— Nate Gartrell, EDN
For Rachel Klinnert and Chris Donahue, the lines between work and play can get a little blurry.
Passionate backyard gardeners, Klinnert and Donahue are co-managers of Down to Earth Home, Garden & Gift on Olive Street.
“It defines my lifestyle and what I’m interested in,” Klinnert said of her place of employment, where she manages the housewares department. “I garden, I compost, I have chickens, pets — I just started keeping bees.”
Klinnert and Donahue said that Down to Earth is designed to help Lane County residents grow, cultivate and process their own food. The shelves are fully stocked to supply customers with all the tools and information needed for the food-growing process — from building a garden box to setting the table for dinner.
“We have a tag line: Practical goods for natural living,” Donahue said. “We try to keep our products that way. We kind of have that emphasis on natural, organic and local,” said the company’s garden business manager.
Many of Down to Earth’s products are hand-crafted, and even some of their simple tools and utensils have an artistic quality about them, making them difficult to buy in bulk, and therefore a unique find at the store.
“Our buyers do work hard to make it unique and different,” Donahue said of the company’s products. “They offer things that aren’t available in a bigger store.”
Like many local small businesses, Down to Earth has been based in the Eugene area since it opened in 1977. Its first nursery was a single mobile plant cart, and the store was kept afloat by a small but dedicated group of backyard growers who shopped there regularly.
By 1981, Down to Earth had expanded to four such nursery carts, and by 1989, the company moved into its first building, where it is still located, at 532 Olive Street. Eleven years later, in 2000, the business opened a second location in Eugene.
“We have a lot of support from the community,” Klinnert said. “There’s a lot of people who have shopped here for a really long time. They’re happy to support the store because it’s a local business.”
With an emphasis on natural growing, Down to Earth’s entire herbicide and pesticide line is organic. That has helped their reputation amongst many local growers, said Donahue.
“A lot of the people who come here know they’re going to do it naturally or organically,” Donahue said. “So I think we’ve got a leg up there.”
During the economic downturn of 2008, it became fully clear to Donahue and Klinnert how important Down to Earth’s reputation really was. While many local businesses, and notable chains were suffering or going under, Down to Earth’s business actually expanded.
The reason? According to Donahue, many people began looking to backyard gardening as a means of saving money, which sent them in droves to Down to Earth.
“I think a couple years ago, the whole food movement took off,” Donahue said. “We saw an increase in starts, and seeds, and soils and supplies, and I think people started gangbuster-gardening for food.”
As time went on, Donahue began seeing many repeat customers who began backyard gardening out of necessity, but who became passionate about it after a while.
“All of a sudden, I think it had a bigger meaning for people,” Donahue said. “In the long run, I think people see the connection that, all of a sudden you’re gardening together, and meeting your neighbors.“