It only takes a few minutes of chatting with Bob Livingston to feel the sense of passion he has for what he does — it radiates from him. The owner of Creative Edge Landscapes in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, throws himself into his work like many artists do, and his efforts show in his many creations and inventions.
His first job at the age of 12 was working at a local nursery alongside relatives and friends. They spent their summers trimming plants and weeding rows in the fields. But Livingston never had any intention of making a career in the green industry. What he wanted was to become “the next Norman Rockwell.” He pursued that dream by going to art school to become an illustrator, but little did he know, his early education working with plants would end up becoming his inspiration and his livelihood.
Of course, he didn’t know that the advertising industry was going to go through a major change in the early 1990s, and that illustrators were going to be replaced with graphic designers and Macintosh computers. He kept at it for a couple of years, trying to build a career in advertising, but he says, “I found myself doing what I didn’t really like to do.”
That’s when Livingston decided to go back to his roots in the green industry. What had always been a part-time summer-and-holiday job throughout his life became a way to earn a steady income. He learned all aspects of the trade, from the field to construction, and eventually design. He began creating three-dimensional drawings of landscapes as a way help customers visualize what was being proposed.
Blending experience with love
Livingston’s formal art education, combined with his green industry background, gives him a rare skill set that he can use to his advantage. “My background in the arts gives me the ability to see three-dimensionally in color, and problem-solve,” he says.
Livingston maintains a passion for the outdoors, no doubt nurtured by the time he spent at his family’s central Wisconsin Christmas tree farm. A deeper appreciation of wildlife and forestry developed from those experiences.
The notion of creating natural landscapes began to take shape, and in late 1990s Wisconsin, no one else was doing it.
“I learned this natural landscape idea was something I had in my head that was not being practiced by the company I worked for, nor any of the companies that were our competitors,” Livingston says.
“They were pretty much cookie-cutter-type landscape operations, and they were very successful at it.”
But Livingston had an eye for the more natural look. At a time when other landscape designers were planting spirea, juniper or yews, he was “passionate about perennials.” But perennials weren’t a part of mainstream landscaping back then, with the exception of hosta and pachysandra.
“I thought they were a neat addition to a landscape,” he says of perennials.
That wasn’t his only departure from the day’s normal styles. Instead of the dry-setting method of constructing rock/boulder walls to retain a slope, he developed “boulder cropping.” This new technique achieved a similar result but with less material, and looked more natural.
He left the company he was working for and began working for a son of the owner. He perfected his art during this time, learning how to better create scale drawings and also how to sell and design.
Livingston started his first company in 1997 with a partner. This person managed the day-to-day business aspects of the company, while Livingston oversaw production.
He began to travel to places like Japan and China and was inspired by the landscapes he saw there. “I like the Asian design style, because it’s more natural, but also, very manicured,” he says.
Traveling to these countries exposed him to other cultures, allowing him to see things from a different perspective. “Then I’d come back to Wisconsin and figure out, ‘how do I mold these ideas and principles into basic forms and blend them into a natural aesthetic?’”
Back to his roots
When Livingston’s partnership dissolved after nine years, he decided to go out on his own. That is when Creative Edge Landscapes was born.
“I was already established as a brand, but I was able to move my customers, clients and employees with me, and things turned on very quickly again.” Livingston reinvented himself and refined his ideas. He also began conservation work.
While the mainstay of the company’s work is hardscape and softscape ideas, Livingston says, “I’ve been able to bring these high-quality construction techniques with me and create a really good service, and it’s [helped sustain us]. I have been able to grow the business from there.”
The added services are also how Livingston has been able to increase the size of the company and its presence, while not growing too large. “I never wanted to be a very big company,” he says. “I just wanted to be very, very good. And that’s where we’ve gone to.”
Livingston credits his art background with giving him the skill set to be flexible in response to change, to accept different ideas and to try new things. “That’s given us a broader perspective on our market than most companies will entertain; they keep to a very narrow footprint. But our open mindset has helped us grow.”
Weathering the storms
Winters can be tough for business when you own a landscaping company in the Midwest. Livingston says the conservation work his company does is what keeps the lights on during the colder months. “The conservation work has given me the ability to extend my season,” he says.
While the summer months are spent on ornamental landscaping jobs with up to 15 employees, once the ice freezes on the lakes, it’s time to stabilize the shorelines with the year-round crew of six. This winter, the company is involved with 10 shoreline restoration jobs for residents with lake houses.
Crew members break the ice open with a small excavator and attachment, and work from the bank. No surprise — it’s cold work! Often, it’s Livingston himself who gets into the freezing water and removes the concrete, trash and debris. The crew then reinforces the shoreline with Wisconsin granite.
“Morale is built by my being in there,” he says. “If the boss is in the water, then the guys are willing to keep working alongside me.”
Livingston is always coming up with some new idea or project. He owns two utility patents related to an idea he had back in the early 2000s when he was doing erosion control work for homeowners. Bob thought it would be useful for the state’s department of transportation.
He began doing some tests in the 9,000-square-foot greenhouse portion of the 3-acre-plus facility he was renting for his business. He was successfully able to propagate native plant seedlings in an erosion control blanket. That led to the formation of his second company, Greenline Synergy.
“Growing that portion of my business meant looking outside the normal confines of what we do and solving problems with keeping water clean and preventing erosion,” Livingston explains. In six weeks, the pre-vegetated blanket is grown to about 2-4 inches in height and shipped on a tray to keep it flat and protect the plants from damage. The prairie blanket is installed, and the roots bind to the soil in about a week and a half. “I can grow just about any native plant mix in the Midwest with this process,” he adds.
Livingston further diversified his business when he opened the millworks division of Creative Edge Landscapes in 2011, a time when the economy was not doing so well. Livingston said he’d considered hanging up his hat on the entire business, but he’d acquired a saw mill and wanted to see if he could do something with it.
He also hates to see trees that are cut down for various reasons being turned into firewood, instead of something that shows off the wood grain. “I see [the beauty in] trees that some people don’t see,” he says.
It was an uncertain endeavor, he says, “but I knew if I was busy landscaping, I would have never taken the risk to try it.” He built a kiln to dry the wood, put in some equipment and hired some skilled craftsmen to make customized flooring and furniture. Some of his millworks division customers are also his landscaping clients. “When a landscape customer wants a tree to come down, I tell them, ‘Let’s put some elements of the tree back into your home. It’s your tree.’” He also says that, in the age of laminate flooring, “we’ve lost the aesthetic of real wood. Let’s get back to what our roots are. That’s where my art comes back in, designing furniture.”
Livingston may have branched out beyond landscaping, but his businesses are all interconnected. “There is a lot of continuity,” he says. “It’s not leaving the bounds of what we do, it’s just using my equipment and knowledge in a more horizontal manner.”
Livingston, 49, is living out his dream, albeit not the way he originally expected. But, he says he wouldn’t change a thing. He realizes the model he’s built “gives us more depth and diversity to help weather an up-and-down economy.”
And, like the artist he is, Livingston wants to be original in the way he expresses himself. “I don’t have to do what everyone else does; I can do something unique and interesting and, make it last.”SPREADING THE JOY
Bob Livingston, owner of Creative Edge Landscapes in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, says the biggest joy of his chosen field is the joy he brings to others through his creations.
After a stressful week of work, clients often retreat to their lake houses where he has designed the landscape. They'll call and thank him for creating a relaxing environment.
"The biggest joy is when customers say how much they love the place, and I did their landscape 10 years ago," he says.
Feedback like that "makes it worthwhile that I am doing the right thing and that I have chosen the right profession," Livingston says.
The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.