Every year, in Project Phoenix, we like to feature a group of enterprising DIY'ers making their creative mark on the city. This time, we’re getting grounded with Growth Industries — profiling a florist, a tomato farmer, a nursery owner, a community plot, and a rogue gardener.
When Ryan Jerrell noticed a “for sale” sign in front of an old upholstery factory on 16th Street in Phoenix, he knew it was time.
Fast-forward about a year and a half, and Dig It Urban Gardens + Nursery has become a small but significant go-to spot for everything flora in the Valley.
Walk around the brick building covered in a colorful, geometric mural, and it feels like the temperature drops a few degrees, even on the warmest day.
Plants spread across almost every inch of the garden center — native trees, tall and short cacti, edible gardens, a rainbow of succulents.
The squawks of macaw parrots cutting through the air and a silver metal radio softly pumping out classic rock make it easy to forget you’re in the heart of the sixth largest city in America. There aren’t many oases in central Phoenix. Dig It is one of them.
Mesa-born Jerrell says he wanted to open a retail nursery since he first became interested in growing living things as a teen.
Even after years of working as a buyer for Lowe’s and as general manager at Arid Solutions landscaping nursery in south Phoenix, that dream of owning his own nursery still lingered.
“I’d rather be in some place where people remember what you did,” he says.
In August 2015, he and Tim Bishop founded Dig It.
“Within the first couple days, I knew how it would look,” Jerrell says.
When Baker Nursery near Arcadia sold at the end of 2014, it left a hole in central Phoenix, Jerrell says. Before Dig It opened, the closest nurseries in the area were the Home Depot at 36th Street and Thomas Road and Whitfill Nursery near Seventh Street and Glendale Avenue.
And the demand for a place like Dig It was growing.
The previously 15,000-square-foot garden centers at stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot are now closer to 50,000 square feet, Jerrell says.
But still, some had doubts when Jerrell and Bishop decided to open their nursery near 16th Street and Thomas Road.
“I said I was going to open a garden center here, and people were like ‘Okay, good luck,’” Jerrell says.
It’s been the surrounding community that’s most embraced Dig It, especially the Coronado and Cherry Lynn neighborhoods.
“Within the first couple months, we were flooded,” says Jerrell’s wife, Jessica, who handles the nursery’s social media and marketing.
The name “Urban Gardens + Nursery” isn’t just referring to the location in the heart of Phoenix. It also refers to what they sell: plants meant to thrive in a city, specifically Phoenix.
The staff at Dig It makes it a point to only sell what will actually grow in the city’s desert environment.
“We keep reminding people they live in Arizona,” Jerrell says. “We’ll turn people away if it won’t work.”
At Dig It, the goal is for customers to succeed in growing their plants. The staff won’t sell something just because you ask for it.
“We would rather help the plants stay alive than have a return policy,” Jessica says.
Beyond stocking a wide selection of native plants, the team finds it crucial to stay in touch with architectural and design trends.
Thanks to more than five years as a co-owner of Urban Cactus, a boutique landscaping business, it’s not hard for Jerrell to stay tapped in. The relationships he’s built with local growers help as well.
“Ninety percent of our inventory comes from local growers,” Jerrell says like it’s no big deal. (It is.)
In the short time Dig It has been open, it’s become a community hotspot and even a destination for out-of-towners.
Jessica says people will spend hours looking around on the weekends, adding that one woman brings her grandson to see the tortoises and parrots almost weekly.
“The community has the ability to support you, if you give back,” Jerrell says.
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That’s why when the owners of the Coronado came by to get some advice on what to do with their planters, Jerrell went over to the restaurant to see for himself what they needed.
That kind of service is what keeps people coming back. Plus, if guests return every few months, they’ll never see the same store twice.
The Dig It team keeps the plants in the same conditions they need to grow in customers’ homes, so the store has to evolve with the seasons.
“We’re not slowing down anytime soon,” Jerrell said. “We want to keep moving in the right direction and not let people down.”