Southwest Gardener Celebrates a Major Milestone
The uptown Phoenix shop looks back on its 20-year-long legacy.
By John Roark | Photography by Art Holeman
More than two decades ago, Amy Carlile and Lynn Town were coworkers at The Arizona Republic ready for a new challenge. Finding they shared a love of gardening, they also recognized a need within the Valley for a “happy place” for gardeners and plant enthusiasts. Neither a nursery nor a gift shop but something in between.
“Our aim was pretty simple. For people who love to garden, we wanted to combine the pretty and the educational,” says Town. “Such a shop was not unheard of in other parts of the country but there wasn’t anything like that here.”
In 1996, Southwest Gardener got its start as a small mail-order business and display booths at Valley historic home tours. Opening its doors in 1998, the original store, then located at 15th Avenue and Thomas Road, gained momentum—in a pre-internet and social media world—thanks to word of mouth and a loyal following that appreciated the unique inventory of garden tools and seeds, outdoor furniture, accents, statuary and gifts. The shop’s educational component began with a class on growing tomatoes in the desert led by local grower Gregory Ware. The inaugural seminar was a quick sellout with a wait list.
2014 saw the boutique’s move to a larger space in the Camelback corridor. The owners—who are both Master Gardeners—see the store’s clientele as falling into three primary categories: hardcore gardeners; those looking for beautiful garden accents, either for themselves or for gifts; and events-goers who flock to the venue’s plant sales and monthly classes.
The store hums with an eclectic inventory, found at market or crafted by local artisans, carefully curated by Carlile and Town. “Lynn and I don’t always gravitate toward the same things, but we are objective enough that if one of us likes something we will carry it,” says Carlile. “Things in bright colors do very well here,
maybe because we are in the desert and we spend so much time outdoors. We like happy color. We want everything but brown. A lot of people come through our doors and they have a wide range of tastes and needs. Rarely do they leave empty-handed because there’s a great mix of merchandise.”
Southwest Gardener’s monthly classes, ranging from gardening how-to to crafts and cooking workshops, have become a go-to for customers from all over the state. And the venue’s plant-selling events have regulars marking their calendars months in advance.
“We see people who come to every single sale,” says Ware, whose much-anticipated organic produce sales at the store have grown by leaps and bounds in the last 20 years. “The first time I set up a 6-foot table with a couple of flats of plants,” he says. “Now we’ve got folks lining up around the building.” At the store’s August 2017 tomato and pepper sale, Ware sold 800 tomato seedlings in 90 minutes. While he says that people come to buy, they also want to connect through what has become a welcoming community. “People bring their friends, visiting relatives and neighbors,” he says. “For the most part, plant people are easy-going and not in a hurry. They can have a 15-minute conversation with you without once looking at their phones.”
Carlile and Town observe that the happy space they originally envisioned has generated a camaraderie that they had not foreseen. “This feels like a healthy place to be,” says Town. “We have ladies who come in two to three times a month who say, ‘I’m not buying anything today, I just need my feel-good fix.’ We let them take their time and enjoy the experience.”
As the store has evolved, so has the owners’ knowledge and insight into gardening in the Southwest. Since the business began, Carlile and her husband have downsized from a home in Encanto with a desert landscape to a downtown high-rise.
“At first I thought I had to keep it a secret because I own a gardening shop,” she laughs. “Transitioning from a yard to a balcony, I learned what grows on a patio and what doesn’t and how to decorate and make the most of a limited space. It’s an entirely different vision. Now I can share that with our customers, many of whom are urban dwellers.”
Town notes that the last two decades point to a promising future for small businesses in the Valley. “As Phoenix has grown—and with the ups and downs of the economy—we see that there is increased community awareness, and part of that is buying local. It wasn’t anti-local when we started, I just don’t think that as a newer city, Phoenix was developed enough to encourage that. It has changed. People are more invested in their contributions to the state.”
Carlile cites the advent of the proud Phoenician. “When I moved here almost 40 years ago, there wasn’t a lot of loyalty or a sense of belonging. That is no longer the case. Now the mindset of many people is ‘I live here, I love the desert, and I’m proud of it.’ That has been a big shift in the last few years.”
Both women firmly believe that when life hands you lemons, make lemonade (or limoncello or cheesecake, all of which are taught at popular Southwest Gardener seminars). “The same things we have learned from the store can be said about gardening,” says Carlile. “It’s OK to try. There’s really no such thing as failure. If something doesn’t work, use that experience to explore another avenue until you succeed.”
Town is philosophical. “Sometimes you get a plant that gives you 400 tomatoes; sometimes you just get hornworms. Either way, that’s okay and you get to try it again. We have had our successes and some not-so successes. But every day that you learn something new is a good day.”
AMY AND LYNN’S FAVORITE SEEDS
Armenian Cucumbers: Plant in June
Farmers Market Blend Lettuce: Plant mid-August through mid-February
Cosmic Purple Carrots: Plant mid-August through mid-April
Watermelon Radish: Plant September through mid-April
Bright Lights Swiss Chard: Plant mid-September through January
Torch Tithonia: Plant February through early May
Cut and Come Again Zinnia: Plant May through August
Purple Coneflower: Plant October and November
Whirly Bird Nasturtium; Mahogany Nasturtium; Painted Lady Sweet Pea: Plant October through December