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Perennials and lots more are popping at iconic nursery


Al's Garden Center expansion provides more room

It may not look like spring outside, but at Al’s Garden Center in Gresham, the new season is already sprouting in greenhouses.

And so too, is an expansion and remodel to the nursery, which will provide more undercover retail space and a whole heap more room for petunias, pots and perennials.

“Last year was the first time we closed down for three or four weeks, so we could change some things around,” said Mark Bigej, third-generation owner of the iconic nursery on Hogan Road. “But I’m just scratching my head trying to figure out how we’re going to get this all done.”

Bigej is referring to the cavernous main retail area, which is empty of everything save the cement flooring. There’s little to indicate the business is usually Mecca for those who love to get dirt under their fingernails, with its silent cash registers and mostly empty parking lot.

But come March 1, Bigej is confident customers will like what they see.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Tim Fidanzo, manager of Al's Garden Center in Gresham, stands in one of the greenhouses nurturing geranium starts that will supply all three of the company's retail outlets.

Al’s Gresham location shut down Christmas Eve to begin work on the expansion, which when completed, will feature an additional 4,000 square feet of retail space and centralized checkout. The change will allow the center to not only increase its inventory, but also offer more sheltered shopping to gardeners who can’t wait until the rains end to begin working in their yards.

“We know what our spring weather is like out here and how much easier it is for customers to shop undercover,” Bigej said. “But hopefully, customers will also like that we’re moving checkout away from the main entry. That will improve the overall flow and there won’t be as much congestion when customers walk in the door.”

Frequent fliers at Al’s Gresham center may have some trouble finding their way around at first, Bigej said, as the inventory itself may not be where you saw it last season. For example, the soon-to-be converted greenhouse, which will serve as retail space, may become home to shrubbery once found outside on a gravel path. While shoppers will still find outdoor containers and garden accessories in the area, they also will be introduced to new ideas for landscaping and yard décor such as fountains and statuary.

“This is going to give us a chance to add new features and shake things up a little,” Bigej said.

Al’s Garden Center was born as a roadside fruit stand in 1948 by Mark’s grandparents, Al and Ann Bigej. The couple sold the fruit, walnuts and asparagus they grew on their land in Hubbard and made daily runs to the Portland Produce Market to augment their offerings. It was a meager living with a growing family.

“My grandpa had a certain amount of money each day to take down to the market to get his supplies,” Bigej said. “At the end of the day, after they took out their seed money, that’s what they made.”

In 1959, Jack Bigej (Mark’s father) joined the business shortly out of college and suggested adding plants to the repertoire.

“Grandpa told my dad, ‘Produce sells, but you can play with the plants,’ “ Bigej said, laughing.

Today, the 65-year-old family run business manages a growing operation in Hubbard, which supplies the nursery’s retail outlets in Woodburn and Sherwood with inventory. Al’s expanded into Gresham in 1997, on 4.5 acre site once home to Oregon Floral. The Gresham land was originally an additional growing facility, before the retail end was opened in 2004. The company grows all its annuals and perennials and 50 percent of all shrubbery in Hubbard, while it’s signature geraniums, daisies and fuchsias are all grown in Gresham.

“That’s the nice thing about this location,” Bigej said. “We sell a lot of what we grow here. People have come to expect that. But we’re also always striving to make sure our customers are able to learn something and be comfortable with what they want to do.”