Serving people and the planet

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In Portland, Oregon, a new worker-owned garden shop champions people- and planet-friendly regenerative gardening practices.

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January 18, 2022

ILLUSTRATION © svetlaborovko | ADOBE STOCK

When the co-founders of SymbiOp incorporated their ecological landscaping business in March 2020, they didn’t foresee a retail store the following year. But call it serendipity, fate or business savvy, that’s what happened when the worker-owned cooperative’s new garden shop opened in Southeast Portland on Oct. 1, 2021.

Given pandemic uncertainties, co-founder JT Yu acknowledges the timing might seem odd for a retail launch. But for the team at SymbiOp — short for Symbiosis Cooperative — those pressures triggered sparks that got the cooperative to where it is now.

All photos courtesy of Symbiop
SymbiOp focuses on biodiversity and regenerative gardening practices.

Seeing and seizing opportunities

SymbiOp arose from a one-person landscaping company with more clients than it could handle when COVID-19 hit. Expansion dreams weren’t new, but the timeline was. As the co-founders watched friends lose jobs during the pandemic, informal talks became business plans. And with that, SymbiOp, a worker-owned ecological landscaping cooperative focused on regenerative practices, was born.

Yu says job creation and the desire to introduce more people to regenerative gardening fueled the cooperative’s start. The team’s intuition that bad timing for others might be good for them proved correct as new pandemic gardeners embraced nature and ecology-minded landscaping flourished.

When a local garden center closed in March 2021, the year-old landscaping cooperative’s timeline shifted again. Suddenly, the SymbiOp garden shop that had seemed possible in three to five years became an immediate opportunity.

Yu’s business development background influenced his view. “In the business world that I’m coming from, timing is probably the most important thing,” he says. “When there’s an opportunity, we really need to grab it because that makes things so much easier than if we just build from scratch later.”

SymbiOp tried to buy the existing garden business to jump-start its retail venture. The attempted acquisition failed but determination quickly replaced their disappointment. “Everyone just came together and said we can make this work ourselves, we can start from scratch, and we can make it even better,” Yu says.

By July 1, they secured a lease on the vacant property and began renovating the 10,000-square-feet indoor-outdoor space. Vibrant new murals proclaim SymbiOp’s motto of “For People and Planet” — a call that resonates with the community it serves.

The neighborhood has shown its appreciation for the renovation and the principles behind SymbiOp. “It’s an outpouring of support,” Yu says. “People loved the old business. But I think they really appreciate the new business even more because we have an even stronger emphasis on ecological practices.”

“When there’s an opportunity, we really need to grab it because that makes things so much easier than if we just build from scratch later.” – JT Yu

Communicating purpose and practices

SymbiOp’s team represents decades of combined expertise in ecology, biodiversity and regenerative gardening practices. The full-service landscaping department provides design, installation and maintenance services for like-minded residential and commercial clients. Sharing their focus with a broader audience inspires SymbiOp’s garden shop team as well. The year-round shop offers an extensive selection of native plants, edibles, medicinal plants and houseplants. Tools and books complement gifts by local artisans, and feed and supplies for chickens and other urban livestock round out the space. Practices that go beyond “organic” and “sustainable” — that actively restore and regenerate soil and ecosystems — are the thread that connects them all. Yu says the shop fills a niche in the gardening community for customers who are “extra passionate” about ecology, regenerative gardening, growing food for their families, and creating healthy habitats with birds, insects and other animals.

Matt Gravel, one of SymbiOp’s lead landscape designers, spearheaded the garden shop’s initial inventory and design. Gravel, who is Indigenous, left a career in the conventional landscape industry to study regenerative practices with Indigenous elders. His work through SymbiOp elevates awareness and understanding of the power he feels those practices hold.

“It’s relevant to every single person on this planet because we only have one planet and we have the ability and knowledge to steward the land we occupy to be bountiful for every single thing that occupies it,” Gravel says. “Regenerative landscaping and ecological design have the ability to solve most of the world’s climate and food security problems if implemented globally — putting people and planet first.”

Despite its ancient roots, Yu says regenerative gardening lacks mainstream adoption today. As a result, making the principles more relatable through education is a big part of SymbiOp’s work. New online tutorials, blogs, articles and social media stories will help achieve that goal.

“What we’re trying to do is change the language a little bit and make it more accessible so more people — more regular people — can understand and feel connected to this kind of practice and it doesn’t feel like it’s such a daunting task,” Yu explains.

“Regenerative landscaping and ecological design have the ability to solve most of the world’s climate and food security problems if implemented globally — putting people and planet first.” – Matt Gravel

Attracting and empowering worker-owners

The cooperative’s approach to symbiotic relationships doesn’t stop with gardens; it applies to the worker-owned business as well. Yu says establishing a cooperative isn’t easy. One hurdle is a lack of awareness and understanding among people and institutions, including banks. But the team believes the pros far outweigh the cons.

Attracting and retaining labor is one example. “Whether it’s landscaping or retail, one of the largest expenses is turnover,” Yu says. He believes that worker ownership yields increased commitment, which reduces turnover and related costs.

SymbiOp’s goal is for all workers to become owners. For starters, a person must put in 2,000 hours — roughly a full-time year — to qualify. Workers also undergo a one-year review and training on ownership and effective group skills.

The shop offers an extensive selection of native, medicinal and indoor plants.

“Becoming an owner means that not only are you responsible for the job that you’re hired for, but you’re also responsible for understanding how the business actually operates,” Yu says. “You might not need to be the one who makes financial or marketing decisions, but you need to know how that works.”

Hiring for the retail shop and landscaping expansion has gone smoothly so far. Yu credits the company’s regenerative focus and cooperative structure. Casey Nakamura, a member of the new retail team, echoes those thoughts.

Initially attracted by SymbiOp’s regenerative approach to gardening and landscaping, Nakamura says the company’s acknowledgment of Indigenous contributions to permaculture and regenerative design intensified her interest.

“The company’s focus on a healthy work culture, as emphasized in a cooperative, really aligned with my own values,” she says. “SymbiOp just felt like a place that I could fully embody those values while working in a field I am passionate about.”

The company’s nine retail workers and 14 landscape workers include five worker-owners and 18 workers on the ownership track. Many will fulfill ownership requirements over the next year.

“The company’s focus on a healthy work culture, as emphasized in a cooperative, really aligned with my own values.” – Casey Nakamura

Sharing passions

After a few short months in retail, Yu feels underqualified to advise existing or prospective garden center owners. But he says that finding your passion — and people to share it with — is vital.

All photos courtesy of Symbiop

“Starting a business is already really hard. If you’re not working on something that you truly believe in, then it’s going to make it so much harder. And if you find something that you truly believe in, find someone else who also believes in that, because that’s also going to make it easier,” Yu says.

He admits being a bit surprised at how well the shop is doing compared to other new retail businesses, but he believes he understands why.

That's all because of the amazing workers that we have, who are totally committed to the mission we have, and then the amazing customers that we are getting. People come in and they just love the shop — not because of the things that we sell, but because of the things that we believe in.

The author is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Garden Center magazine. Reach her at jolene@jolenehansen.com.