BY SHALEEN DESTEFANO
Birdsall & Co., a woman-owned garden center in Denver, goes above and beyond your run-of-the-mill greenhouse. It is a botanic sanctuary, a place full of life and calmness all at once, making it the perfect escape. Birdsall is packed to the gills with every single item you could possibly need to sustain your green thumb. It is essentially our happy place, so we were thrilled to interview our neighbor, friend and the owner of Birdsall, Annie Houston.
Over 30 years ago, Denver had plenty of garden centers and unfortunately quite a few of them are now gone. The price of land is now so high and greenhouses require such a lot of space that famous nurseries sold out and went off into the sunset. In 1988, a landscape architect opened Birdsall & Co. at the end of Antique Row on South Broadway to serve the local gardeners who needed top of the line tools, high quality containers, fountains for their gardens, and teak furniture. Birdsall survived the competition thanks to its quirky and comfortable atmosphere and uniqueness. In 2012, when the founder was in the process of retiring, I just about begged him to sell the store to me instead of selling off the inventory and closing the doors for good. After almost 30 years in the garden design and landscaping industry, I had brought droves of customers to the store and deep down I knew Denver absolutely needed a Birdsall. Not just the professional landscapers and interior designers, or the passionate gardeners, but the city as a whole. Places like San Fransisco, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia had their own unique combination of a garden center and nursery with a strong emphasis on design and I was committed to bringing one to the Mile High City.
We moved to our current location at 2870 South Broadway about five years ago to be able to carry more inventory and provide a better shopping experience. We opened our new baby, Birdsall & Co. | The Urban Nursery, two years ago in RiNo and it’s thriving. We’ve come a long way by sheer passion and a great team.
I feel that the true and honest reason is that we all love to come to the store and share our days with each other. We are able to mix our passion, interest, shared philosophies, playful personalities, work ethics, and design sensibilities, while contributing to the whole as a team. Customers feel it. It’s the energy and enthusiasm that comes across to them. We hear the comments from customers daily: they feel comfortable and relaxed as soon as they come in. Over the pandemic months, customers would thank us over and over, for being open, welcoming them in a safe manner, providing a semi-normal environment to browse and give themselves a little pleasure.
We spend a lot of time curating every product. The main test is that it has to be biophilic, meaning eliciting an emotional reaction linked to our need to relate to nature. Plants obviously fit this description. Literally each plant is handpicked every week: we do not order in bulk, instead choosing a plant for its health, structure, interest, popularity, aesthetics, and color.
We have one of the largest collections of containers and fountains in the region during the spring and summer seasons. We source our products everywhere from the US to Hungary to Vietnam, design custom colors and containers, and stock upwards of 200 fountains running in our yard at one time. With thousands of containers to choose from on site, it’s almost impossible not to find the style and color you’re looking for, and we’re more than happy to help design outdoor spaces with our customers. We prefer to call our (borderline inappropriate) amount of spring container inventory a dilemma of choice for our customers!
Fundamentally, we’re always trying to change our inventory often enough that you can come in once a month and see new things each time. It’s all about taking feedback from customers, tracking trends, and buying accordingly.
As someone who admittedly has the opposite of a green thumb, I can count on your staff to consistently lead me in the right direction. What advice would you give someone just dipping their toes into life with plants?
Do not be afraid. There are plants for you no matter the light, space or aptitude, but you have to be honest with yourself about where you’re putting the plant and the kind of plant parent you are. Don’t pretend you can have a cactus if you have only north-facing windows and you are a chronic over-waterer; you’ll just be setting yourself up for disappointment! As long as you respect the light requirements and water properly and regularly, the plants will love you. Did I mention you NEED a drainage hole in the pot?
Visit a garden center or a plant store versus a big box store. Aside from the massive difference your dollars make at a local business versus a large chain, you’ll benefit from the knowledge and advice of professionals. Be ready to describe the light you have in your home and the particular locations where the plants will live. Start with larger plants that are in a grow pot that is at least 6 inches in diameter; they will need less watering and oversight than a little plant with a weaker root system and less soil to hold the moisture.
There is a good selection of indoor plants, whether succulents or tropicals, that are hardy enough for a neophyte indoor gardener. Take a Pothos: this plant will make it happen no matter how negligent you are (almost). I would suggest looking at all the cultivars and choose one whose leaf color will add to the design of your home. Silver Satin is my favorite because of its iridescent variegation and growth pattern with interlacing leaves. Take the Sansevieria (now reclassified as Dracaena) or commonly called Snake Plant. What an old-fashioned, classic beauty for a room with little light. The genus has so many cultivars and each one is as easy as the next, as long as you don’t over-water. Have fun designing with height, shape of leaves, variegation, shades of green, and uniqueness. It’s not necessarily hard to create a plant-centric space that makes you look like a plant expert.
