Take Lisa LaPaso, 52, for example. She is the owner of Lisa’s Landscape and Design in Austin, Texas, and is one of those women. Yet, being the owner of a landscape company was not the path she originally thought she’d follow. Raised in Joliet, Illinois, by parents who were “the epitome of 1970s hippie artists,” she assumed that she, too, was destined for an arts career.
The family’s home was an artist’s cooperative called the Hill Fine Art Center. The central feature was a huge gallery made out of repurposed Army surplus ammo boxes, built around a giant oak tree.
Her parents worked in macramé, stained glass, photography, painting and more. They taught the techniques at local colleges, and to their daughter. From her grandparents on both sides—avid gardeners all—she picked up a love of growing green things.
In 1982, when LaPaso was 17, the local art market dried up, and the family moved to tiny Buda, Texas, an artistic mecca near Austin. “I was so angry,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave my beautiful plants behind, and that rich soil, and go where everything was beige and spiky. Every yard had grass and cactus, and that was about it.”
LaPaso figured that there must be some pretty native plants, so she made it her mission to find them. She found herself falling in love with the native Texas flora, and her passion for them fuels what she does now.
But first, she set out to become a professional jewelry designer and painter. However, her work was not well-received and, disillusioned, she found a job doing the least artistic thing she could think of: working at a bank.
It was at that point that she met her husband, a Realtor. He asked her to use her knowledge of gardening to do ‘make-readies’ on his listings, designing and planting new landscapes. It was here that her artistic flair and feel for color finally found the right medium.
“People kept asking if I did landscaping for a living,” LaPaso said.
“When I said, ‘No,’ they asked, ‘Why not?”’ Her work came to the attention of a female CFO, who hired her to design the landscape of her large estate.
“She said, ‘Do whatever you want, just make it look fabulous.’” She did, and became the estate’s full-time caretaker. Word spread to the neighbors, and those referrals alone kept her busy for the next ten years.
Lisa’s Lawn and Landscape was born then, sixteen years ago. Her first business cards read: ‘One Lady and a Shovel.’ That was an apt description as, for years, she worked pretty much by herself, mowing lawns, and hefting 40-pound bags of rocks and mulch.
“If it needed to be done—mowing, planting, hauling—I did it,” said La- Paso. Eventually, as she focused more on design, she stopped mowing, and changed the name to Lisa’s Landscape and Design.
Her son, Cavin, was born in 1991, and in 1999, she had her second boy, Zachary. LaPaso found herself in the position that millions of parents are in, juggling a busy work life with a demanding home life. “I’d drop my two boys off at school, and then go work all day long. Then I’d load up the bags of trimmings I’d cut that day into the back of my SUV, pick up my sons from school, make dinner, and spend the night doing paperwork for the business.”
That’s daunting enough. Now, add the little detail that both of her sons are autistic, the younger one, Zachary, profoundly so. He was nonverbal, not uttering a word until third grade, and had to be tested to find out if he could hear or see (he can).
When the boys were toddlers, she took them with her to jobs. This was tough with little Zach, as he was highly reactive to sensory inputs: the smell of a certain flower, or its color, would touch off a meltdown.
It’s a tribute to LaPaso and her husband that the boys have turned out so well. Cavin, 25, has a successful career in video production, motion graphics and editing; 18-year-old Zachary just graduated from high school.
Laura Oergel, 58, is not the type to be trapped in a sedentary job. Despite being a city girl, growing up in suburban Los Angeles, she loves being outdoors.
“Physical work, for me, is a much better fit than being stuck in an office. Being out in nature, getting exercise, as well as the freedom that comes from owning your own business—all of that’s really important to me. Particularly that last thing, because I’m not a very good employee.”
Fifteen years ago, she was one, toiling away unhappily in a cubicle. Returning home from work one day, she observed the substandard job her landscape contractor had done. “I thought, if he can earn a living doing this kind of shoddy work, so can I— only I’ll do it much better.”
So she plunged in, opening A Woman’s Touch in Ventura, California, starting out with a focus on maintenance, including mowing and planting seasonal color. As she went along, she taught herself about irrigation, plant diseases, pest control, and about what plants work well in Ventura’s coastal climate. Her company focuses on sustainable, drought-tolerant landscapes and therapeutic gardens.
“I did it all backwards,” laughs Oergel. “For me, it works better to learn hands-on. Later, I went to school online and got my contractor’s and irrigation licenses.”
Owner and president of Columbine Landscapes Company in Durango, Colorado, certified landscape designer Eva Montane, 43, grew up just outside Toledo, Ohio, climbing trees and playing outside.
“My parents are very active, outdoorsy people,” she said, “which is probably why I like being out in nature.” She recalls accompanying her dad on a mission to rescue some native wildflowers before they were bulldozed over for a new mall.
As for her ingenuity and engineering skills, “I think I got a lot of my problem-solving and visual/spatial aptitude from my dad,” a retired tooland-die maker. “That helps when it comes to the designing part of things.”
While in college at Miami University of Ohio, she tagged along on a wildflower walk with some botany graduate students. “I asked them, ‘You hike around identifying plants, and get paid for it?’ That sounded good to me.”
Montane created an interdisciplinary major in ethnobotany. “It’s the study of how plants and humans interact with and influence each other. Ecology, anthropology and economics are all part of it.”
She worked as a field botanist for a number of years, but every August, when the flowers faded, she needed another gig. A friend told her about a landscape maintenance job.
