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Embracing Outdoor Living

From left are Edrice Robinson-Wyatt, Sharice Richardson, Santiago Mesa Botero, Joshua Cortes-Salazar, Amanda Bachan, and Holly Grace Nelson.

Meet Local Landscape and Garden Design Experts

By Taylor Smith | Photography By Jeffrey T. Tryon

New Jersey is lucky enough to experience four distinct seasons that dramatically change the color, feel, and functionality of one’s own backyard. The landscape architects, gardeners, and designers interviewed here are the perfect professionals to call upon when your goal is to enhance and better enjoy your outdoor living space. From incorporating wildlife and water features to elaborate hardscape designs and tree planting, these experts are all highly qualified to help your garden dreams become a reality. In addition, enhancing one’s outdoor living areas not only improves the look of the home, it has also been shown to increase property value, making it a savvy financial investment.

Ronni Hock, Founder of Ronni Hock Garden & Landscape

When working with a particular client, where do you draw inspiration from?

I draw inspiration from their imagination as well as personality to create a collective vision. Our initial meeting is the key. I focus as much on their taste, background, and lifestyle as I do on the actual space. My questions tend to evolve around “Who are you and what do you really like?” Since I have a strong passion for creating unique and inspirational gardens as the focal point of each project, I seek to balance what color, texture, and variety of plant material they prefer with what I think works best. Regardless of the number of walls, pathways, water features, or outdoor structures I include in a design, I find the best balance of hardscaping and landscaping comes from a garden-centric approach.

Describe the stages of each project, from design to installation.

We have a very particular process that’s been developed over the past 18 years. My husband, Randy, believes that the initial call with a client is critical to setting the stage for a successful project. He spells out our entire approach — from the initial meeting to final installation as well as our availability and hypothetical timetable — to see if the prospective client is a “good fit” for RHG&L. They get a tsunami of information before we even meet. He even refers them to online resources like Houzz, Princeton Online or our website for additional insight. From our perspective — the more you know about us, the easier it is to make the best-informed decision. At the first meeting, we walk and talk the project, take photographs and give the prospective client a feel for who we are and, most importantly, who I am. In essence, I am the owner, Master Gardener, designer, and project manager. I’m involved with every phase of development from design to installation and the only person they will deal with! That means the chemistry has to be right for the client. Once I get a budgetary range at the first meeting, I take the appropriate time to do a series of rough sketches (to the client’s budgetary range, not mine) and schedule a second meeting. If the client’s impressed and seeks to engage our services, we take a retainer (applied to the overall cost) and I go to work on the actual design. This always involves a great deal of give and take with the client (as well as design revisions) but once the Master Design is complete and approved, we take a deposit and schedule the work. Randy tells our clients, “There are three absolutes in life — death, taxes, and construction delays. It’s our goal to eliminate the third. Once we start a project, we finish. The only real variables are the weather and supply chain issues.” I think our clientele appreciates our honesty and approach.

How did your interest in garden and landscape design begin?

My passion for Mother Nature goes back to my childhood in Ohio.

I grew up a tomboy with a penchant for climbing trees, running through the fields, and rarely, if ever, coming home neat and clean. In the mid-’90s, we moved outside of Philadelphia — a few miles from Longwood Gardens. I was magically inspired by my first visit to Longwood and, after taking classes in design and horticulture, I spent several glorious years “playing” in my own garden. After moving to the Princeton area,

I continued my education and became a Master Gardener. After a stint at Kales and a wonderful opportunity with one of the top designers in the region, I listened to the advice of my husband (and future business partner) and created Ronni Hock Garden & Landscape in 2004.

Name some of the awards and accolades that your business has received.

