For the Love of Plants

Digger Magazine, February 2009

Roger and Arda Berryhill have been in the nursery business since 1962, and they have no immediate plans to stop working. During the past 46 years, the Berryhills have established a reputation as world-class propagators and staunch representatives of the nursery industry.

“Raising plants is a true love,” said Arda, who made her mark as one of the Pacific Northwest’s first female propagators more than four decades ago. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Finding a niche
While Roger was serving in the U.S. Navy during the late 1950s, Arda completed a biology degree at Willamette University. They lived in Klamath Falls while Roger attended Oregon Institute of Technology, then relocated to the Portland area when he took a job as a machinist at Hyster.

“By then we had children,” Arda said. “I wanted to stay at home with them, but I also wanted to do something.”

That something turned out to be growing plants. She and Roger started Berryhill Nursery on 2.5 acres near Sherwood in 1962 and have been going strong ever since.

“We didn’t have enough land to be farmers,” Roger said. “We built a little greenhouse and things just took off from there.” Over the years, they gradually added five-acre parcels and now own 30 acres, 20 of which are used for production.

Until he retired from Hyster in 1980, Roger worked the graveyard shift, which allowed him to help with the nursery during daylight hours. He constructed the buildings and maintained the equipment while Arda handled propagation and marketing and did the books. That division of labor continues today.

During their early years of operation, Roger and Arda performed very task everything at the nursery. But after hiring several seasonal workers on a trial basis during the late 1960s, it became clear that a full-time work force would make the job much easier.

In an era where most nursery workers change jobs frequently, the Berryhills are an exception. Three of their 10 employees have worked at the nursery for more than 20 years. Another recently retired after 35 years of employment with Roger and Arda.

Rhodies opened the door
The Berryhills focused on raising rhododendrons when they opened the business, in large part because that’s where the demand was. That said, getting a foot in the door wasn’t easy.

“It didn’t take long to realize that rhodies were a lot easier to grow than to market,” Arda said. Once she and Roger had mature plants available, they began making the rounds of area garden centers in an attempt to make sales.

“By then, it was spring time,” Arda said. “Everyone had already purchased their rhodies in the fall. We didn’t sell one plant. I cried when we got home and told Roger we should have raised blueberries.”

Gradually, things improved. Today, Berryhill Nursery’s containerized plants are sold to retail nurseries, wholesalers, and landscapers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California. Rooted cuttings and liners are shipped throughout the United States. Berryhill Nursery features more than 500 varieties, including dwarf cyprus, juniper, umbrella pine, camellia, hydrangea, honeysuckle, escallonia, photinia, azalea, laurel, and rubus. But Arda still has a soft spot for rhodies.

“We don’t make very much from them, but that’s where we started,” she said. “I suppose a lot of us in the nursery business would be more successful financially if we didn’t love plants so much.”

IPPS membership provides boost
Both Arda and Roger point to advice received in 1967 from Bill Curtis of Wil-Chris Acres in Sherwood as a turning point in their careers.

“We were interested in plant propagation, but all we had to rely on were books,” Arda said. “I didn’t think anyone would want to share ideas with a potential competitor, but Bill was kind enough to teach us what he knew about propagation.”

Curtis also helped Arda gain membership in the International Plant Propagators Society, which opened the door to all sorts of valuable advice. In 1984, the Western Region of the International Plant Propagators Society elected Arda as its first woman president.

Roger noted that the IPPS is at least partly responsible for transforming the nursery business. “People used to be very secretive,” he said. “Some had locked greenhouses. The IPPS changed that because it put the information out there for everyone. That’s a real benefit because in this business it’s all about continuous change and learning.”

Changes in market, technology drive the industry
Arda noted that there is far more demand for native plants today than in the past. “It’s pretty common for commercial jobs involving wetland restoration to include grasses, Oregon grape, salal, and ferns,” she said.

When the Berryhills got started in the nursery business, Monrovia was the only company involved in container growing. Roger and Arda began selling containerized plants during the mid-’80s as demand from landscapers grew. That portion of the business now comprises a good share of the Berryhills’ sales.

To protect containerized plants from frost damage, the Berryhills use the “pot-in-a-pot” method, in which a potted plant is placed within a larger container that has been dug into the ground. “It can be lifted right out during any month of the year with no digging involved,” Arda said.

Like many of their competitors, the Berryhills start their plants in greenhouses and then move them to cold frames for root development. One slight twist on this technique is the use of hot water that is piped beneath the beds in five of their greenhouses.

“You want to keep the air in the greenhouse pretty chilly so the tops don’t grow too fast,” Roger said, “but you also want the soil warm so that the root system develops.”

Tough economic times pose challenge
For the Berryhills, the biggest obstacles they face are all related to oil.

“Everything we use – from pots to power – is connected to oil and energy in some way,” Arda said. “Obviously, our overhead is going up, but with the way the economy is right now, it’s very difficult for growers to raise prices to cover those costs.”

The rise in transportation costs has resulted in markedly higher operating expenses for growers in the Pacific Northwest who ship to consumers on the East Coast and in the South. Nurseries in those regions are now springing up to take advantage of ready markets in their own backyards.

“You don’t have to worry about being in a particular climate zone anymore,” Roger said. “You can put up a greenhouse anywhere in the country and be in business.”

Activism
When it comes to getting involved in efforts to help the nursery industry, the Berryhills have been at the front of the line. Arda has served on the Oregon Association of Nurseries’ Board of Directors and was the association’s treasurer for several terms during the mid-’90s. She was elected to the OAN Hall of Fame in 2000. Roger has been involved as a member of OAN’s Government Affairs Committee for more than a decade.

Although they would prefer not to be involved in the politics that govern immigration, water, and transportation, they see no choice. “You have to have a place at the table if you want to get your views heard,” Arda said.

Both Roger and Arda agreed that the best thing about being OAN members is the many friendships they’ve developed over the years. “It’s just a wonderful group of people,” Arda said.

A well-deserved reputation
Verl Holden, founder of Holden Wholesale Growers in Silverton, Oregon, said that Arda is known and respected worldwide for her skills as a plant propagator. “Arda an excellent problem-solver who is willing to tackle all sorts of difficult dilemmas,” Holden said. “She’s also a delightful, generous person who is a joy to work with.”

Dick Joyce, owner of Joyce Farms, has known the Berryhills since 1971. No matter where he has traveled in the Pacific Northwest, he’s found that customers of Berryhill Nursery have only good things to say about Roger and Arda.

“They have an impeccable reputation in terms of their product and their character,” Joyce said. “In fact, I can’t think of anyone in the industry who has a better reputation.”

Looking ahead
Eventually, the Berryhills’ sons, Doug and Brian, will take over the business. But for now, Roger – who is 75 – and Arda – who is 73 – remain passionate about the nursery and fully engaged in its daily operations.

The Berryhills have traveled to every continent, in part because of Arda’s involvement with IPPS, and plan to do even more traveling once they retire.

They are currently building a home on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico and will spend time there once they retire. “Old bones don’t like cold weather,” Arda said.

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