Interview the Gardener: Daniel Naranjo

Interview the Gardener: Daniel Naranjo

Every so often, we invite one of our team members to have a special one-on-one conversation with us that we get to share with you! In today's "Interview the Gardener" segment, we're excited to take a moment to sit down with our very own Daniel Naranjo, who you'll more often find among the trees and shrubs here at the Nursery. Daniel is a longtime gardener and artist with a passion for playing with texture and color and helping people achieve their dream garden aesthetic — no matter what level they're at! Get to know Daniel a bit better through the interview below.

So Daniel, you work with trees and shrubs on our Nursery Stock Team, but tell us a little bit about your gardening situation at home. What's your gardening space like, and how would you describe yourself as a gardener?

Blessed! I live in a fairly established neighborhood in Southeast Portland, and although the house that I live in is pretty old, everything was kind of a blank slate when I moved in, so I have pretty much free reign to do whatever I want. And what's also a huge blessing is that I have everything from full sun to full shade to play with. I get to experiment and try new things, but also like, explore all these different environments, which is part of why it's a huge blessing that I work where I work. It's just an endless variety of things to investigate, which keeps me engaged at home and here. So that's good. And it also lends itself to me speaking knowledgeably to guests because I want to be able to speak from experience.

Having that practical experience is so important!

Absolutely! When I first worked here, I lived in an apartment downtown, so I was always a living vicariously through our guests. But now, instead of leaning only on past experience and education, it's very much hands in the dirt.

I know gardening is an investment for people in both time and money and that I, personally, really appreciate being able to ask questions before I bring a plant home. So it's really cool getting to be that person for people since I've grown the plant they're asking about. But at the same time, I want to remind people not to be afraid to live and learn as they go!

Is that what you would say you find most rewarding about working with plants, then — getting to help people out and answer questions? Or is there some other aspect that you really love about it?

Oh my gosh, I love that part of working here at Cornell Farm! I love getting to open up the world of gardening to people who are new to it, and help make it approachable. Sometimes guests get overwhelmed by all the possibilities out there, so I really try to meet people where they're at and help them set achievable goals. I love getting to do that, and I love getting to peek into their gardens through our conversations. I'm already the most annoying person to go for a dog walk with because I'm always stopping at everyone's yard and appreciating the choices that all of these people who put time into their yards are making, so it's really cool to get to be a part of some of those decisions and get excited with people.

The other beautiful thing about working here is how engaged I am at every season, like, watching everything change and getting to anticipate what's next. That's really the joy of gardening for me is that there's never a dead zone or a time of year without something to look forward to. Part of the fun is just learning to appreciate the cycles of plants — particularly trees and shrubs that aren't just something that's going to be pretty for one season — and experiencing their fall and winter colors. Like, these are things that we have an established long-term relationship with, and learning to appreciate them and the different parts of the cycles they go through is a hugely rewarding part of my department.

We're definitely fortunate to have access to a diverse palette of plants throughout the year at the Nursery — especially when it comes to woody plants. Do you have a favorite? And considering we're heading into winter, are there any winter interest plants you find yourself drawn to?

I love talking to people about mahonia because, well — first of all — it's such a versatile plant. It will take quite a bit of sun, but also a lot of shade, and it tolerates a variety of different soil conditions. And there are native varieties that give winter pollinators something to feast on when other flowers aren't around. It's not only rewarding to know that you're making sure the hummingbirds have something out there to feed on, but also to just have some late-season color. And it's also a good year-round plant because it's evergreen. It's a safe bet for most people, and I love steering people towards mahonia for that reason. Plus, there's multitudes of forms, like spreading, low growing, and tall-growing like our state flower, the prolific Oregon grape.

There are lots of other things that come around in late winter that are super rewarding — like daphne! Not only is it evergreen, but it flowers, and it's fragrant. I just can't get enough of that. And I really appreciate the way that certain conifers, like Chief Joseph, have not only a gorgeous texture, but this bright color pop that really adds interest to the landscape in an otherwise pretty dormant, sleepy time of year. And there's so many shrubs like that — even barberry! It's this really functional plant. It's a great deer deterrent because of it's innate thorniness. But then you get to appreciate its wintertime coloration and the beauty that it brings to a landscape over the winter months.

The garden is full of beauty year-round, even in some nontraditional places. It's just a matter of looking. Do you find having an art background helps with that aspect of looking? Do you see gardening as related to art or your art practice, or is it its own thing? (And speaking of art, you've made some stunning scarecrows for our annual contest — by the way!)

Oh, thank you! I mean, each of them is their own thing, but both worlds feed each other. And they're similar in a lot of ways. Both of them require this ever-present process of problem-solving and finding solutions. You have to ask for input and incorporate inspiration from life experiences, and that's really cool.

Part of what draws me to gardening and talking to people about their gardens is getting a sense of their aesthetic, what their goals are, and then being able to help them realize their vision using my knowledge of color and texture, what plants will do, what they will grow into, and how different elements will contrast with each other. That's really rewarding. I love being able to knowledgeably guide people towards their aesthetic goals. That's a lot of fun! Like, I don't even have to see eye-to-eye with what they're wanting to be able to lend them the knowledge of what will serve their aesthetic.

