The purpose and process of gardening and cooking run parallel. There’s the concept of creating a finished product – an indulgence, an impression, a sensory delight. There are tools to complete the job, and a timeline to follow.
Both occupations deal with perishables. So when Lise Goedewaagen, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who had been working as a career chef for more than two decades, sold off her catering business (a pursuit that followed her restaurant days), and decided to enter a Master Gardener program, the segue was surely a shift – but not a complete departure from her kitchen roots.
After cutting her teeth at a local landscaping firm, Goedewaagen started Outdoor Environments in 1998. “Catering is a lot like doing a landscaping job,” she says. Her Dutch father gardened, and she remembers first being exposed to the intricacies of plants while spending time with family in England when she was about 10 years old.
“The Secret Garden” is still one of her all-time favorite books.
“You set up a menu, you find out what the clients like and you put together your ideas, then you go back and collect the tools you need and you get prepared, you do the job, clean up and go home,” she says.
The materials are different. But the intentions, for the most part, are the same: to deliver pleasing results, tailored to clients’ tastes, on schedule.
The fresh start suited Goedewaagen, who has grown her Gaylordsville, Conn., business from a tiny seed to a busy, multi-faceted business that includes a design/build service, a retail component, flower arrangements and wreaths, fresh vegetables and a growing maintenance service – though her property care does not involve mowers.
It’s meticulous maintenance. It’s gardening.
Sowing a passion. Goedewaagen had simply burned out in the kitchen. She was raising a family at the time, and the grueling hours caused conflict: working nighttime, weekends. You’re on duty when others are celebrating holidays. “I had been my own boss for a long time, and I had people working for me – I’m used to being in charge,” Goedewaagen says of her decision to eventually launch another business in a new industry. “I thought, O.K., now what do I do? I have always loved gardening and I love being outdoors, and I have gardened my whole life.”
After completing the Master Gardener program, she landed a job at a large landscaping company near New Milford, Conn. A friend of hers was performing some drainage work at her house. Goedewaagen told him about her career change, and he offered her a job on the spot. “I didn’t have a clue what was going on,” she says. “I was totally out of my league there. But I learned as much as I could and I worked really hard.”
At the same time, Goedewaagen began a two-year landscape design program at the Institute of Ecosystem studies in Millbrook N.Y. After a few years, she felt prepared to strike it out on her own again. “I just jumped in and went for it,” she says. The first few years, she only provided gardening services.
“My customers trusted me and my business grew. I started doing small installations and I needed help, so I hired one person, and that turned into two and three,” she says.
Hers is a family business of sorts, with two Ecuadorian brothers and one’s father-in-law, along with her own son. Her daughter also helped before moving away.
Not just anyone can perform the detail work gardening requires: clean-up, edging, mulching, pruning, fertilizing, along with installations and minding the health of plants. Gardening services are tailored to clients’ property size and budget.
“I am observant and I really stress this with my crews, to really look at the plants and see how they change and if there is anything going on … if you see an insect or disease issue, it’s really crucial to recognize it and address that right away,” she says. “We really pay attention to what we’re doing.”
Her team members have a natural knack for living things, she adds. “They just seem to get it.”
Cultivating niche offerings. Four years ago, Outdoor Environments expanded to the point where Goedewaagen could no longer run the business out of her home. She rented a commercial building on Route 7, a couple of miles from her house and a main artery through town. “I realized, I’ve got this spot. Let’s do something with it,” she says.
Goedewaagen began setting plants out in front of the building – specimens she had grown herself, extras from jobs, a hodge-podge. “People started coming in and it kind of took off,” she says.
A sign dangling from the Outdoor Environments signpost reads “Hepatica,” a genus of plants in the buttercup family, with hints of what you’ll find inside the eclectic garden shop: vintage + thrift. Just 10 percent of the overall business is retail, but the shop offers a venue for local artisans who sell their wares there – gifts, art, soaps and more. A thriving floral business is based at the shop; a demand for holiday wreaths from Outdoor Environments has escalated to where that four-week push at year end mimics the catering party hustle.
The container planting business has really taken off. “That is very popular,” Goedewaagen says. “People love it, and it’s fun for me – it’s easy for people to have a little container garden for themselves as a way to garden on a small scale.” This offering has evolved into a niche for the company.
With the 40-plus client gardens, Goedewaagen’s team maintains, most customers also get containers. She has also begun offering floral design and centerpieces for parties. “That is really fun and creative,” she adds.
Meanwhile, Goedewaagen nurtures a love of organic vegetable gardening, keeping a garden at home, one on the property with her shop/office and another in town nearby. She sells the bounty at a roadside stand by her shop.
If she could quit everything and farm organic foods – “It would be hard to make a living selling tomatoes,” she says. “But that is what I love to do.”
To be sure, Goedewaagen’s business is diverse – sprouting out in all directions, but rooted in gardening. While she considers the danger of spreading herself too thin, the joy she derives from the shop and its many offerings, along with the intentional overlap of those services, gives people many ways to “reach” Outdoor Environments. “I think the more I can offer, the more business that will be generated,” she says.
Her community, and family, has been generously supportive of her venture. “Without them, I would be absolutely nothing,” she says humbly. “All of the people here in our little town, and this area, come to me and support me with their business.”