There’s no question that the Junior League of Princeton Showhouse & Gardens played an important role in the launch and development of our business. We were selected and featured in each event from 2006-2012. We were also fortunate to be included in an article in Princeton Magazine in 2008 that gave us a great deal of visibility. We’ve also been featured in articles in Design NJ, NJ House & Home, Great Backyards, and Town Topics. We have been “Best Of Houzz” for Design & Service 10 times over the past decade. We’ve been awarded “Best of NJ House & Home” seven times for design, landscaping, and hardscaping. In 2021, the readers of Town Topics honored us with “Best Landscape Designer.” Personally, I’m most delighted with the feeling I get when a client gives me a great review or a strong recommendation to a friend.

What are some important factors for clients to consider when envisioning their ideal landscape and garden environment?

Find the right designer for you. Someone you can trust to create a space that captures what truly inspires you. Do your homework. Google. Scour Pinterest. Explore Houzz. Your suggestions will inspire the designer and shape the design. Take your time and remember — it doesn’t cost a fortune to find happiness.

Bruce Gangawer, Paxson Hill Farm Nursery & Gardens

Describe your design background and  the history of Paxson Hill Farm Nursery & Gardens.
I acquired Paxson Hill Farm in 1997. I always had an interest in design and nature, spending time out in the garden with my grandma as a kid. Later, I earned degrees first in architecture, then landscape architecture, and finally ornamental horticulture. This array of different studies shaped me to have a unique and well-balanced perspective on design — particularly landscape design. Further pursuing my passion for landscape design, I spent time traveling Europe, having extended stays in Paris and London. My time living in Europe had a strong influence on my life and design style, taking inspiration from the abundance of world-class gardens around me. After moving back to the U.S., I started my business designing and installing residential landscapes in the New Hope, Pa., area. My long-term passion project, the gardens at Paxson Hill Farm, reflects how my work has developed over a great career.

Paxson Hill Farm is located on Paxson Hill, once owned by the Paxson Family dating back to the late 1600s. The property stayed in the Paxson family until the 1960s, where it stayed as open farm land until I acquired the property. The property was used to grow produce, including a small apple orchard, which was then brought to and sold in Philadelphia and New York City. There are still a few of the original orchard trees on the property. The property has been used for producing crops and keeping animals in its earlier days and even had an air strip for small planes before I purchased it. The gardens at Paxson Hill Farm have been an ever-expanding passion project. Starting with just one small garden now known as the shade garden, the variety of gardens has now expanded to fill up practically every inch of space available. Apart from the gardens, the nursery and greenhouse has grown significantly as well. Many animals have lived on the property, including donkeys, sheep, chickens, peacocks, swans, ducks, pheasants, emus, dogs, cats, and geese! Today, Paxson Hill farm serves the community as a little piece of magic and peace for the community.

How do you work with a client to make their backyard vision a reality?

Apart from what we do on the property, we also do plenty of projects for clients. I, along with the associate designer, Evan Gregg, will get in contact with clients typically by email or phone calls to get an understanding of the scope of work and the client’s desires. We will then go look at the prospective site to consult in more detail with the client and get measurements to make a layout for design. There is typically a back and forth between myself and the client to get the best possible design for the space. We will then create a plan for the client and when they are satisfied, we source plants from local wholesale nurseries and our own nursery. If the design involves hardscape we will also source those materials from local suppliers, though the focus of most of our work is on planting.

What specific design services does Paxson Hill offer?

Paxson Hill Farm offers a wide variety of design and build services. The bulk of our work is focused on planting, or softscapes, since this is our passion. This includes expert plant selection in unique and inspiring designs. Ultimately, each client’s design is custom to fit the needs of the space, the desires of the client, and our style. Most clients want to work with us because they are looking for some aspect of our lush gardens in their residence. Our hardworking crew can build and install most residential projects that a client might be interested in. We can build hardscapes, like patios or seating walls, which usually complement or work in tandem with a beautiful planting design.

Why is year-round garden maintenance so important?