The past year has taught us so much, but after spending more time than we’d like inside our four walls, our appreciation for plants has grown (no pun intended). What are the health benefits of having live greenery take over your interior?
Plants do clean the air by absorbing toxins, and they also increase humidity and produce oxygen. Though, having a few plants throughout the house do not have the benefits once touted. However, and it is a big however, they present a lot of other considerable and quantifiable qualities. Research shows that offices with plants have an atmosphere boosting productivity, concentration and creativity. It is becoming a trend to bring live plants to offices, restaurants and hotel rooms to turn a sterile space into a warm, welcoming one. Most of all, I believe plants are a mood booster in general. Walk into a room with potted tropical plants and you feel embraced by nature; enough to subconsciously brighten your outlook on the day. Caring for plants is comparable to having pets, without the walks to the park. We get to know their growth pattern, likes and dislikes, and they grace us with a beautiful new leaf at the end of the day.
Fortunately or unfortunately, they are one and the same. We’re blessed to be perfect business partners: our strengths complement each other’s in the most productive and stress-free fashion. Working side by side daily, we know what the other person is going to handle and we’re assured it will be done to perfection. Since we love what we do, there are constant conversations to be had (evenings in particular, wine glass in hand) about a creative idea, a rare plant, a new collection of pots, design feedback for a fountain, gossip about a vendor, stories about good customers, frustrations about a process that needs tightened, or major team accomplishments. The people we work with have become close friends and we have developed social relationships with not only our colleagues but also our vendors, our customers and all the brilliant people with whom we get to collaborate. Since we don’t have a lot of experience in the corporate world, I can’t say whether this is the norm or not. My son Owen works here, too, and the term ‘family business’ definitely applies to our organization. We do have separate lives after hours, although it’s clear there is a common theme to our entertainment. Morgan has dates at the Denver Botanic Gardens, and I garden for fun. We’re those people on trips who have to make the stop at the local garden center or the botanic garden. It’s a rough life.
Denver has made a name for itself in that female founded companies are on the rise. How has the community supported you over the years?
As a general rule, we’re intensely lucky to live in a city that actively supports its small businesses, and we appreciate every single person who makes a choice to spend their dollars locally instead of falling prey to national chains or going online. It certainly does seems to resonate that this business is owned by a mother-daughter team, especially with women. I think that if someone has already made the choice to shop local, they’re also the type of person that will get to know the staff, learn the dogs’ names, and sit down for a chat. There are definitely certain customers we’re excited to catch up with when they come in – you know who you are!
Our female friends have been a reliable source of support. The maxim that women support women is absolutely true. Morgan’s closest friends are part advisory board, part design consultants, part customers, part vendors, and part cheerleaders. I still have the framed first dollar spent on opening day by my dear friend Colleen.
As a graduate of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, I’ve personally benefited from and nurtured incredible relationships with other women entrepreneurs, both in Denver and throughout the country. The beginning of the pandemic was particularly alarming for business owners and relying on each other for advice, information, and funding resources was key to staying afloat financially and emotionally. I studied female leaders in Denver, going to panel discussions and meeting them afterwards. I was always struck by their openness about their struggles, their genuine desire to help and mentor, the humble acknowledgment of their successes and failures, and strong sense of honesty and fairness. They taught me by example.
As Wash Park residents, what have been your favorite memories in this quickly evolving pocket of Denver?
My children were born in Wash Park. I’s the only neighborhood they know. Now, I watch another generation of kids learning how to ride bicycles on our street. We have made lifelong friends and would never consider moving anywhere else.
The Park. The Park. The Park has been a constant source of enjoyment over the years. Where do you start? Walks in the snow pulling the red Radio Flyer wagon with both kids in it. Tennis games with kids watching from the play pen. Swimming on Saturday mornings. Watching the ducklings grow up. South High School band practice. Geese flying over the house. Weddings in the annual parterres. Walks with girlfriends, faster or slower depending on the topic. Walks with all our dogs over the years. In fact, some savvy people sold a litter of chocolate lab puppies in the park after Saturday soccer games almost 20 years ago, thus the highly imaginative name of Parker for our new dog!
To learn more about Birdsall & Co., visit them in person at 2870 S. Broadway, or check them out online at birdsallgardens.com.