Though Allen Tower has helped design a backyard owned by a well-known businessman here and has provided plant materials to an eminent botanical garden in Colorado, he doesnt hanker for recognition.
Tower, who owns Spokane-based Tower Perennial Gardens Inc., recently designed an addition to North Idaho publisher Duane Hagadones garden at his summer home in Coeur dAlene, and originally designed that garden about five years ago. He says he also supplied most of the plants for the newest garden, called Plantasia, at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Tower says he prefers to design gardens so they spotlight budding figures of a different sort.
I try to make it look like a place where the plants are the stars of the show, he says.
As a landscape consultant, Tower spends many days during the spring and summer counseling Spokane-area homeowners on how to position flowers, plants, fountains, and other lawn ornaments around their residences to create scenic, yet functional gardens. Most of the time, however, he counsels customers at his nursery, at 4010 E. Jamieson Road.
Tower says that since he and his wife, Susan, opened Tower Perennial in 1997, theyve expanded the nursery to the point where they nearly have filled the eight-acre property they own with greenhouses, gardens, and other horticulture-related or retail facilities.
They also have enjoyed consistent sales growth during each retail season, which typically runs from April to early October, Tower says. He says he spends the winter months completing minor construction projects around the nursery and breeding new plants.
Tower declines to disclose the nurserys annual revenues, but says that its sales in the first six weeks of the season this year were up 40 percent over the same period last year. Retail sales account for about 80 percent of the nurserys revenue, and landscape-consultation fees make up the rest, he says.
Most of Tower Perennials customers are homeowners, though a handful of landscaping companies buy the nurserys products, Tower says. The types of clients who hire Tower to design their gardens varysome are commercial businesses with small courtyards that need to be made more attractive, and some are homeowners with backyards that theyd like to see embellished, he says.
Hagadones garden probably was the largest he has designed, Tower says. He says he worked with Hagadones gardening crew and six different landscaping companies, which each performed a variety of work including excavation, planting, and fountain installation, to create a vast display that includes more than 10,000 plants.
No matter how much a client has to spend on landscaping, Tower says he asks each homeowner the same types of questions before designing their gardens.
He typically inquires about style preferences, what features homeowners would like installed, and how many guests they usually host during outdoor functions. He also visits clients residences to determine the ecological atmosphere and the homes architectural styles.
Tower Perennial charges at least $650 for a general landscape consultation, but clients typically pay $2,000 to $10,000 for garden designs, Tower says. He says he usually can fulfill garden-design specifications requested by a client with a limited budget, but the results arent quite as elaborate as they could be if the client could splurge.
No matter how much money a homeowner spends or how well he designs a garden, all efforts are wasted if the homeowner doesnt tend the plants, Tower says.
If you dont maintain it, it could end up a pile of weeds the next year, he says.
Tower Perennial currently employs 14 people, four of whom Tower hired last year, who maintain the gardens there, help customers with sales, and create crossbred plants at the nurserys propagation facility, Tower says. The company, which employed three people when it opened, employs one person during the winter, he says.
Psychologist to horticulturalist
Before Tower turned his gardening hobby into a business, he studied psychology at Vanderbilt and Duke University and worked as behavioral health director for Group Health Cooperative here for about 17 years.
Towers idea to start a nursery business sprouted in 1989, when he began selling hybridized plants and other garden supplies through a mail-order nursery that he owned. Later, he opened and operated Tower Perennial on a part-time basis while he maintained a part-time psychology practice here, which he eventually had to close, he says.
Its not like I got sick of psychology and dumped it, he says. The nursery just grew rapidly, and I realized I couldnt do both, so I wrapped (the practice) up.
Tower, who now runs Tower Perennial full time, has lost count of how many plants he has crossbred over the years, but estimates that he has hybridized more than 24 new types of plants. He says he creates those plants by hand pollinating seeds or by cutting off a mutated leaf, branch, or other part of a plant, and growing that mutation.
Tower recently introduced a hybrid, called Carax Beatlemania, that is a variation of a similar plant called The Beatles. Both of those fern-like plants have thin, shaggy leaves that resemble the locks of their mop-headed namesakes.
