45 years of growing business come to end for Van Essens

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local
Van Essen Nursery, Lebanon’s largest nursery hidden in plain sight, has reduced its inventory from millions of plants to nearly zero as its owner prepares for retirement.
Situated on 300 acres off River Drive, Van Essen has operated for 45 years as a wholesale supplier of ornamental shrubs and perennials to garden centers across the United States and in Canada. Pat’s Green Thumb in Lebanon was one of the few local retailers to buy from them.

THE VAN ESSSENS pose for a photo in the 1990s at their nursery.
Photo courtesy of the Van Essens

Owners Dave and Leanne Van Essen planned for this very moment in time two years ago.
“We’ve been in the shut-down mode for two years because you don’t shut down a five-year plant factory overnight,” Leanne said.
On top of the delicate process of shutting down a large business, the Van Essens were faced with the pandemic, which threatened their final year, she said.
At first, they thought they might get shut down by the governor’s orders last year because they would not be deemed an essential business. As it happened, they were considered agricultural, which made them essential.
Then they were concerned that if an employee got sick, the state could quarantine the whole crew.
So the Van Essens split their crew in half to work at different locations, just in case, but no one got sick.
The third threat was that their customers nationwide would cancel orders if they couldn’t be open. But home-bound people began working in their gardens more, and garden centers couldn’t keep their shelves stocked.
“The pandemic was a silver lining, in that it went from a big threat at the beginning to a silver lining for all of the nursery industry,” Leanne said. “It’s been an amazing year.”
Starting in the late 1970s with plants like boxwood, arborvitae and juniper, Dave didn’t have the Internet to find buyers for his inventory.
“I’d load up my pickup and just drive up and down the valley,” he said.

DAVE VAN ESSEN makes a shrub delivery in the 1980s.
Photo courtesy of the Van Essens

“I’d get to Eugene, I’d find a phone booth, open up the Yellow Pages and write down all the garden centers that were in Eugene, and I’d get the phone numbers and addresses. And then I would have a Eugene map and plot them all out and find them, and drive over there and meet the people and talk to them.”
As the business grew, inventory expanded, re-wholesalers started ordering for out-of-state sales, and the Van Essens began attending trade shows across the U.S.
“Oregon had a huge nursery show at that time,” Dave said. “Back in the early ’80s, this industry was really pretty immature compared to what it is today.”
As such, buyers from as far as the East Coast would come to Ore-gon looking for growers and new supply, he said.
At its peak, Van Essen Nursery grew about 1,000 varieties of plants with an inventory of several million, and employed about 110 people during the busy season. They shipped some 650,000 pieces to more than 500 companies in 45 states.

A satellite image shows the 300-acre nursery spread over River Drive.

Each year they planted 1 million new cuttings, potted 800,000 in containers, and planted 85,000 in-ground.
“We are a plant factory. You might think of it as an assembly line,” Leanne explained. “We take it from the beginning, and the cycle to grow our plants up to the size for the market is two to five years.”
The Van Essens never propagated plants from seed because a thousand seeds from one plant may yield a thousand different variations, they said.
“Color variation may be different, the branching might be different, the leaf structure may change a little bit,” Dave explained.
Leanne added that there are plant breeders who specialize in designing plants with specific characteristics, and there are plant selectors who buy the rights to those breeds and market it with their brand. Van Essen nursery acted as a grower, growing and selling those brands – including Proven Winners – in addition to the “tried and true” plants that sell well every year.
They also developed their own line of perennials, Vibrant Selections, selling up to 100,000 of those a year.
Dave and Leanne both grew up on farms in a small town in Minnesota, and briefly dated during their high school years.
When Dave entered college, he started studying landscape architecture, but soon realized he was not skilled in the artistic side of the business. What he enjoyed, however, were the plant identification classes, and courses that fed more into the nursery side of things.
He finished his last two years at a vocational school for landscape technology, learning such things as botany, propagation, floriculture, landscaping, pruning and installing plants.
“It’s kind of a shotgun approach, where you get a little bit of everything, but very hands-on, and that’s what I like is hands-on. So it really appealed to me,” Dave said.

A look at Dave’s container inventory in the 1990s.
Photo courtesy of the Van Essens

Following graduation in 1974, Dave moved to Oregon, where he got a job with a landscape contractor in Corvallis, and later took a job on the state highway landscape maintenance crew out of Albany. His supervisor there taught him more about propagation – the act of starting a new plant from a cutting of an original plant.
In 1976, Dave bought his first 10 acres on River Drive and “dabbled” in the nursery business while still working full-time elsewhere. He hired his first employee, Dennis Scott, in the early ‘80s. Scott worked for the Van Essens for the next 33 years.
Meanwhile, Dave also reconnected with Leanne, who later moved to Oregon, and they married in 1978.
Leanne never planned to live or work on a farm, she said. She went to school for computer science and math. In Oregon, she worked as a computer programmer at Linn-Benton Community College, and later at Hewlett Packard.
For the nursery, she utilized her computer skills by programming the software to keep track of inventory.
By 1985, the Van Essens had begun their family of six children, and the nursery was able to support them.
More recently, the business also afforded them the opportunity to travel to Vietnam, Israel and South Africa with a horticulture tour group from Canada.
“They go every year to a different place, and they just look at the country and see ‘what can we learn about agriculture while we’re here,’” Leanne said.

THE LAST LOAD of nursery stock sits behind the Van Essens just one month prior to their target close date.
Photo by Sarah Brown

Now, 45 years later, the time has come to retire.
While they would have preferred to sell the business, it was too difficult to find one person who could invest the funds into such a large operation, Dave said. Not to mention dealing with the number of regulations, lack of available labor, and competition.
Oregon ranks among the top states to produce and sell nursery stock, thanks to its nine-month growing season (compared to three months in most other northern states).
“We can grow plants bigger, longer, and earlier in the spring, and we can ship plants to the east coast,” Leanne said. “When they come from Oregon and they’re green and lush in March, and theirs are still kind of brown and dormant, it’s a big hit. It’s a big advantage that Oregon growers have.”
But now there’s one less Oregon grower to supply the United States with ornamental shrubs.