Thursday, September 24, 2009

Good God! I got interviewed by the Mayor of Providence's office

Feature: My Business
Cris Larson Digs into the Roots of a Greener Landscape
As thirty Providence residents prepare to train for careers in the sustainable landscaping industry (thanks to a partnership between Groundwork Providence and the Providence Housing Authority launched this week) local experts in this sector of the green industry have designed a curriculum that will prepare students to compete for better-paying jobs in the future. One of those experts is Cris Larson, a landscape designer and current president of the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association.

According to Larson, “Probably one of the biggest challenges that the green industry faces is trying to find qualified workers … so what this program is doing is giving those potential employees the knowledge and that edge over the inexperienced labor that you might typically see in the landscaping world.” Participants of the program will be receiving 6 weeks of instruction in sustainable landscaping and urban maintenance.

City News caught up with Larson, also known professionally as The Garden Consultant, at the Groundwork Providence community garden on Grove Street to dig into the roots of her field.
How is your field (landscape design) contributing to the creation of green jobs in Providence?
I’m the ideas person. I’m a one-woman show and I don’t have any employees myself but what I do is create the designs for my clients and then they will either give it to a landscape company or install it themselves. As the designer, I’m kinda’ the first step at creating different landscapes so it’s like a trickle-down effect almost. So I would work with, let’s say, a landscape company that would employ someone from Groundwork Providence. You know, keep a steady flow of work for them coming.
Describe the kind of training that takes place in order for an individual to be a landscaper.
You don’t really have to have any kind of qualification to do landscaping right now. In my travels as a landscape designer and horticultural consultant, I see a lot of the aftermath of work by people who don’t know what they’re doing. A lot of it can result in bad outcomes like trees dying or mulch being improperly planted, or even hardscapes that aren’t installed correctly.
An organization like RINLA (RI Nursery & Landscape Association) tries to promote professionalism in the field. We try to promote the certified horticulturist program. It’s kinda’ like a step above being a master gardener. They have to take a course and a test and have to maintain their certification with so many hours of volunteer work within the field.
So what role is RINLA going to play in the training being offered to potential landscapers?
Groundwork Providence contacted RINLA and a couple of faculty from URI, folks from the garden world, and folks from the landscape world – a well-rounded group – to ask us to provide input on the pertinent information that landscapers should learn. So they based the curriculum on the information we had given them. They’ve been working with us very closely. Some of us will be teaching some of the classes too. I will be teaching the urban landscape plant class. Another RINLA board member will be teaching the permeable paver class. So they’re getting people that know their stuff and are also able to convey their information and knowledge to the students.
In your opinion, how is a program like this beneficial to the green workforce?
I have a lot of friends who are landscapers and a lot their angst is driven by this challenge – the workers might come from a temp agency, or they don’t have the interest or the knowledge to really do the work well. I hear the same anxieties from my clients. So what this program is doing is giving those potential employees the knowledge and that edge over the inexperienced labor that you might typically see in the landscaping world. We need those educated people.
On the other hand, too, these potential employees and workers might also be able to garner better-paying jobs in the industry. If you’re educated you might be able to get a foreman’s job, for example. So I think this Sustainable Landscaping Curriculum through Groundwork Providence will give people that edge over others.
Why did you choose this profession?
I started off wanting to be an environmental lawyer. My dad was an attorney in upstate New York. I went to Cornell, which really doesn’t have a true pre-law program. So I took some plant sciences courses. In my junior year I started taking business law classes and that’s when I started thinking, ‘wow, I really don’t want to do this!’ So I graduated with a bachelors’ degree in plant sciences and a minor in ornamental horticulture. I worked for an industry in Middletown and they made me their landscape designer. One day I had an epiphany. Why am I not doing this for myself? And so I went and started The Garden Consultant in 2000.
Every year, it’s been getting a little bit better. The past couple of years I’ve been cranking out the work and I can’t complain! I’ve got clients all over the state and in New England and do a lot of work in Providence. In my designs, I use all native plants. I do more stuff with drought-resistant material and things like that. The push for green industry and with programs like what Groundwork Providence is doing, and with the push for more green space in inner cities and urban areas, I think there’ll be more demand for these types of eco-friendly materials and landscaping.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Every design is different. I enjoy that a lot of my clients become friends. When their gardens have grown into maturity, they’ll come back to me and say, ‘I really like what you’ve done.’ To have someone love their yard and once I bring that happiness to people, that’s when I feel like I’m helping to make the world a better place. It sounds cheesy but that’s what I like most about it.
How would you encourage others to get excited about this field?
There’s almost a stigma that goes with being a landscaper. But I think there’s going to be a big shift with the new green industry. As it becomes a more popular field, it’s going to be cooler. I have to say it’s actually a pretty cool job! I love my job! At the end of the day, people in my field look at their work and think ‘wow, I really accomplished something!’ There’s a great deal of satisfaction that comes with this job.
For more on Cris Larson’s work, go to and to find out more about the programs offered by the RI Nursery and Landscape Association, go to

(As seen in Providence's City News. I have to apologize for the crazy font sizes, I had to tweak it so it would fit.)

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