“From studying botany, I already knew the botanical names and families of all the plants and how they were related. So this was a whole new realm in which to plug all of that into. And I just really loved it, soaked it up like a sponge.”
One of the clients asked her to do some native plantings. “He said, ‘You know botany and ecology and how everything works together, so I want you to do this.’” “I said, ‘Well, I’ve never done this before, and I don’t really know what I’m doing, but if you want me to, I’d love to try.’ That was my first big plunge into the green industry.”
After stints in Taos, New Mexico; Missoula, Montana; and Arcata, California, where her husband attended college, the couple decided that Durango was where they wanted to settle down. In 2007, she started an organic landscape maintenance business there, and ran it until 2012, when she sold it to one of her workers.
After that, Montane started Abundant Earth Gardens, an online educational series. “I wanted to help people who moved here from other places, who don’t understand the soil or climate,” she said. It consists of archived interviews with renowned experts, such as horticulturalists and gardening celebrities.
That project didn’t prove as financially lucrative as she’d hoped, so she next tried doing landscape designing and consulting, filling in by working summers at a local nursery. “By 2014, I started thinking, ‘When have I done the best, and been the happiest?’ I realized that it was when I was running maintenance crews, with my own company.”
Around that time, the original owner of Columbine Landscapes was looking to sell her 17-year-old maintenance company. An interesting feature of this operation was that the owner was known for hiring only women.
Montane bought it, and she’s back in business, with seven employees (men and women) doing organic landscape design, installation and maintenance, specializing in fine perennial gardening. She’s happy, and making money again.
The “woman” thing
Being female in a male-dominated milieu has been both a help and a hindrance for these three business owners. When, at a certain point, LaPaso realized that she had too much work to be a one-woman show, she started subbing out parts of her jobs. She met with some resistance, even in famously progressive Austin.
“I’ve been in situations where the subcontractor wasn’t onsite for some reason, and I’d observe one of his guys laying something down the wrong way. I’d say to him, ‘Could you please stop what you’re doing?’ and he’d say, ‘No.’ I don’t believe for a second that would have happened if I were a man.”
Some of these subcontractors told her that their workers are uncomfortable with a woman telling them what to do. She thinks it’s a cultural thing, a ‘macho’ mentality at work. Things went more smoothly after she started filtering her orders through a male crew foreman.
By contrast, Oergel found her local irrigation supply vendors—all of them male—to be “super nice, and extremely helpful.” They shared their knowledge, and answered her questions.
Not that she hasn’t encountered some gender-related difficulties. “I’ve had a few guys working for me who seemed to think that I can’t possibly know what I’m doing, just because I’m a woman.”
“But I earn their respect. I don’t just point a finger and say, ‘Go do that;’ I’m usually right beside them, doing the same tasks. It shows my competence. Now that I have regular employees, I don’t run into this so much anymore. And, being the person who signs their paychecks tends to level the playing field.”
It’s not like she’s trying to hide anything, having named her company A Woman’s Touch. The name has been an asset. Many female clients have sought her out because they want to support other women in business.
Four years ago, she spun the irrigation division of her company off into a separate operation called The Sprinkler Gal. It’s focused on water-wise irrigation and drip systems, and does repairs and installations. Again, the name makes it clear that she’s a woman. It’s a marketing decision that’s paid off.
“People, especially women, have a lot of fears when it comes to plumbing-related matters; they’re afraid they’ll be taken advantage of. But I seem to inspire trust, in both males and females, simply by being a woman.”
I asked all three of these business owners if they’re comfortable promoting themselves to potential clients.
Women often aren’t, because we’ve been taught that ‘Nice girls don’t brag.’ At first, Oergel struggled to overcome this programming. “It took me years to recognize my own value. I would undercut my prices and give work away. But I was a single mother, and I had to learn to assert myself as a matter of survival.”
She’s learned that aggressive marketing is vital. “You can be really good at what you do, but if nobody knows about it, it’s pointless,” she said. “The first thing you need is a really good website, adorned with great pictures of your work. You can also build relationships through networking and by speaking to groups.”
Oergel has found clients by volunteering with a conservation organization called Ocean Friendly Gardens.
“There are lots of groups like that,” she said. “You just have to find one that resonates with you.”
These three women have all built thriving businesses. Since Oergel founded her company in 2003, she’s experienced 20 percent growth every single year.
Montane’s old business had 30 clients and a few part-time workers. When she bought Columbine, she inherited 150 clients and a full-time crew of ten. Most of the old clients stuck around.
How has she done since then? “I made about the same money the first and second years, but that represents a substantial increase over what the business had been bringing in before I bought it. We’re the biggest company around here that does this kind of thing, and we kind of have the market cornered.”
She wants to eventually add two more crews of three, each one having its own manager, and go from the seven employees she currently has to eighteen.
LaPaso started her enterprise in 2002, and has enjoyed “exponential” growth each year, at least 30 per cent—sometimes higher. She’s been so successful, in fact, that at times, she’s felt overwhelmed.
“My husband’s been great at grounding me,” she said. “I used to think I had to take every referral. He taught me to ‘just say no’ to becoming overscheduled.” Recently, she changed her business model, and now concentrates strictly on design and consulting.
Would these entrepreneurs encourage other women to take the plunge?
They definitely would. “If you pay attention to logistics, hire the right crew, pay them well and take care of them, you can become a millionaire, no question about it,” said LaPaso. “I’m booked solid.”
We may not have a female president—yet—but our industry has plenty of female chief executives who run their own shows, and do it well.
We hope there’ll be many more to come.