And gardening is just inspiring! Walking around in my neighborhood appreciating gardens is a great place for me to think, and put my artistic ideas in place, and come back refreshed. So, yes, there's some bleed-over from one world to the other, for sure.

Have you been inspired by anything you've experienced in the garden lately? Is there anything happening in your garden right now that you're particularly excited about or looking forward to bringing back to your own garden from others?

I'm fortunate that I live in a very gardening-friendly neighborhood and that I'm able to pass on my new fixations to others. It's a kind of like communal gardening, I find, because we're all out in our yards all the time. There's this collective consciousness of what we're doing and the new things we're incorporating. And I love that aspect of the neighborhood gardening culture. I can pass things on, and I'll inherit things from others.

Every single year working at the Farm, I find a new thing that I want to try. This year I've, I'm incorporating more blue tones through the world of blue confers like this Blue Atlas Cedar. I just got one, and it's one of my brand new favorites. It really stands out against everything else, and it feels seasonally appropriate. But yeah, it's an ever-evolving thing, and I try to keep things interesting. I couldn't live in an unchanging landscape. But that's one of the joys of this line of work is that it's an ever-changing landscape. Four years into this business, I'm still discovering new things to get excited about.

You mentioned the Blue Atlas Cedar. Would you say your garden at home is tree- and shrub-heavy, or is it a mix? Do you have a particular gardening ethos?

I personally try really hard to stay in natives. They're naturally adapted to life in our region and connected to this sense of place. And, like, my own artwork is always very site-specific. I feel like having a garden that is very engaged with its environment — the natural environment that it sprang from — is better for the plants, and it keeps me engaged with where I live on a real level. When I go for a hike, it's cool to know what I'm looking at, and learning about the history of plants and where they come from makes everywhere I go just a little more fascinating. Even when I'm downtown in the middle of the city, they have these planters that are very native plant focused right now, and I love that it's not just greenery, but things that connect us to the environment. Portland is showing some pride in where we come from.

And in containers, too! People don't always think about the fact that, yes, you can put native plants in containers.

Yes! I just really love that. And personally, I love being able to help steer people in new directions and maybe awaken something within them. I know we sell a lot of boxwood, but maybe I can encourage people to think about a native alternative that's also evergreen and does really well here. I want people to be successful and to encourage them to venture beyond the norm and think outside the boxwood, so to speak!

Would you say a passion for natives is what got you into gardening, or where did your gardening journey begin?

Well, I come from a family gardeners, so that's probably where it started. Growing up in Alaska before smartphones were a thing, I did a lot of playing outside. I have all these memories of running around as a kid — in reality probably ruining my mom's garden — but I think that's why I'm so drawn to gardening. It's still connected to play.

Art making and gardening are both so rooted in the nature of play. They're fun. They're therapeutic. And I'm very consciously aware of how it benefits me to establish a relationship with plants over time. Caring for something outside myself encourages me to stay present, and even in dark periods of my life, plants have been there for me. After my first year here, I was hospitalized for months, but we had a great horticultural therapist at Good Samaritan who really just let me get my hands dirty, and that really kept me present and motivated and engaged. So I'm really interested in pursuing horticultural therapy myself. I think there's a future for me there.

That's really cool. After all, putting our hands in the dirt is so good for our mental — and physical — health. And beyond that, it helps us cultivate a relationship with the earth and the other beings around us that we share it with, as you were saying.

Yeah, and I think it's important to understand that gardening is patience-based. It's the nature of the beast! Gardening is an investment in the long-term, and when you can see that click for someone, that's a beautiful thing to witness. It's a process, and it's an investment — but a really rewarding one! The more you learn, the more fascinating it is, and the more engaged you are. It's a fun thing to get into with people, like a doorway to the world has been opened up before them. We all fit into this bigger picture.

That goes back to what you're saying about the value of native plants and being connected to a sense of place. Gardening connects us to others in so many ways.

Completely, and what we can actually accomplish, you know? A garden is long-term investment, and so many complex issues we face as a society are the same, so I think it's important to have that sense of long-term vision and goals. But also that connectedness to place, whether that's our local ecosystem or the whole planet! So much of my artwork really is about creating a little environment, and a garden is really the same. You're creating a mini ecosystem that's a beautiful, safe, therapeutic space. And I think it's so therapeutic to be able to literally see our effect on the world, even if it's just in our own little garden.

That's such a beautiful sentiment, and a great note to leave our conversation on. But before we go, would you mind sharing your best piece of garden advice for anyone reading?

One thing I love to say to guests is "How do you think I know so much about a this plant? Well, because I've killed it!" It's humorous, but honestly, I know a lot of what I know because I've failed a lot along the way. Gardening is trial and error, so don't be afraid to fail! It's just an opportunity to learn.

Love that! Thank you so much for reminding us of that, Daniel — and for talking today!

Absolutely! This has been great.