When Alan Tower says it’s easier to become a doctor than a gardener, he speaks from personal experience.
Tower was Group Health Northwest’s director of behavioral health when, 15 years ago, he left his practice to launch Tower Perennial Gardens on the Palouse Highway southeast of Spokane. Since then, he’s distinguished himself for his plant inventory and landscape installations.
Tower discussed the challenges and rewards of the business as his crew prepared the eight-acre nursery for this weekend’s season opening.
S-R: Did you garden as a youngster?
Tower: In a sense, yes. When I was young, people didn’t garden the way they do now. And there was not a nursery on the planet with the kind of selection we have here. But I grew up in a house whose previous owner had been president of the Tulsa Rose Society, and it had lots of interesting plants. Also we owned a farm in Oklahoma, so I helped raise vegetables in a climate where tomatoes were happy.
S-R: When did plants become important in your life?
Tower: I didn’t start gardening seriously until I bought my first home here in my late 20s. But I tend to be passionate about the way I do things, so I ended up with an extremely large plant collection and got involved with national plant societies.
S-R: Why did you become a psychologist?
Tower: I did well in school, and had the option to be whatever I wanted. A lot of the medical profession didn’t appeal to me because once you’re fully trained, it seems overly repetitive – you’re either doing the same procedures or prescribing the same drugs. I trained in neuropsychology back when imaging was very rudimentary, so when they needed to know if there was a tumor and where to go to dig it out, I was the one they asked.
S-R: How long were you a clinical psychologist?
Tower: Twenty years.
S-R: Why switch careers?
Tower: My then-wife had a very severe episode of cancer, and it struck me how temporary life is. I’d been Group Health’s director of behavioral health since I was 28, and the prospect of doing the same job my whole life didn’t make sense.
S-R: Did people think you were crazy to give up a medical career in your mid-40s?
Tower: Some. But my colleagues thought it was great that someone would follow their heart. There are things in life more important than money.
S-R: Did following your heart lead you where you thought it would?
Tower: You can never know everything. My initial intention was to open a nursery and work half time as a clinician, but the nursery grew very quickly, and it became obvious that wasn’t a realistic game plan. But I keep my license current. I like having options.
S-R: Do your two careers have anything in common?
Tower: It’s much easier to become a doctor than it is to become a gardener. It’s much quicker – in 12 years you’re done. Nobody can become a good gardener in 12 years, because to be knowledgeable, you have to see how plants perform in many different settings over a long period of time. Your best gardeners are going to be older, because they have the experience.
S-R: Is Spokane a good town for this type of nursery?
Tower: Not really – not like Portland or Seattle. But I was established here. And we are in a band of geography that can grow the widest range of plant material of anywhere in the country.
S-R: Has the nursery consistently prospered?
Tower: Pretty much. Last year we had miserable spring weather – it rained every weekend – and all the region’s nurseries were down quite a bit. Another challenge has been the decline in new home starts, since all new homes need landscaping. But we’ve been fairly recession-proof because our main business is designs and installations for people who want something special – something more than what I call dentist-office landscapes. And we offer a garden rescue program, where we tweak a garden to enhance privacy or give it four-season color.
S-R: What’s your business philosophy?
Tower: Offer products that raise the bar for horticulture.
S-R: What does that mean?
Tower: Not being content using the same plants that were available in 1950. I’ve introduced a number of plants to the trade – my own hybrids. A lot of plants sold here you can’t buy anywhere else. Our inventory changes constantly, but my (computerized) label program – all the plants we’ve sold enough of that I actually composed a label – contains 23,000 names.
S-R: What has worked well over the years?
Tower: Landscape design has been our No. 1 thing.
S-R: Has anything not worked well?
Tower: We tried to operate a wine tasting room for a few years, and it was a lot of fun. But insuring a wine business that existed only a few weekends a year cost me almost $5 for each person who walked in there.
S-R: Is there anything else you wish you’d done differently?
Tower: I’m less enthusiastic about water features and koi ponds than I once was. I have a 45,000-gallon koi pond, and it takes more maintenance than other parts of the gardens. So if I had a do-over machine, I’d probably skip the week I built the pond, even though it was fun to make and people enjoy it.
S-R: Will you build ponds for clients?
Tower: Only with informed consent. I tell them about my experience, and if they still want one, we dig a hole. But if you want something simple, that’s not it.
S-R: What are you most proud of?
Tower: The staff. I have really knowledgeable people working for me – landscape architects, arborists. The person who’s been with me the longest is a very smart woman who came here fresh from high school eight years ago and knows every plant in the nursery.
S-R: What’s a typical mistake amateur gardeners make?
Tower: People buy one of this and one of that, all in bloom, and they end up with a hodgepodge. What tells me a person’s garden is going to look good is when they buy quality plants whether they’re in bloom or not, and they buy eight of them instead of one.
S-R: Are there any common misconceptions about your business?
Tower: A lot of people remember me from years ago as having founded the Spokane Hosta Society, so they think we only sell hostas. But we offer everything: trees, shrubs, perennials and the normal annuals, as well as really unique annuals such as kangaroo apple – big wow plants you won’t find anywhere else.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Tower: The creative part – going into somebody’s yard and making it pretty and habitable, so they actually get use out of it. A number of clients have said they were going to sell their house until we transformed their yards. In some ways that’s an overlap with psychology – when you change someone’s home environment, you change how they spend their day.
S-R: What do you like least?
Tower: That’s easy – rain and snow in the spring, when it should be sunny.