Year-round maintenance is good for multiple reasons. Maintenance is good for Paxson Hill Farm as a business because it gives consistent work and allows us to build relationships with clients over time. A client whose landscape we maintain may decide they want to renovate a certain part of their landscape one year, which gives us a larger project to work on. Apart from a business perspective, landscape maintenance is important for people’s homes because it keeps your plants healthy by ridding them of diseases and pests and saves you time and money by preventing irreparable damage.

What are the benefits of having a nursery on-site when meeting with prospective clients?

Having our own nursery can be extremely helpful and makes the design process more efficient. With the large selection of plants available in our nursery, suggesting plants to clients becomes easier. It can also speed up the process for selecting plants for a design — we can walk around the nursery to spark ideas. We do source a lot of plants from other local wholesale nurseries as well if we do not have them ourselves, but it is an advantage to have our own nursery to select from as well.

Holly Grace Nelson, Rutgers University Landscape Architecture Program Director and Associate Professor of Practice

Describe your personal and professional background in landscape design and architecture and how this relates to your current teaching position at Rutgers University.

I increasingly see landscape architecture in terms of people as well as gardens and landscapes. The line between garden and landscape blurs when you think about how intertwined we are with the landscape — even ones that we call natural. We have an impact on the environment, and it also shapes what we do. The urban ag garden at Rutgers is a place where we appreciate the plants, but the garden is also about community — designed by four students and built by many landscape architecture students who learned about wood construction and figured out how to make construction details work. In conjunction with Grounds, the garden was installed the summer of 2020 — during the COVID shutdown. It was something tangible and positive that happened when we went “on pause.” This past year, with students back on campus, Dean Sharice Richardson has stewarded the garden, planting different seasonal crops and watering-watering-watering during the heat wave. Under her care, the garden has aligned itself with EOF (Equal Opportunity Fund) students at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. Housed in the building next to the garden, EOF cultivates student capacity to overcome historic socioeconomic factors and produce first generation leaders in areas of food, nutrition, and health, as well as climate and energy. So, you can see how even a small garden is the result of collaborative effort and supports interaction between people and other people as well as between people and plants!

Collaboration is a teaching theme, too. When I teach Planting Design, students produce garden designs, and the class installs them. A graduate student, Kelley Forsyth, who now works for Jersey Cares and Branch Brook Park Alliance in Newark, developed an initial exercise where students are introduced to perennials and vegetables with consideration for color, edibility, seasonality, pollinator support, height, and texture. Students make a scale model including the plants and they include a person.

The course finishes with a garden that they design and then the class plants the garden. The team of about 20 students produces a large garden by working together for a few class periods to plant, mulch, and water in the new garden. The year we were online we all met in person on campus to plant a large raingarden. In prior years we planted a pollinator garden that specifically attracts particular native bee species that are dependent on certain native plants, a culinary herb garden, and a meadow border garden along a campus entrance. This past spring, we had a very interesting project spearheaded by Dr. Anita Bakshi (Landscape Architecture) and Dr. Jameson Sweet (American Studies) to develop concept ideas for an Acknowledgement Garden celebrating the Lenape and Ramapo. Much of the students’ plant research was derived from conversations with people who carry ethnobotanical traditions forward. These consultations inspired undergraduate research projects concerning using indigenous land management practices for fire control.

The Honore residence.

In what ways do you view landscape design as a collaborative effort?

My favorite projects are ones where people steward their garden and continue to develop it along the theme of sustainability (which includes social sustainability). The Honore residence is a good example where Bo and Andrea continue to transform a large lawn into different no-mow gardens in both the sun and the shade, gathering native seeds on long walks, adding native perennials, and even building the woodland path. They love to entertain, so they share this landscape with other people and organizations.

Name some of the institutional projects you have worked on.

I’m very proud of the Tenacre Landscape Masterplan that included gardens for people as well as reforested areas and a meadow to replace a big lawn. Gardens carry the different landscape plant palettes into various designed spaces for people. They build upon earlier sustainable landscapes (a wet meadow detention basin, solar array), adding rain gardens and diverse ecotypes (meadow, forest, etc.). The town called their masterplan an exemplar for sustainability.

