For Jonn Karsseboom, plants and retailing are pathways to self-expression
Not too many garden center owners would refer to themselves as “J-dog” in their marketing materials — but then, Jonn Karsseboom isn’t most people.
He’s a rebel business owner, unafraid to express his personality through his business, as well as his marketing. In fact, he views these things as a must.
That’s why customers driving into The Garden Corner in Tualatin, Oregon, see a banner that reads “Welcome garden rebels!” It’s why the “World’s Largest Hanging Basket” is positioned at the center of his garden center.
And it’s also why his employees have stream-of-consciousness website bios that are peppered with nicknames like “T-Bone,” “Sting,” “Mr. T” and, of course, “J-dog.”
How do you attract customers in search of plants as a form of personal expression? For Jonn, the solution is simple. You create a garden center that celebrates personal expression — “the hanging basket passion place,” as The Garden Corner’s tagline puts it.
“Here, you can find things that are different from anywhere else,” he said. “What we’ve found out from our customers is that there are a lot of rebel gardeners. They garden despite the odds that are against them.”
Jonn’s “garden rebels” may include the college student with plants on the windowsill, the busy mom who loves plants but has little time to care for them, or the retiree who wants to grow better tomatoes.
“People can buy plants anywhere, from sophisticated garden centers offering the latest Heuchera, to regular grocery stores, to mass merchants and farmer’s markets,” he said. “Our customers have lots of other options. We had to ask the question, ‘Why?’ That was the big revelation. Why are our customers coming to us?”
It’s because The Garden Corner provides customers not only with unique plants that exude personality, but also personalized help.
“We can no longer just worry about our store,” he said. “I have to know my customers on a much deeper level. I can take nothing for granted.”
In the beginning
Jonn’s passion for gardening began early in life.
Growing up in Woodburn, Oregon, he and his brothers worked extensively in their home yard, thanks to the gardening passion of their mother, a registered nurse.
“All my brothers ended up in the nursery industry,” Jonn said. “It was my mom who really made us work outside, just as it was for so many other people.”
While Jonn was in high school, he worked at Al’s Garden Center in Woodburn, Oregon. His brother was a manager there and hired him. Jonn enjoyed it immensely. (He later ended up dating and marrying the owner’s daughter, Tracey.)
But a nursery career did not become Jonn’s immediate pursuit. After high school, he decided he wanted to be a doctor and enrolled in pre-med courses at Portland State University.
In 1991, Jonn and Tracey — with help from Tracey’s father, Jack Bigej — started a business installing and maintaining hanging baskets for the Lake Oswego Chamber of Commerce, which used them to brighten up shopping areas.
While this business slowly grew, Jonn continued his education and made plans to apply for medical school. He was accepted by an out-of-state university, but didn’t want to move his family out of state, so he didn’t enroll there. Instead, he waited for Oregon Health and Science University in Portland to accept his application.
“They just never did,” he said.
About that time, S & J Nursery — located off the beaten pathway in a Tualatin residential neighborhood — came on the market. Jonn decided to give up his med school dream. The Karssebooms purchased it and converted it into The Garden Corner.
“The problem with our business, and the people in our business, is we love what we do,” Jonn said.
The hanging basket business was soon incorporated into the new garden center. Today, the baskets are grown at the garden center, then installed and watered from trucks that are emblazoned with The Garden Corner’s logo.
“Pretty much, we now do the entire Portland metropolitan area in hanging baskets,” Jonn said.
One year at a time
Jonn does not just advertise the slogan “the hanging basket passion place” — he lives it. When he’s in the garden center, he’s a constant blur, helping customers and making sure everything is in tip-top shape.
When he leaves, he’s still engrossed in the business. A recent afternoon found him teaching primary school students about gardening.
“Today, I can start first thing in the morning, and the day is finished before I even know it,” he said.
It’s not to say that Jonn is not studious about what he does. He is constantly evaluating how The Garden Corner can better meet the changing needs of customers. The business has been there for 15 years, but he doesn’t view it that way.
“It’s our first year in business, but it is our 15th attempt,” Jonn said. “That’s how I approach it. There’s been a lot of soul searching, and we’re still working on it, even today.”
The Great Recession was tough. The Garden Corner was hit with a double whammy — the economy was in a shambles, and consumer shopping habits were changing. No longer did gardeners look first to garden centers for their plants.
Jonn estimates that he lost 10,000 customers over a four-year period. “There’s a humbleness to knowing you’re their second choice, but there’s a hidden strength,” he said.
It forces him to reach out, to compete harder, and to build relationships with his customers in any way possible — social media, personal interaction, you name it.
“There’s a lot of people who need gardening,” he said. “They’re living too much indoors.”
Today, Jonn considers the recession finished, and over the past few years he has seen growth. It’s been slow growth, but he’ll take it.
“Our story is one of immediate success, a horrendous storm, and then a slow revelation of purpose — a renewed sense of purpose,” he said.
The Garden Corner
Known for: Hanging baskets, strong selection, an obscure location and quirky marketing
Owners: Jonn and Tracey Karsseboom
Address: 21550 S.W. 108th Ave., Tualatin, OR 97062