PESHASTIN — This spring, Derby Canyon Natives in Peshastin opened for its first season under new ownership. The 3-acre plant nursery is home to around 150,000 plants, depending on the time of year. It specializes in wildflowers, trees, shrubs and grasses that are native to the region.
“People are looking for low-maintenance, low-water and low fertilizer and pesticide input planting,” said Mel Asher, owner of Derby Canyon Natives. “It seems like it’s getting trendier all the time.”
Asher, 43, is an environmental biologist and restoration ecologist. She officially purchased the business Jan. 1, just five days before one of the biggest snowstorms in Wenatchee’s history.
“We were living in Soap Lake and driving over here and managing 5 feet of snow on all of the structures was definitely a trial by fire — or trial by avalanche,” Asher said. “I had plastic over one of the hoophouses and it was leaning and squishing in, and I was asking Ted, who started the nursery and who I purchased it from, ‘Do I need to be worried? Is this going to collapse?’ and he said, ‘No, no it’s fine, it’s weighted for snow.’ ”
The hoophouse didn’t collapse, and Ted Alway and Mel have continued to work closely together to make sure the nursery thrives under its new ownership.
Alway, fruit orchardist and entomologist, removed some of his pear orchard to establish the nursery in 2002. Over the next two decades, the nursery continued to grow, both in size — with chunks of orchard being removed — and in sales — with increasing demand from state departments, restoration agencies and private property owners.
“That was the best job I ever had, the 20 years I ran the nursery,” he said. “I started it along when I had two other jobs. I was farming fruit and I was working for Washington State University, and I soon realized that it needed my attention. It grew steadily.”
Five years ago, when he turned 60, Alway began forming a plan to retire by the time he was 65. Last year, Asher and her husband approached Alway about buying the business. He describes the timing as “fortuitous.”
“I knew what sort of person she was, and I liked her. It just felt good, it’s like you’re passing on your creation, your baby and knowing it will be well taken care of,” Alway said. “Finding someone who could find success in the business I created, that’s the hardest part, and she was uniquely suited to do it.”
After being closed to the public for two years during the COVID-19 pandemic, the nursery reopened for retail sales this spring.
“When we first started, I had planned on only opening for retail sales once a month and we got absolutely overrun the first weekend," Asher said. "There was this pent-up demand because Ted had been closed during the pandemic. It was just a madhouse in here. I didn’t expect it and it was so cool. I loved it and I loved interacting with every single person — everyone was so nice. There is just so much interest and knowledge from the local community and that’s really blown me away.”
During the spring planting season, Derby Canyon Natives had eight part-time employees transplanting and repotting plants. Over the summer, two part-time employees water plants by hand every day. Transplanting, propagation and the majority of watering is done by hand.
Asher moved to Peshastin, just down the road from the nursery, in February. She had been living in Soap Lake and working for a private company as a restoration ecologist.
“We basically came in behind wildfires or construction or other practices that disturbed native habitat and we seeded, planted and did targeted herbicide applications and treatments to try and push the trajectory of the environment back to being native-dominated,” Asher said. “That’s how I got to know Ted, the previous owner. We were clients of his.”
Asher, originally from Michigan, met her husband at Texas A&M University while completing her graduate degree in rangeland and wildlife habitat management. They moved to Washington to be closer to his family.
“I always wanted to get back into growing the plants in a nursery context. That’s what I did right after college and what I did my graduate work in,” Asher said. “When Ted floated the idea of selling and retiring a few years back, we pounced on it and began working on the transition.”
The nursery is on property leased from Alway. It includes five hoophouses, a small office and another shop building that serves as the checkout area during retail hours.
“Ted offered to do the financing himself, which was critical,” Asher said. “He recognized that as somebody who has worked a job your whole career, you can’t just walk down to the bank and get a business loan when you don’t have any business experience.”
Transitioning to business ownership has been the biggest learning curve, Asher said. Besides growing and cultivating the plants, Asher is responsible for bookkeeping, payroll and other day-to-day office work.
In her new role, she’s evaluating the next steps for the business and how she can build on Alway's success.
“I don’t do a whole lot differently, yet," she said. "I’m still learning about what he did and where I can improve. I’m definitely bringing more technology in. We have a more sophisticated check-out system and we’re going to transition to online sales over the winter.”
Other projects, like improved tagging systems for the plants and a larger wildflower inventory, are planned for next spring. Asher envisions the business having a larger retail presence, as well.
“Ted’s done mostly wholesale sales, so sales to other nurseries or sales mainly to agencies doing restoration projects,” she said. “My plan is to move toward being a bit more retail and front-end focused. We’re always going to be focused on restoration projects, those will always be the bread and butter, but there’s room for growth.”
Retired, Alway still maintains his orchards and keeps a greenhouse of his own to grow specialty alpine plants. He lives near the nursery, and visits to help Asher troubleshoot problems with plants.
“It’s fun to see the changes she’s making — some of which I should have made, and others that her fresh perspective and unique background allowed her to make. She saw new things, which is what you want,” Alway said. “I expect the business will grow. The bulk of the income particularly comes from larger restoration programs… and there’s a lot of opportunities and a lot of needs.”
Retail sales at the nursery for fall 2022 will continue until the end of October. The nursery is open to the public 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.