How a hobby became a decades-long career Email
Written by Colorado Green NOW   
Tuesday, November 24, 2020 04:00 AM

Colorado Green Now

“I feel like I learn something new every day,” says Lisa Emerson of Emerson Outdoor Design, Denver. “There’s always something new to learn.” That on-the-job continuing education has helped her company evolve over its twenty years in business.

With a background in engineering and computer software design, Emerson’s job at a software company had her traveling a lot. When her oldest child was born twenty years ago, the Denver native chose to make a career change and start her own business, The Urban Garden, around her hobbies of gardening and design.

On-the-job learning grew her skills and company
That new career began as a garden maintenance company, caring for flower and vegetable gardens in the Denver area. As client needs grew, so did The Urban Garden. “It happened gradually,” explains Emerson. “I’d be working in a garden, and they have a plant to replace, so I’d give them ideas.”

She has taken courses over the years, through Denver Botanic Gardens, ALCC, and other green industry organizations. She’s also had industry members who mentored her. But Emerson is mostly self-taught. Her work speaks to the quality of that learn-as-you-go education, and clients have taken notice.

Though she had some formal education in design, she worked with colleagues and mentors to learn how to develop garden designs by hand. Eventually, she got CAD software to be more efficient. “It revolutionized my business and helped me get more done.”

Currently, clients find Emerson through her website and word-of-mouth referrals. She works with architects doing remodels who help clients find her for landscape design work. She is also a member of trade associations like ALCC and the Association of Professional Landscape Design and shares her work on Houzz for potential clients to find her.

Over the years, Emerson’s business evolved from The Urban Garden to become Emerson OutdoorDesign. Her work now is focused on design and project management, but she remains a one-person operation. Once the design is complete, she bids the entire project and works with subcontractors to install the design.

From time to time, she has hired some help. She has someone who can help with design work, andshe’s be able to find administrative help with bookkeeping and invoicing

Commitment to community
Emerson has also found that helping in her community has helped her business. “I like to volunteer my services. Donating design and maintenance time is good for the cause and gets my name out there.” It also puts her name out in front of the community which helps her find new clients.

She is especially active with education. One project close to her heart is a garden in Lowry. A parent-teacher organization wanted to revitalize parts of a school campus where her children were students at the time. She volunteered to lead the revitalization, which eventually became a victory garden built in collaboration with Denver Urban Gardens. The garden program became part of the student curriculum, teaching them about seeds, transplanting, and harvesting.

“Our goal was to touch every student in the school [with the garden program],” she recalls. “We really were able to do that, and it was rewarding for me and super-fun for the kids. All you have to do is sit down with kids and plant seeds and their eyes light up. We’d harvest veggies in fall and work with the fourth and fifth-grade classes, who had a weekly farmer’s market. The school also took vegetables into the cafeteria for the chefs to use and for the salad bar.” 

Later, Emerson worked with Denver’s George Washington High School on a garden project with the school's GROW Club. Much like the Lowry project, students in the club grow vegetables from seed and host a plant sale in the spring. In the fall, they harvest food for use in the school cafeteria. Students learn about the business of growing as well. They weigh and record everything they grow, and Denver Public Schools (DPS) cuts a check at the end of the year for the produce they supply the cafeteria. DPS pays the student club the market rate for the vegetables. 

Educating for a sustainable future
As for the future of Emerson Outdoor Design, Lisa Emerson wants to educate clients about the scarcity of water and the importance of water-wise landscapes. “I see the future of landscape design being around sustainability. Sustainability and edible plants are my passion. I love when I have customers who have sustainability as an objective. For those who don’t have the goal, I feel that it's my duty to nudge them to be more conscious about sustainability issues.”

Education is key, as she wants to encourage planting plants, especially native grasses and wildflowers in large areas, that will survive with less water. She understands that water scarcity will become a larger issue over time. And she understands that it’s not just homeowners who need to change. She also tries to educate landscape crews who help with installation on how to be more conscious of sustainability. She talks to them about ways they can help conserve resources: returning plastic pots to nurseries that will reuse them, not allowing vehicles to idle, etc.
She’ll continue to spread a message of beautiful, efficient landscaping and resource conservation by educating herself and others, leading sustainability efforts by example and teaching the next generation how to care for our built landscapes.

This story appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Colorado Green magazine.

Read more in this issue of Colorado Green NOW:
Fulfilling her innate talent as a gardener
To party or not to party--and how

Colorado Springs Utilities earns another HIRE Vets Medallion