When Eva Montane first purchased Columbine Landscapes in Durango, Colorado, in 2015, she spent her days working with and training crews in the field, doing the billing, creating newsletters, setting up accounts, procuring insurance, responding to emails and phone calls from new and prospective customers, and completing other key administrative tasks.
Montane took the reins of Columbine Landscapes with plenty of practical and academic experience in the green industry. After studying ethnobotany at Miami University, Montane worked as a field botanist in California for six seasons, did ornamental horticulture maintenance and previously owned a small landscape design and maintenance company in Durango before selling it to focus on building an online education program for gardeners in the Mountain West.
“I was at a crossroads in my life where I sold my former business and was launching the online education program that was taking a lot of my energy and time,” Montane says. “But I got to a point where I needed something more, and I realized I was happiest and most prosperous when I was doing landscape design and maintenance. I realized the landscape design and maintenance world is where my heart is, and that’s what I wanted to be doing when I purchased Columbine Landscapes.”
Working on the business
After her first year in business, Montane says it became evident that her strenuous days in the field followed by lengthy periods in the office weren’t sustainable for the long term. She says it was clear that in order to successfully maintain and grow the business, something had to change.
“I wanted to work on the structure of the business,” Montane says. “I wanted the business to run on its own without me having to be involved in it every single day. I was so maxed out and I felt so overwhelmed and fried, and I just didn’t know how I was going to be able to keep up that level of chasing my tail and getting so exhausted in the middle of the week that I couldn’t function.”
While juggling her responsibilities to the business and fighting off the beginning stages of burnout, Montane attended a conference where she had a conversation that would change the course of her business. A colleague recommended that she read “The E-Myth” by Michael Gerber, a book of business advice that made Montane completely reevaluate her role in the business.
“The whole idea is that every business should have three necessary components to function, a technician, a manager and an entrepreneur,” she says. “If you only have one person, success can lead to burnout, and there is no time or energy left to create the vision. I’m the only one who can create the vision, but other people can deadhead in the field.”
Since then, Montane has grown her original staff of 10 employees to 19, and this year, she plans to add an additional landscape designer. In addition to a team of managers and crew leaders, she has developed an all-female leadership team of five. With this leadership structure in place, Montane has been able to dedicate her energy to fulfilling her vision for Columbine Landscapes.
Montane believes in nurturing the environment and people, and she’s extended those beliefs into every aspect of the business.
“I feel passion about developing my people,” Montane says.
“We grow plants, but we also grow people. Once a week we have meetings on different topics with the crew so that when they leave working with us, they will have gained more skills that will help them in life than just horticulture skills. In our interview questions we ask if they are open to professional and personal growth because we are really looking for people who are willing to self-reflect and grow as humans, and we plant the seeds up front before they join us and make sure they are amenable to that.”
Each employee also has a development meeting with their supervisor every two weeks, a time that is meant to support the team member, ensure they are finding the tools they need to successfully complete their job and learn more about how the company can support them along their career path.
“It’s so important to create an environment where people feel like they can grow and learn more than just the job right in front of them, to grow as a person and become more in the world,” Montane says. “This time is not us evaluating them, it’s more seeing how we can support them.”
Supporting the environment
In addition to landscape design and “human-powered” maintenance like fine perennial maintenance, bulb planting, deadheading, hand weeding, applying fresh mulch, and fall and spring cleanups complete with shrub pruning at the appropriate time, Columbine Landscapes has added rainwater harvesting to its list of services, which fits Montane’s passion for nurturing the environment.
“Rainwater harvesting does not use barrels, it’s more passive,” Montane says. “We sculpt lawns to direct water where we want it to go to water naturally and passively by nature.” The design helps water go to where the plantings are due to gravity. Water is given a chance to pool before it seeks a lower elevation, creating puddles in the landscape so it can soak in deeply and hydrate the land. Those sites will be moist longer than areas around them. It means less work from a homeowner than hand watering, less plastic if you’re using drip irrigation and less cost up front for the resident.
Montane says rainwater harvesting also helps mitigate the way dramatic storms in the region tax the infrastructure by slowing the path of water and helping prevent sewers and drains from backing up and flooding. Rainwater harvesting also slows erosion caused by the water’s destructive cutting action.
For Montane, who loves the bright sun, big views, dry air, mountains and canyons of the Mountain West, there is no way to separate her work from her values. She passionately feels that she’s grown Columbine Landscapes to support her goals and to create the change she envisions in the world.
“It felt like such a breakthrough that I could leverage the power of this company, that I could really strive to make a model of how I think business should be done to support each other and the environment and make a change for the positive,” Montane says. “A business without all these parts that I’m so passionate about woven into it would be just a job. I want to be excited about my work and passionate about what I do.”
Supporting the community
With supporting her employees and the environment at the front of her mind, Montane has also chosen a collaborative marketing approach that strengthens the local community and economy as it strengthens her business. She says she has consciously chosen to make an impact in her community by spending her marketing dollars to support other entities aligned with her values. For example, Columbine Landscapes underwrites radio spots for public radio, benefitting the company while supporting public radio.
“We also donate to silent auctions for nonprofit organizations, and we feel good about that because it supports that cause and gets our name out also,” Montane says.
Montane remains committed to specialization and partnering with local companies to complete jobs her company isn’t equipped to handle. She has seen many companies snowball into offering additional services. As a landscape designer, Montane admits that her mind has occasionally wandered to the idea of getting some machinery, training someone to use it and being able to execute her vision from beginning to end. Nonetheless, she says Columbine Landscapes is committed to focusing on what it does best with regenerative landscape, ecological restoration and building biodiverse habitats to support pollinators and bring in native wildlife, while leaving the power tools and heavy equipment to those who do it best.
“I believe that specialization provides a higher level of service for our clients,” she says. “Why would you want your dry-waller to do electrical work when you’re building a house? Why would you want your irrigation company to do tree pruning? People marvel that our crew is taught the names of the plants we work with. We are plant people, and we are really focused on providing a high-end service for our horticulture base because that’s our specialty, that’s what we know.”
After restructuring her business to allow her to work on it rather than in it, Montane found that she still has time to focus on the online education program that she built more than 10 years ago. The content is now accessible through Columbine Landscapes’ website.
“Educational resources are valuable to people in the Mountain West because our conditions are so different than in other parts of the country,” Montane says. “The climate and the soil are so specific, and having that kind of information accessible to people through the website is a great asset.”
The online education series includes interviews with garden celebrities, authors and speakers from the Mountain West who answer Montane’s “burning questions” about gardening in the region.
“My background is firmly rooted in plants and in being a botanist,” Montane says. “How do people take care of plants when they don’t know what they’re called? I feel strongly that specialization produces the best results.”
As she continues to nurture her team, the environment and the surrounding community, Montane says she is guided by the idea of the biophilia hypothesis, which asserts that humans have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature.
“That’s a guiding principle for me in why we do the work we do,” Montane says. “By creating landscapes for people through design, installation and maintenance, I see that we are able to have a big impact on people’s lives. I strongly believe we are creating peace on the planet by creating beautiful landscapes for people to interact with readily.”
Lauren Sable Freiman is a freelance writer based in Cleveland and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.