Building a landscape legacy

Doug Dorough shares the lessons he's learned during 50 years in the landscaping industry.

Doug Dorough
Photos courtesy of Dorough Landscape Company

Over the last 50 years, Dorough Landscape Company has built an award-winning reputation for designing and maintaining some of Atlanta’s most beautiful gardens. But before Dorough became a well-known name in Atlanta landscaping, he spent several years struggling through other fields of study to find his calling in the garden.

He started college as a theater major with dreams of becoming an actor. But reality hit when he visited friends in New York who had graduated with theater degrees – only to find them scraping by, washing dishes.

Dorough took a couple of years off to reevaluate his direction and save money for school. As the U.S. space program expanded in the late 50s, he got a job in the Bahamas doing triangulation for the missile program with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Fascinated by this experience, Dorough decided to change his major to civil engineering.

Unfortunately, the coursework wasn’t as exciting as he hoped. Frustrated and flunking calculus, Dorough walked out of class. He was questioning his career path again, when his roommate pointed out the obvious.

“I had no idea what I wanted to be,” Dorough says, “and my roommate said, ‘Doug, you’re trying to be something you’re not supposed to be. Look around this trailer; it’s full of plants, and outside you’ve planted thousands of flowers, and it’s beautiful. You have a natural talent and that’s what you should be doing.’”

That afternoon, Dorough met with the dean about changing his major to horticulture, and soon after making the switch, he started making the dean’s list. Several job offers awaited him when he graduated from Auburn University in 1964, so he moved to Atlanta to work for a garden center as its landscape designer.

One of the garden center’s regular clients was Dan Pattillo, whose family owned a high-volume construction company that built industrial warehouses. Pattillo was so pleased with Dorough’s landscape design work on the warehouses that after a few years, he asked the garden center to start maintaining the properties as well. The owner was reluctant to expand, so Pattillo went straight to Dorough – offering to supply the truck, tractor, equipment and even an office to work from. Pattillo put Dorough on his company’s payroll, promising to cut him free when he was ready to take on additional landscape clients.

Growing referrals.

Since that first client facilitated the launch of Dorough Landscape Company in 1967, the full-service firm has grown mainly through referrals, as neighbors see Dorough’s landscape and maintenance crews working on impressive properties around the city.

One of the first referral calls came from the wife of Atlanta’s then-mayor, Ivan Allen, Jr., asking Dorough to maintain their 33-acre estate. After several months, she insisted that Dorough travel to England – on her dime – to see the English gardens she wanted to recreate. Once again, clients’ requests drove the growth of Dorough’s business.

“For the next 15 years, every year I went to a different European country and studied the architecture and the gardens,” says Dorough, who has since traveled to France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Greece and the Netherlands. “I’d spend two weeks going from garden to garden, taking pictures and notes. I became infatuated with thousand-year-old gardens and how they weathered time.”

As Dorough’s landscaping experience grew, referrals also came from commercial and civic clients, including Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank and his first wife, Diana, who hired Dorough in the early days of their business. Diana later asked Dorough to design a therapy garden for The Link Counseling Center, a children’s psychiatric hospital she helped fund. Flash-forward to today, and referrals from this property are still rolling in. Dorough last year received a call from one of the doctors at The Link, asking him to restore landscaping at her home that was destroyed by Hurricane Irma.

Dorough’s globe-trotting gardening experience also benefits his community and the broader industry. As one of the founding trustees of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, which incorporated in 1976, Dorough helped establish the garden and build some of its original paths and berms. Through the years, Dorough has also contributed his insights to industry associations including the Associated Landscape Contractors of America, Greater Atlanta Nurserymen’s Association and the Atlanta Historical Society.

Dorough’s team keeps detailed notes on plants to ensure they thrive in their environment.
Personalized approach.

Though Dorough has designed and maintained properties for many of Atlanta’s best-known names, he’s quick to point out that his team of 20 serves a broad array of clientele and a range of project sizes.

“I’ve been blessed to work for the super-rich, but not everybody we work for is super-rich,” he says, noting that 95 percent of his business is residential. “We’re known for creating Atlanta’s most beautiful gardens because we want to create environments that our clients will enjoy. It’s not going to be what we like or want; it’s going to be your garden.”

Before beginning any project, someone on Dorough’s team interviews each client to understand their design preferences and landscape concerns. They don’t just walk the property; they try to see the landscape through the client’s eyes – literally.

“We always ask, ‘May we go in your house and look out the windows to see what you see? Because we want you to enjoy the garden even when you’re not in the garden,’” Dorough says. “People are always impressed with that, and they say, ‘No one has ever approached it that way.’”

Based on that approach, Dorough’s advice to other contractors is simple:

“Listen to your client,” he says. “The biggest complaint we get when we talk to people is, ‘We’ve called three other companies and you’re the only one that listened to what we had to say. The others are so busy trying to tell us what they want to do with our property that they haven’t heard what we want.’ People are a lot more educated about landscaping today, so you’re better off putting in what clients want if it works.”

Experience and education.

Knowing what works and installing the right plants in the right place for certain conditions to meet clients’ demands is a balancing act that comes from decades of experience. To help clients see first-hand what works best where, Dorough began opening up his personal home garden for tours.

“I can plant things in my own yard to see how they’re going to perform,” says Dorough, whose personal plant trials taught him a lot. After several home garden tours, Dorough opened his own nursery to show clients a wider array of plants well-suited for Atlanta’s climate, while guaranteeing local plant availability for projects.

“You have to do your homework on planting the right plants in the right growing conditions, and then you’ve got to educate the client on how to maintain it,” Dorough says. His team leaves detailed reports explaining what kind of fertilizer to use, and how often. “People love being educated because they want their investment to increase in value.”

“We want to create environments that our clients will enjoy. It’s not going to be what we like or want; it’s going to be your garden.” Doug Dorough, owner, Dorough Landscape Company

To further educate people about landscape design and maintenance, Dorough regularly speaks at schools, universities, garden clubs and other civic organizations, hoping to inspire future generations to discover opportunities in the green industry sooner than he did.

Dorough, who’s almost 80, has a lifetime of stories and before-and-after examples to share in his presentations, paired with a passion for plants that captivates crowds. Recently, he was the keynote speaker for the Garden Club of Georgia’s annual convention, where he was given two awards for his work at the Little White House, Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential retreat.

As for the future of Dorough Landscape Company, there’s no end in sight to the legacy he’s spent 50 years building.

“I could still be doing this at 100 because I love what I do,” Dorough says. “I love creating beauty and making people happy. I might be (in) a wheelchair (by then), but I’ll be out there gardening!”

The author is a freelance writer based in Ohio.

October 2018
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