Deep passion for the complexities of landscapes is what has propelled Sabrena Schweyer to success. Today, Schweyer and her husband, Samuel Salsbury, run Akron, Ohio-based Salsbury-Schweyer, Inc. Her unique vision of landscape design combines her history and science background with her connection to the earth. This vision allows her to create more than simply landscapes; she creates 'outdoor experiences.'
Schweyer speaks thoughtfully and intelligently about her past and present. Growing up on a farm in northeastern Ohio, she first realized her passion for the environment. Years later, while pursuing a dairy science degree at Ohio State, Schweyer was persuaded by friends, who noticed her passion, to take a few woody identification and gardening classes. Also studying history at the time, she began to see how the two disciplines could complement each other. "Gardens are just one of the many art forms that reflect what's going on politically and culturally," Schweyer says. "They reflect who we were and who we are today."
Eventually, Schweyer earned both the dairy science degree and a degree in history from Kent State. Her interest in the spiritual, emotional, and scientific aspects of nature led her to an internship with the National Trust in England, where she made a point to visit as many museums and gardens as her one-year stay would allow. It's clear, hearing her speak enthusiastically, that the experience meant a lot to her professional development. So much so that she still visits gardens as part of her ongoing research. As a result, her designs are infused with ideas borrowed from history and other cultures.
Early on, her unexpected design principles helped her stand out from the field. "Everyone was using hostas and irises," she remembers. "But I was interested in perennials." She was introduced to perennials while working at a groundbreaking specialty garden center; perennials then became part of her signature. And in 1989, Schweyer began her own company, Gardens by Sabrena.
Like so many other women, Schweyer initially experienced bias against her gender. Often she and her work were brushed off by men in the industry or by potential male clients. However, "these obstacles spurred me to find my niche and take the steps necessary to become an exceptional designer," she says. "It forced me to recognize that I needed to find ways to be taken seriously." So she got busy. She pursued projects that showcased her talent for perennials and natural and European-style gardens. Teaching continuing education classes taught her more about gardening. Mentors, such as Wolfgang Oehme and, later, her husband, helped her grow professionally.
Over time, she also earned merit and beautification awards from the Ohio Nursery & Landscape Association, Ohio Landscapers Association, and the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD), among others. She was certified by the APLD. The certification process can take more than 100 hours and required her to submit drawings of projects and to explain to a jury, in writing, the content and intent of her designs. No easy feat.
When she met her husband, Samuel Salsbury, and eventually formed their current business in 1996, it was an aesthetic fit. "We both work to create something personalized to the needs and tastes of homeowners with the goal of fostering connections to nature," Schweyer explains. Salsbury-Schweyer employs one in-house crew and also uses specialized subcontractors under close supervision. In addition to design, Schweyer is involved with the installation, surveying the layout of the plants. "She's a great all-around designer," Salsbury says. "She has a wonderful feel for the sites and the people, and she can create magic. I have yet to meet anyone who can surpass her ability to paint with plants."
Originally, Salsbury-Schweyer was known for original European-style gardens and water features. Today, their reputation includes landscapes that reflect homeowners' individual sensibilities. For example, they recently revamped a small backyard to include a pond with stepping stones, a wooded area with a hammock, a floating deck, and Pawpaw trees, among others.
Salsbury-Schweyer is also known for earth-friendly, sustainable gardens that often use native plants. In fact, sustainability is something which Schweyer and her husband have made a point to practice and teach. Schweyer insists that "a landscape can be beautiful, highly designed, personal, and sustainable."
Her advice for women entering the industry is to first indentify one's strengths and passions. For Schweyer, her passion is reminding people of their connections to the earth. But for another designer or contractor, it may be waterscapes, hardscapes, or even maintenance. She insists that "there are no boundaries." Then, she advises women to learn everything there is to learn and find ways to be continually exposed to fresh designs and ideas. Finally, educate others, something Schweyer practices herself. "I just try to impact my community positively and create beauty," she says.