When designing a residential landscape, what role does natural wildlife play?

That’s an interesting question! Residential landscapes can contribute a lot to wildlife habitat, especially when you think about them collectively — a neighborhood or a town of yards that support wildlife — instead of thinking of it as just one backyard. However, while wildlife appeals to most people initially, sometimes people balk when they need to clean up bird poop on their patio because of the birds singing in their trees! Or the pollinator plants that attract bees — that might sting you. And if the wildlife is deer, that can mean a very limited plant palette unless you can keep them away from your plantings. Yet there are many beautiful examples of gardens that support wildlife — create habitat and refuge for pollinators, birds, and other animals — even frog gardens!

What awards have you received and which projects are you most proud of?

I was very excited to present the student garden projects as laboratories for climate citizenship at Rutgers’ “Mobilizing the University for Climate Transformation.” I’ve won several ASLA (American Society of Landscape Architects) awards, all of them for projects in the Princeton area.

Brian Knisely, Founder of Cedar Creek Landscapes

Describe the history of Cedar Creek Landscapes. Specifically, when was the business started and how has it evolved over the years?

I started the business in the summer of 2013 after working for several different large and small companies within the landscape industry since I was 18 years old, giving me 28 years in this industry.

I started off physically working in production then moving into management positions in the field.  Then I moved to sales and before starting my own company. I was a general manager and head of sales at a large company.

My business started off with a variety of services such as commercial and residential lawn maintenance contracts, landscape and hardscape design and installation, and commercial snow removal.  After noticing a void in the masonry industry and having very capable personnel,

I thought it would be an easy transition to take my maintenance staff and transfer them into masonry. Four years ago during this transition I was able to come to an  agreement with a longtime friend, Rob Cortina, who is a master mason taught by his father who was also a master mason and owned a local high-end masonry business in this area. Rob Cortina has been crucial in the expansion of the construction and masonry end of the business.

Also, my wife, Samantha Harley, has been with the business from the start. She began handling the office duties on a part-time basis while also working another job. Over the years there has been more of a need for her time, so now she works full time for Cedar Creek. Her presence in the office is beneficial to clients, ensuring quick responsiveness and communication.

In recent years, because of the demand in pool installation, we have started a custom pool division that has been a good fit for the business because a large custom pool job involves all of the other services that we provide. We can offer our clients an all-in-one package. The clients really seem to prefer this model so they can deal with just one contractor to get the entire project built and managed by one company.

What steps are involved when meeting with a client for the first time?

The initial phone call or communication is made and Samantha schedules an appointment for me to meet with the client. Upon our meeting we determine the size and scale of the projects. After that point it will be determined whether I can design the project myself or I will be passing it on to my landscape architect who usually handles the large-scale jobs for complete landscape design and pools. After designs are done the project will be estimated and budgets will be put in place and agreed upon.

Name some recent trends in exterior design landscapes.

Generally speaking, in this area, full outdoor living spaces are in huge demand. This includes pools, spas, large natural stone patios, natural stone seating and retaining walls, outdoor kitchens, bars, fireplaces, and roof structures.

Give some examples of Cedar Creek’s hardscape design services.

The majority of hardscapes that we design are done with simple sketches and “idea boards” given by the customer and selections made from looking at our large portfolio of past jobs. We post on social media often, and this is a great tool for customers to be able to select what they like. We also do work for several high-end large contractors in the Pennington, Hopewell, and Princeton area and work off of their designs supplied by their architects.

Talk about the personal benefits of investing in landscaping and how it can increase the value of your home.

For the past 20 years outdoor living has generally grown in demand. Since the COVID-19 pandemic the demand has skyrocketed. With so many people spending more time at home the interest in improving their outdoor space has become a priority. With people being able to work from their patio, have meals on their patio, it has become an addition to the house.

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