Charles Malmo (ca. 1862 - 1938) was an innovator and an inspiration for anyone thinking about a career in the landscape industry. Name an aspect of the landscape business - retail nurseryman, propagator, wholesaler, mail order merchant, landscape designer, contractor, plant hybridizer - at one time or another, he did all those things.
Charles immigrated from Norway to the United States in 1878. By 1891, he had made his way across the country to Seattle. In 1893, he opened Malmo Seed and Nursery Company on 2nd Avenue, which you can see in the photo on the left. He soon was operating greenhouses and a warehouse.
When the Klondike Gold Rush began in 1896, Seattle became a boom town. Population doubled between the year 1890 and 1900. Demand for everything, including nursery stock, soared and the Malmo Nursery enterprise thrived.
Malmo Seed & Floral, 1893, on the east side of 2nd Avenue, 100 feet south of Madison in Seattle.
Image source: MOHAI, Collection on the Malmo & Company Nursery, [1997.4.15]
On October 21, 1923, The Seattle Daily Times * featured an article announcing that the company was purchasing 24 acres on Ellis Avenue in Georgetown. The headline read: "Malmo and Company Announce Large Expansion Plans: Will Create the Largest Enterprise of Its Kind in the Northwest."
Before the 1920s, most plant material sold in the Northwest, and across the US, was imported from countries like England, Japan and Holland. But in 1912, the US government imposed an embargo on plant material from other countries because pests and diseases were being imported along with the plants. Charles saw this as a major business opportunity because, by this time, he had a lot of nursery stock he could use for propagation. Without competition from cheaper foreign suppliers, his company stood to do very well.
By 1925, Malmo had added another 14 acres on Duwamish Avenue and was propagating trees and shrubs for shipment across the country. An article in The Seattle Daily Times on June 21, 1925*, describes the art of grafting as practiced by Malmo horticulturalists. Malmo is often credited for being the first nursery on the west coast to do this. The Malmos also developed hybrids, such as the Malmo Red Gravenstein apple. The company printed catalogs and planting guides, some over 140 pages, listing plants offered for sale and providing gardening advice.
By this time, Charles' sons, Clarence and Clark Prescott, had joined the business. They began adding new services, including landscaping and garden renovations. In the Malmo collection at MOHAI, there are letters written by Clark to homeowners suggesting that they hire the Malmo company renovate their gardens. These letters began with sentences like this, "I was walking down your street the other day and noticed that you have a lot of mature shrubs in your garden that are overcrowded...." In these letters, he goes on to explain how pest and disease problems are more prevalent in crowded conditions and how his company could remedy the situation. Whether those audacious letters resulted in new business, we don't know.
We do know, however, that the Malmos were successful landscapers. Many of the wealthier residents of the city hired them. You can still see an example of their work at Garden Court Apartments, now condominiums, which was installed in 1929 on 16th Avenue in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
In 1930, the Malmos opened Garden Square, which they described as "the first complete garden department store on the Pacific Coast." It was located in the new Denny regrade area of Seattle, at 6th and Virginia. A Seattle Daily Times article* on October 21, 1930, said it was a "strikingly beautiful establishment." If you access the article online, (see instructions below*) you will be able to see what the building looked like. It was a two-story, triangular structure, with a lavish rooftop garden. The plate glass was removed from the windows in the lower story and replaced with wrought iron fences and gates to create an open air shopping experience with plant displays to inspire garden projects for homeowners. The upper story was enclosed and featured seeds, supplies and various garden accessories. It was a truly unique retail concept for its time.
The Malmo businesses continued to thrive and in 1937, Clark bought 30 acres on the site where University Village now stands. In 1938, Charles Malmo passed away, leaving behind a legacy of successful horticultural enterprises.
Clark and Jean Malmo in 1983 at Bush Point, Whidbey Island, where their Malmo Wholesale Rhododendron Nursery was located, 1983.
Image source: MOHAI, Collection on the Malmo & Company Nursery, [1984.10.1]
"Service is the rent we pay for the space we occupy."
In 1949, Clark married Helen Jean Negus (who preferred to be called "Jean"). The two of them managed the Malmo businesses, which included the Seattle Wholesale Nursery on Aurora Avenue North, considered the largest on the West Coast, and more than a dozen other nurseries.
In 1962, Clark and Jean sold the Malmo Nurseries to Ernst Hardware/Pay'n Save Corporation. They continued to run the Malmo Wholesale Rhododendron Nursery on Whidbey Island, specializing in hybrids.
Jean was a founding member of the Seattle Rhododendron Society and the American Rhododendron Society. Both she and Clark served on the board of the South Seattle Community College Foundation. After Clark's death in 1985, Jean donated funds to build the Charles and Clark Malmo Garden in the Arboretum at South, dedicated to their memory. She also donated 125 Bosnian pines to the Arboretum in its early years to give the garden some structure.
Beyond her generosity toward the College, she was known for many other community service projects. Her profile in the Journal of the American Rhododendron Society, published a year before she died, includes a list of her many awards. She passed away in March of 1996 at the age of 81.
Ernst went out of business in November of 1996 and with it went the Malmo name. Today, long time Seattle residents remember the Ernst-Malmo signs, but few are familiar with the story of the remarkable nursery Malmo once was. The Malmo garden at the Arboretum at South Seattle College is one of the few vestiges left in Seattle of that extraordinary enterprise.
An extensive collection of catalogs, clippings, correspondence and photographs from the Malmo Company & Nursery, spanning 100 years, is archived at MOHAI.
* If you have a Seattle Library card, you can access this article online. Go to your account, click on "research" at the top of the page. Then select "magazines and newspapers." From that menu, choose "Seattle Times," then "Seattle Daily Times." Enter the name Malmo in the search box at the top and the date of the article in the date box. It will take a moment to completely load, so be patient. It is worth it!