Dig owners look at a way to keep nursery going in tough times

Fourteen years ago, Sylvia Matlock and Ross Johnson transformed a sprawling jumble of blackberries into an artful nursery — where today a bounty of plants is interspersed among tiled birdbaths, colorful pots and the tiny purple building that houses their office.

Now, the couple is trying to take the next step at Dig Floral & Garden, a venture they say has been both a labor of love and an arduous undertaking.

They’ve put their two-acre property on Vashon Highway up for sale, hoping to find a buyer willing to develop the front half of the property while leasing the back half to them. The plan, should it come to fruition, would enable them to continue operating Dig while freeing up the considerable equity they’ve got wrapped up in a prime piece of real estate, they said.

They also hope they could maybe work five days a week rather than six and take an occasional vacation.

“We want a little bit more life,” Matlock said.

But Matlock and Johnson said they fully realize the risks in becoming renters. They also know they may not find such a buyer in today’s tough real estate market. The asking price is $879,000.

With the equanimity that comes from many years of running a small retail business, both said they were open to whatever happens — including eventually closing down their thriving nursery, should it come to that. But it wouldn’t happen immediately, they hastened to add. No fire sales are on the horizon.

“I have my vision,” Matlock said. “But I also realize that if someone buys the place, it’s theirs.”

Matlock and Johnson, whose nursery has won accolades in the industry press and followers throughout the region, started Dig 15 years ago at a site a little farther north on the highway. A year later, they discovered their current site — “a blackberry patch,” Johnson said — and decided to rent it.

Five years later — and against the advice of real estate agents who said a nursery wouldn’t pencil out — they bought the property, including the stately house, built in 1900, that fronts the highway. Since then, they said, the business has grown and thrived; every spring Matlock offers classes there; the couple has a strong customer base, they said, including many loyal clients. Recently, they expanded their business to the house, offering a variety of home-related products at what they call Dig In.

What’s more, the enterprise has provided an outlet for Matlock’s and Johnson’s considerable creativity. Everything about the site — from the arrangement of the pots to the water feature Johnson installed — is artful.

“It’s how to restrain myself that’s the hard part,” Matlock said with a laugh.

They recently placed their Airstream trailer on one edge of the nursery, which they’re trying to sell. Matlock said she thought it’d be fun to open a gelato shop in it.

They sat in their small office as they talked, their 14-year-old bull terrier asleep at their feet. Despite the hard work, both said they’ve loved running a nursery on the Island, not far from their home on Reddings Beach. Matlock regularly rides her bicycle to Dig.

“We feel we’ve done well,” Johnson said.

But it’s been a tough go in the current economy, especially for a retail business like theirs — “discretionary spending,” as Johnson put it. This past winter — with a snowfall that paralyzed much of the region just before Christmas — added to the year’s difficulty, they said.

“The credit market is tight,” Johnson said. “We have equity we can’t use ... to get us through these bumpy times.”

The thought of downsizing and putting their energy into “the artistic stuff, the stuff we do really well,” as Matlock put it, is appealing to them.

“It’s been fun. It’s a neat ride. And it’s not over yet,” Johnson said.

“This is not a sad story,” Matlock added.

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