OWNER: Owen Dell, RLA, ASLA
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 42
WHAT THEY SELL: Landscape design and consulting
WHY YOU SHOULD GO: To improve the appearance and performance of your landscaping, reduce negative environmental impacts, and save time and money in the process
Owen Dell has devoted his life to creating beautiful, functional, sustainable landscapes. A licensed landscape architect who designs residential, commercial, and public projects, Owen is also the author of many articles and books, including Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies. During more than four decades in the field, Owen has continued to develop his skills and services, and he is known internationally for his pioneering contributions to sustainable landscape design.
When and why did you decide to start your business? I was in college in Santa Barbara in 1971, taking field botany from two young charismatic professors. We went to all kinds of wild places in Southern California, including the Anza Borrego Desert, Death Valley, the High Sierras, the coast—and I’d come back to town and see how terrible the landscaping was and how people were struggling with their properties with very mediocre results. So a friend and I started a business as “native landscapers,” but I’m not sure we made a very good impression and it was hard to get people to hire us. We finally got a job hauling brush for a professor, and we offered to help him with his landscaping. We spent the whole summer building retaining walls, which turned out beautifully. I was so moved by what we’d created that something shifted for me, and I decided to dedicate myself to what we now call sustainable landscaping. This caught my soul. It was a calling, not just a job.
After years of doing small jobs and maintenance, I got my contractor’s license in 1978, and I started doing bigger projects. By 1983, I had five trucks and anywhere from 5 to 20 employees, an office manager, a radio system in the trucks, and I was working day and night. But the stress was too much, so I sold everything and started hiring my competitors as subcontractors. For the next 26 years, I worked with various subcontractors, putting together a different team for each individual project. Life was a lot less stressful, and I did better financially under that model.
I had always loved writing, so during the 80’s I wrote a newsletter for my customers and later wrote some articles on landscaping for Sunset magazine. In 1992, I got my landscape architect’s license, and people began to perceive me differently. I was contacted by a publisher who asked me to write a book about landscaping for a series focused on home-based businesses. How to Start a Home-based Landscaping Business is now in its 6th edition. I continued to write for national and regional magazines, and in 2007, the “Dummies” series hired me to write Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies. Also, for five years I had a quarterly Santa Barbara-based TV show called “The Garden Wise Guys,” which was a syndicated sitcom. We did a different parody for each episode—take-offs on programs like “Twilight Zone” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” with the focus on sustainable landscaping. People loved it!
Tell us more about your services. What are your specialties? I came to Corvallis in September 2012, and now have my Oregon landscape architect’s license. I do landscape design for residential, commercial, and public projects.
I also do garden coaching, which is really short-term consulting. I developed a sustainable landscape tune-up, much like an energy audit, but instead of doing a walk-through of your house, I’ll walk your property with you. I look at water use, fertilizer use, pruning, labor, runoff, erosion, physical hazards, and so on. If you’re maintaining your landscape intensively with a lot of chemicals and labor, you can save money, time, and the environment by landscaping more sustainably. It more than pays for itself. For just two hours of my services, you can cut down on costs within a relatively short time frame.
What does being featured as the Local Business of the Week mean to you? I’m just starting up in Corvallis, so I’m thrilled to get the exposure. But I’m also eager to be of service to the community. If I can do some good for homeowners, businesses, and institutions then I’ll be happy.
Do you fill an unusual niche? What does your business do better than anyone else? When I look at a landscape, I ask myself, “How does it work, and what does it produce? Is this landscape carrying its own weight?” Landscaping can be very consumptive, and what I do is create a net positive landscape that’s good for the bees, the trees, the soil, the people, and the community. It’s “big picture” landscaping.
What challenges have you faced as an independent local business owner, and how have you met those challenges? The economy has been hard ever since 2008, especially since I’m in a business that some people see as a luxury. But I’m seeing a lot more interest now. I’m a fully-licensed landscape architect, and I can offer a broad range of services, including stamping plans for permitted projects. And by providing services that save money and improve the environmental performance of the landscape, I’m more than just a designer. A small investment in good advice can much more than pay for itself, and clients like that a lot.
What do you feel is the impact of local independent businesses on Corvallis, and what does the future look like for the local independents? When I first came here and walked downtown, I was delighted to see so many great local stores. It was a key factor in my moving here, since I’ve believed in supporting local all my life. It creates a quality of community that you can’t find in a town that’s been taken over by the chains. The future seems to be very bright because Corvallis residents support our local independent businesses.
What do you enjoy most about owning a local, independent business in Corvallis? I really like working with people and creating beautiful spaces that make people feel peaceful, happy, and at ease.
What is your relationship to the community? I’m very involved with the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition, helping organize the Edible Front Yard Garden Tours sponsored by the Food Action Team and working on the South Co-op’s Rain Garden through the Water Action Team. I was recently appointed to the Civic Beautification and Urban Forestry Commission, and I’ll be helping with the Adopt-A-Park program in Central Park through the Evening Garden Club. I’ve given presentations to the local Master Gardeners, and I have a number of lectures coming up for the Evening Garden Club, Sierra Club, and others.
How important is sustainability to you and your business? My business is all about sustainability. That’s what I do. Not every business can put sustainability at the core. I’m working on actually embodying sustainability in the community.
Please give us your one-sentence take-away message about your business. Landscaping isn’t just about decorating; it’s of vital importance to our well-being and to the well-being of the environment, and I’m fortunate to be able to do this wonderful work.
(Interview and article by Annette Mills – September 15, 2013)
The Local Business of the Week program is designed to help the Corvallis community identify our locally owned independent businesses by featuring one business each week. The program is part of the Buy Local First campaign co-sponsored by the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition and the Community Independent Business Alliance (CIBA).