The green, the bad and the ugly

Departments - Editor's Insight

June 3, 2013

Chuck Bowen

I was in Portland last month, so I called up Bob Grover for a private tour of some of his company’s coolest projects.

We’ve got a big sustainability issue coming up this winter, and I wanted to get a jump on it. I wore my nicest flannel shirt and Bob picked me up in his standard issue bright orange Pacific Landscape Management polo.

For a few hours, Bob showed me around the city, pointing out some of the latest in water gardens, bioswales and other green landscape improvements. We saw projects downtown and more traditional installations at office parks out in the suburbs. He showed me the good, the bad and the ugly.

Throughout, Bob kept returning to his focus on practicality in the landscape. He wants to strike a balance between no-input installations that become eyesores and highly designed projects that are pretty, but require untenable amounts of maintenance and attention.

As we were driving around, Bob made a great analogy: “When you look at a LEED certified building, it still looks like a building,” he told me. “A Prius still looks like a car. A landscape can be attractive and functional.”

He described a swing in the approach to landscapes in the Northwest. Years ago, projects were 100 percent input-based and built with no regard to what plants will work, or how the design should be maintained. Now, landscapes in the area are designed with too much attention paid to the plants’ provenance. People think “native” plants means “never maintain or think about again” plants.

Bob and his team at Pacific Landscape Management have made a name for themselves by preaching this smart sustainable message. But even with their success, he told me that he likely couldn’t expand even into Seattle, just a couple hours north. The market’s too different, he said, and he has enough opportunity to keep growing in Portland.

At the end of the day, what Bob and smart contractors across the country are advocating for is a practical approach to sustainability – one that helps the planet, but also makes sense for the businesses involved.

So, propane-powered mowers? Yes. Replacing all traditional herbicides with vinegar? No.

I don’t think Bob’s approach will work in every market – and neither does he. But his way of thinking could. His market and customers respond to the message of smart sustainability, and the idea that their property is helping to save water and reduce emissions. There’s a message like that for every market, you just have to figure out what it is.


– Chuck Bowen