Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Oct. 21, 2020

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Sun sets on Hidden Gardens Nursery in Camas

Known for expertise and wide selection, business to close after 30 years

By , Columbian business reporter
9 Photos
Hidden Gardens Nursery in Camas is preparing to close after nearly 30 years in business. The nursery covers 5 acres and sells plants, pottery, bark, rocks and soil.
Hidden Gardens Nursery in Camas is preparing to close after nearly 30 years in business. The nursery covers 5 acres and sells plants, pottery, bark, rocks and soil. Zach Wilkinson/The Columbian Photo Gallery

For any longtime customers or new visitors planning a trip to Hidden Gardens Nursery in Camas, time is running out. The independent nursery — long a favorite destination for Clark County gardeners — is preparing to close for good after nearly 30 years in operation.

The nursery’s owner, John Mackay, says the closure is prompted by a mix of factors that he says made it too expensive to run the business, including rising taxes and municipal fees. The property is slated to be sold to a development company called Senexus, which plans to build a 116-unit senior housing complex at the site.

The closure is still about two months away — Mackay says it’ll happen Nov. 1 at the latest — and visitors walking around the nursery this summer could be forgiven for thinking it’s business as usual. Pallets and shelves packed with plants fill every nook and cranny, and row upon row of trees line up along the back fence.

But things are moving quickly behind the scenes, Mackay says, with deep sale prices fueling a turnover rate that sees a lot of the nursery’s inventory changing two or three times per week. The facility is still receiving products that were ordered more than a year ago, so sales have to keep up.

“We’ve probably sold 400 to 500 fruit trees in the last two weeks,” he says.

Growing Hidden Gardens

Mackay began his career as a landscape contractor, and Hidden Gardens Nursery initially grew out of that business.

He gradually built up and organized products on a large section of his property behind his house. In 1990, he began inviting landscaping clients to tour the fledgling nursery to make their plant selections. In 2001, he expanded Hidden Gardens into a full-scale retail location.

“This is my passion,” he says. “My love has been landscaping and design.”

Much like the plants and trees that line its shelves, the nursery as it appears today is the product of slow and careful growth, with new features such as a seating area, sales sheds, greenhouses and hydration systems added one at a time over the years, along with new plants and typical nursery products such as gardening tools.

Mackay speaks proudly of being able to grow Hidden Gardens for so many years as an independent retailer in an industry where big-box retailers such as Home Depot and Fred Meyer are taking up much of the market.

The secret has been a deep approach to individual plant categories, according to Mackay. Big-box retailer garden centers will tend to have a wide selection of plant types but only a few individual species within each category. That gave Hidden Gardens an opportunity to differentiate itself by offering large and varied selections within each category — particularly trees.

“People just don’t realize there’s another whole world out there of nursery stuff that you don’t see in box stores,” he says. “Street trees, shade trees, ornamental trees, flowering trees — anything and everything you can think of.”

The business’ outdoor location has allowed Mackay to be a grower in addition to a retailer. Products can be kept on site, sometimes for years at a time, until they grow to the right size and profile to be sold. While most of the lineup goes through high turnover, Mackay says some of the trees have been in the nursery for 10 years.

“A lot of stuff we grow ourselves,” he says.

Mackay’s landscaping background has also allowed him to provide advice and expertise to customers, and is often cited as one of the nursery’s strongest selling points.

Viktoria Pesetskiy said she lives near the nursery and appreciated having a local option where the staff could provide advice about the best plants to grow in the neighborhood’s clay-heavy soil.

“When we started with our backyard garden last year, they actually carried things that are good for the Camas area,” she said.

Closure decision

The decision to close is bittersweet. Mackay says it’s a decision he came to on his own, and he’s confident that the business will easily break even once the final sale is done. But at the same time, he says there are some factors that pushed him toward closure — chiefly, rising operating costs from taxes and stormwater fees.

Washington’s recent decision to substantially curtail the state sales tax exemption for Oregon residents has also taken a bite out of the nursery’s business, he says.

Mackay says he explored moving the nursery to a more affordable site but found that the rules for setting up a nursery business — such as regulations for filtration from gravel lots — have also been tightened to the point that it would be cost-prohibitive to get a new location up and running.

“Quite frankly, it’s very tough to be a small business in this day and age,” he says. “I wouldn’t mind doing this another 10 years. I just don’t think I can afford to live here anymore.”

The nursery business itself can also be fickle, he said. Customer traffic slows to a trickle in the winter months, and even in the summer it can be difficult to forecast how the business will do over a given period of time.

It’s not the first time things have gotten tough — Mackay says Hidden Gardens very nearly closed down in 2011 at the height of the Great Recession, and he even went so far as to sell off part of the land at the back of the property.

In the end, the nursery was able to pull through, but Mackay says this time around the challenges aren’t going to ease up. Voluntarily closing down now will allow for a final summer blitz of sales, he says, and it will give his employees — some of whom have been at the nursery for as long as 16 years — as much time as possible to transition to new jobs.

Future of the property

Mackay still lives in his house next to the nursery, but he plans to move and sell the entire property to Senexus for redevelopment. The company specializes in senior housing, and plans to buy the nursery land and two adjacent properties to build a senior living complex with 116 units and associated amenities.

Senexus CEO Rick Boehlke says the company has built more than 600 senior housing developments throughout the country, but he says this project will employ a new building style and is aimed at producing “affordable, not upscale” senior housing.

The nursery site, with its high altitude and sweeping views, quickly emerged as an ideal project location, he says. The project is tentatively scheduled to begin construction in early 2020 and open in the summer of 2021.

As for Mackay, he says he’s looking forward to having at least a little more free time without having to tend to the nursery every day — but he’s not planning to retire yet, and will return to a more active role in home development and landscaping.

“It’s been a great ride,” he says. “I loved doing it. For me it wasn’t just selling plants — I actually believe in what I’m doing.”