Tower also hybridized a plant called Hosta Crystal Moon, which has larger blooms than most hostas, and introduced Ligularia japonica, a species of plant that is new to the region.
Unlike some horticulturalists who patent their hybrids, Tower says he produces new variations of plants without copyrights and sells them at Tower Perennial to customers or horticulturalists. Sometimes, plant collectors ask him to create unique variations and introduce them to the trade, he says.
Besides creating hybrids, Tower gives lectures at Tower Perennial and is a member of the North American Rock Garden Society, the main rock-gardening organization in the U.S. Also, he frequently converses with other horticulturalists throughout the U.S.
Tower says he has collaborated often with Panayoti Kelaidis, the curator at Denver Botanic Gardens, to introduce plants and exchange plant materials. Kelaidis has described the Inland Northwest as a prime location to cultivate all types of plants, he says.
He thinks our spot is where you can grow the widest range of plant material in the U.S., Tower says. We can grow cacti and other desert plants, and with irrigation and shade, grow perennials and lush plantsthings they cant dream of growing in Denver.
A walk around Towers nursery almost seems like a tour through a downsized Disneyland, where you enter a different theme park every few yards you step, but instead of steering through hordes of people waiting for rides, you maneuver easily through neatly arranged displays of vibrant vegetation.
Upon veering to the left of the nurserys entrance, past a tiered rock garden, a small fountain, and a collection of tan and brightly colored ceramic pots, you find yourself in a cool, woodsy sanctuary from the sun. After you stroll along a dirt path lined with mopheads and plants with heart-shaped leaves, you wind through rows of perennials cloistered under an overhanging mesh blanket and emerge into the heart of the nursery, where you must choose a direction.
If you turn left, you can peruse the sun perennials outside, survey Bonsai plants and other flora inside three greenhouses, or peer into a 45,000-gallon pond full of Koi fish swimming leisurely. If you turn right, you can poke through an herb garden, hike around a hill dotted with fuchsia-colored peonies, or stop and smell the white- and cherry-tinted roses at the base of a knoll.
And thats only the 30-minute tour of the grounds.
Plant prices vary widely, usually depending on size, Tower says. For example, a Japanese maple that is several feet tall costs about $500, while that tree might cost about $22 if it is only a few inches tall, he says.
Also, Tower Perennial, like other nurseries, charges more for certain plants that arent widely available, such as Abronia fragrans, a rare plant with tennis ball-sized white flowers, and Cupressus arizonica Raywoods Weeping, a showy conifer from Denver Botanic Gardens, Tower says. Among other items the nursery carries, a Japanese Koi that is about 5 inches long and sells for about $30, and pottery, which Tower imports from Asia, can be priced at anywhere from under $10 to $1,000, depending on the size.
Tower Perennial also sells sod, including the Legacy-brand Buffalograss, a special type of low-maintenance turf developed at the University of Nebraska, Tower says. Buffalograss requires little watering and virtually no mowing after a year of growth, he claims.
Tower Perennial has secured exclusive rights to sell that grass within a 100-mile radius of Spokane, he says.
Though Tower Perennials sales have risen steadily, the company, like most other nurseries, operates with a slim profit margin, Tower says. He says he takes caution when buying certain plants to make sure that the nursery will sell enough of them to make a profit.
The nursery business has a high failure rate, Tower says, because owners sometimes dont anticipate difficulties.
A lot of people have this fantasy that running a nursery is just about arranging flowers all day, he says. The reality is youre pulling weeds, lifting weighty materials here and there, and doing a lot more hard work than you think.
Tower Perennial has attracted many customers by hosting free musical events during the summer, he says. Those events, which usually include performances by local jazz bands or instrumentalists, draw visitors from throughout the Inland Northwest, he says.
Tower plans to add public-art events this summer, and has asked local artist Dave Govedare to display some of his pieces at the nursery.
Tower has no immediate plans to expand the nursery or open another one.
For now, hes content with managing his gardens at Tower Perennial and creating more awareness about them in the community.
Thats my philosophy of gardeningcreating beauty and then sharing it with others, he says.
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