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Guest Post! What it’s like for Ben Bowen of Ross NW Watergardens to be a landscape designer

Last week I wrote my post “What is it like to be a landscape designer?” and it occurred to me that every designer has come via a different path and does things a little bit differently. Literally every designer. Give the same problem to fifteen designers and they’ll come up with 17 solutions (because two of the designers are, statistically, showoffs). So I decided that it would be a lot of fun to open this up to other landscape designers.

The first designer I’m featuring is Ben Bowen of Ross NW Watergardens in Portland, Oregon. Ben does some amazingly beautiful designs, especially his modern and Japanese inspired work. He’s also great at sharing his work on social media, which is (in a roundabout way) how he and I connected. I think you’ll enjoy what he has to say.


What is it like to be a landscape designer?

When David offered me the opportunity to answer the same batch of questions he faced I was happy to oblige, but with one stipulation. No middle school kids. Middle school was rough for me, I am not going back. He assured me I could just do this from my kitchen and I love talking about landscape design, so here is what it’s like for me to be a landscape designer:

[Dave here – you could offer me a million dollars and a basket of puppies and I wouldn’t go back to being IN middle school. But as a grownup, it’s not as bad.]

How did you become interested in this kind of work?

I am a third generation landscaper. As a kid growing up in Phoenix, AZ I would spend summers installing irrigation timers in subdivisions that Bowen’s Inc was landscaping. As a result, I never really considered anything outside this industry. However, it wasn’t until about 4 years ago that I started considering designing. It really started with a need. The company I share with my dad, Ross NW Watergardens, needed projects. I was good at finding small projects, while my dad had cultivated relationships with designers who would deliver larger projects. The primary designer we worked with took a position as the curator of Portland’s Japanese Garden. Overnight we went from getting 6-10 projects a year from him to maybe one. I decided to start pursuing larger projects and gradually began to add designing to process. It was one of the best things we have ever done. I love designing and it has freed us from relying on others for the work that keeps our family’s fed!


What three (3) characteristics should someone in your profession have?

Empathy. You have to be able to step into someone’s life to understand the role their outdoor spaces can fill. If you are good at understanding and addressing needs they express you will have happy clients. But if you can perceive and address needs they are unable to express or recognize themselves? Then you will have amazed clients.

Be a good communicator. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but that doesn’t apply to a landscape design. When you unroll that picture for a client it is confusing and overwhelming. As you start to walk them through the design, with words, it all begins to make sense.

Be pragmatic. Not dogmatic. There is rarely only one good solution to a design challenge. There is almost never just one right plant for a specific spot. You must be flexible enough with your vision to dignify the client’s vision, budget, or whatever other concerns impact your design area. And if another professional will be installing your design, you had better learn to see things from his perspective too!

What do you do during a typical day?

I get up at 6am pretty much every day. Because we are a design/build firm I often have morning visits to ongoing projects. I may also need to pick up a pot or bench or some plant that our normal supplier didn’t have. At least twice a week I meet with potential new clients. When I am working in my home office (kitchen, as I mentioned above) I am designing, sending proposals, invoicing, blogging, and wasting time reading about basketball.


What is acceptable dress?

There is a wide range of “acceptable” dress in the landscape industry! If you also install landscapes then you can wear pretty much anything you want. I personally like to overdress a little just to set myself apart. This summer I had a client tell me I was the cleanest landscaper she had ever seen. What a compliment.

What school subjects/activities were helpful for you?

Math and Language Arts, for sure. I appreciate how math helps me every day in this job, my clients appreciate my ability to communicate it all to them with words.


What previous jobs have you held?

In the landscape industry I have done just about everything: irrigation technician, stone mason’s helper, water feature cleaner and technician, landscape maintenance crew leader, etc. I also did three years as a full time volunteer, living and working in Brooklyn (did you know a “vow of poverty” is a real thing?) And I sold wine for 10 days once.

What are your hours of work? Are they flexible?

The flexibility of my schedule might be my favorite thing about my job. I do usually start at 6am, and sometimes I work late after my kids are in bed. March through July I work 45-60 hours a week. But I also take days off any time I want to. And if I get tired of responding to emails at 1 in the afternoon I might just quit for the day.

What opportunities are there for advancement in your field?

I started as the only designer at our family firm and gave myself the title “Head Landscape Designer”. Yep, I went from the top pretty quickly. But assuming you don’t work for your dad… there are still lots of opportunities. The industry is booming right now in many parts of the country. There are large firms in Portland that have had unfilled openings for months! And if you want to stay independent there is a very strong network of designers that can help you build your portfolio and client base.

What do you like most about your job?

Every day is different. Right now I am designing a very small urban space with some serious slopes. I also happen to be designing around a large pond and natural stream on a huge property outside Portland. The spaces are different, and so are the clients. One is a doctor with a new baby. The other is an athlete who wants his kids to grow up fishing and swimming in the pond.


What do you like least about your job?

Difficult conversations. Sometimes I have to tell a potential client, who really loves my portfolio, that their project is not a good fit for me. I can see them trying to not feel hurt and I really hate that. Other times I have to help clients see that their vision and budget come from different worlds. That can be awkward. I don’t like disappointing people, but sometimes I have to.

If you could live your life over again, would you choose this line of work?

Absolutely. I love the flexibility, working with family, and being creative. It’s a great fit for me and my family.


Ben Bowen is a landscape designer in Portland, OR with Ross NW Watergardens. He also designs independently at Modern Landscape Design.


    December 3, 2015 REPLY

    Thanks again Dave, this was a lot of fun to put together!

      December 3, 2015 REPLY

      I’m glad you were willing to join in, Ben! Always fascinating to hear what makes other designers tick.

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