As a computer game designer, Roxy Wolosenko spent her days at a desk creating virtual environments for simulation games like the popular series The Sims. On weekends, she couldn’t wait to get out in the real world to do something more tangible, like gardening.
She started taking some graduate-level landscape architect classes through UC Berkley Extension, but didn’t finish. “I was making good money with a good career in computer game design,” Wolosenko says, “so I thought, why jump ship?”
Eventually, she got tired of sitting in front of a computer all day and took the leap. She left gaming and started Roxy Designs in Moraga, Calif., to focus on landscape design. She soon realized design alone wouldn’t pay the bills like it did in the digital world, so she got her contractor’s license in 2007 and hired a crew to handle the installs.
“We started with small jobs, mostly just planting and some irrigation, and then as the business grew, we took on more of the full installation,” she says. “We got more involved in concrete, retaining walls, drainage and construction.”
Since 2007, Roxy Designs has grown about 10 percent annually, and generates revenue of $750,000. Wolosenko plans to add another maintenance crew to her team of 10 employees this year. And to build a successful full-service landscaping firm, Wolosenko had to overcome some obstacles. Fortunately, she’d already conquered some of them in the gaming world.
“Computer game development was a completely male-dominated field, and now I’m a female-owned business in a mostly male-owned business world,” she says.
“If a job requires construction, there’s an assumption that I don’t know what I’m doing. There’s a double standard that women know flowers but they don’t know drainage. One of the lessons I learned in my previous career was that I can do it just as well as the men.” To prove she could cut it in landscaping, Wolosenko borrowed a lesson from her career designing video games.
“A game’s success is about the way it connects with the people who play it,” she says. “Similarly, you can apply that same psychology to understand who your clients are. Some clients just want a pretty landscape to look at; other clients want to get out there and start a vegetable garden. Understanding the dream people have for their experience is what allows you to create a good garden – or, conversely, to design a good game.”
Listening is the key to understanding what clients want. The problem is that most clients don’t often have the design vocabulary to explain what they want, so there’s some decoding involved.
“When people want a design, what they do is they describe a feeling, an activity and then a style,” Wolosenko says. “What’s critical is listening – not telling them what you think they want to hear, but listening – and then trying to come up with ideas from your own experience and testing to see if they resonate with them.”
For Wolosenko, listening is an iterative process of observing how clients react to suggestions. When she mentions the popularity of vegetable gardens, for example, she’ll get one of two reactions: “Yes, that’s exactly what I want,” or, “That’s what supermarkets are for.” By floating ideas, understanding what gets traction and building on those, Wolosenko learns about clients’ dream environments.
“People have a hard time coming up with ideas on their own, but they’re very good at reacting to pictures, so engage them in that way,” Wolosenko says.
“I’ve put together plant palettes on Pinterest, and people can look at the plants instead of looking at little circles on a top-down plan. Giving them pictures so they can see how they would see it if they were standing there, that helps connect the dots.”
Maintaining what you’ve built
Since Roxy Design launched as a landscape contracting business with design/build services in 2007, clients have been asking owner Roxy Wolosenko for more.
“They kept asking me to come back and spruce up their gardens or just help them, because they hired people who didn’t really know what to do with the native or Mediterranean plants I installed,” she says.
A couple of years ago she added maintenance, and now it is 10 percent of her service mix. Just as a contracting license gave her more control to bring her designs to life, handling the maintenance allows Wolosenko to keep her designs pristine as gardens grow and fill in. At first, Wolosenko just started maintaining the gardens she installed for existing clients. Now, clients seek out Roxy Designs for installations explicitly because the company can keep the landscape looking great with long-term maintenance, she says.
While a few clients require weekly lawn maintenance, most of Wolosenko’s clients only need monthly visits. Wolosenko selects drought-tolerant plants instead of large patches of lawn and installs efficient irrigation systems. She also selects plants that will fit the space at their mature size so they don’t need to be prunned often. “You really don’t have to do that much maintenance if you have a well-designed garden,” she says.
Applying technical knowledge.
But listening to clients is only half the battle, because you can’t always do what they ask. The hardest part is aligning what clients want with what’s sustainable in California, Wolosenko says. For example, clients might show her pictures of their dream gardens – in much wetter climates like England or Japan. If she can’t give them that exact Japanese garden, she can design a space with the same feeling. “It’s designing the right kind of garden for where we live. It’s conserving water and putting plants in that fit the spot at the mature size, not at baby size,” Wolosenko says.
“A tremendous amount of it has to do with deep plant knowledge, what goes with what, and what can be substituted for a particular look or feel.”
Wolosenko’s goal is to design gardens that require as little maintenance as possible. Water is everyone’s top concern in drought-stricken California, so Wolosenko approaches each job with conservation in mind. After selecting native plants, she implements drip irrigation, or systems with high-efficiency rotors and smart controllers that adjust automatically based on weather conditions.
Currently, she’s converting a pool into a rainwater collection system for a client. As a master gardener in Contra Costa County, she often gives free educational lectures about conserving water through simple landscaping tips, like adjusting irrigation controllers for each season instead of setting and forgetting.
“If you’re not installing drought-tolerant landscapes, putting in as little lawn as possible and selecting plants that don’t require water, then you’re doing a disservice to your clients,” she says.
“I try to talk my clients out of planting large lawn patches or riparian species, and talk them into more drought-tolerant plants. Some clients don’t care, but I want to feel like I’m contributing to positive change in the world.”