starter garden.” Some may call them plant nuts. People who have visited Old Goat Farm generally return because the place is special.

Graves conducts horticultural tours for the Northwest Horticultural Society and has a world of plant knowledge to share. Waller as the designer leaves evidence of his touches throughout the garden. Every time you walk through, you will notice something new — like moss-covered concrete bunnies hidden under hamamelis. 20021 Orting Kapowsin Hwy. E., Graham

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