Land Hoe

For Jonathan Brownell of Landmark Landscaping and Woodlands Management, landscaping came easily -- turning a profit took some work

by Susan Trzepacz

In 1983 Jonathan Brownell started Landmark Landscaping and Woodlands Management with a pickup truck and a shovel. Today his Burlington business employs heavy equipment and a staff of 12 to keep up with high-end residential projects that include tennis courts and in-ground pools that carry six-figure price tags.

He began his career at the age of 18 at Shelburne Farms, working under the direction of Marshall Webb, a member of the family that owned the estate before it became a non-profit organization. "I ran the sawmill and cut down all the old dead elm trees," says Brownell. "I've been a forester ever since."

Jonathan Brownell promotes stewardship of the land by encouraging a hands-on approach among his clients. Landmark Landscaping and Woodlands Management specializes in high-end residential work.

In addition to removing those reminders of the blight that killed elms all through the United States, Brownell helped to restore and maintained the extensive woodlands and landscaped grounds of Shelburne Farms. He developed skills in wood lot management and tree stand improvement. By the time he was 21, he had learned the craft that would become his career.

Originally from New York City, Brownell's family moved to Vermont when he was 3 years old. Growing up on a dairy farm in Maple Corner near Calais, Brownell spent his childhood cutting fire wood, haying and tending cows. By age 10, he was operating tractors and driving around the farm in a Jeep, perched on a stack of Sears catalogs. On at least one occasion, he broke both family and state laws, and drove a Toyota land cruiser the mile and a half into town.

Although he did well academically at a private preparatory school in Connecticut, he always knew he did not belong behind a desk -- or indoors. With a boyish grin, he admits to breaking every rule there was at the Kent School and exasperating his parents. His academic career came to an end after a single semester at the University of Vermont where, ironically, he flunked a botany course.

His father, Jonathan Brownell Sr., was a lawyer who became active in state politics and was instrumental in the adoption of Act 250, Vermont's land use law. With a chuckle, the younger Brownell says his name alone is enough to elicit verbal tirades from those who opposed the legislation 30 years ago. These days his father teaches community planning at Cambridge University in England. "He's at the top of his game," comments the younger Brownell.

Despite the different paths they have chosen -- and some initial disagreements about education and direction -- he and his father remain close and respect each other's accomplishments. Both have chosen to preserve and protect the environment of their adopted home.

For Brownell, landscaping is as much a passion as it is a business. Brady Hart, who has worked with Brownell for seven years, credits his employer with having "a grasp on the whole thing." When clients contract with Landmark, they get a wide range of expertise. "Jon's specialty is to reach out into different areas," says Hart. When the need arose, Brownell acquired masonry skills. "His stonework and his walls get a little better every year," according to Hart.

He finds much of his work in the neighborhood where he got his start, Shelburne and Charlotte, and most of it on existing properties rather than new construction. "We overlap with excavators," Brownell says, "but we have an eye to make it nice." Ponds, bridges and stonework are included in many of his installations and more than half of those are for existing customers. He is proud of the fact that he has served some of the same clients for 15 years.

While many customers have remained the same, the industry has changed dramatically in that time, according to Brownell. Landscaping is no longer just about having a green, unblemished lawn. Conservation and non-invasive techniques have become as important as aesthetics while consumers have become more sophisticated and more environmentally conscious.

The change is very much to Brownell's liking.

When invasive, alien plants, like loosestrife became a concern, Brownell introduced native species into his plantings. Brian Mitchell, who manages the commercial division of Four Seasons Nursery in Williston, says Brownell was one of the first local landscapers to promote the use of non-invasive plants. He has been incorporating them into his designs for approximately five years, according to Mitchell. Despite Brownell's poor showing in that long-ago botany course, Mitchell regards him as a horticultural expert. "He learns a lot on an annual basis," Mitchell observes.

Brownell's office manager, Andi Mongeon, describes Landmark as an "environmentally friendly company." Customers can expect hand pruning and maintenance without pesticides. Waste goes to the Intervale Compost Project where it is turned into weed-free compost.

While she and her co-workers are fulfilling the specific requests of clients, they are also improving the earth, Mongeon believes. "We're gardening for the planet," she tells people. "I'm proud of what we do."

Most of the company's landscaping jobs are in Chittenden County, but forestry work during the cooler months takes Jonathan Brownell and his crew all over the state.

Marie Machado, a certified horticulturist with a plant and soil science degree who has been with Landmark for a little more than a year, appreciates the extensive customer contact she has. Following Brownell's example, she involves the client throughout the project. On average, she meets with property owners three times before completing a design. Through detailed charts with information on every plant, customers learn about their gardens -- and the environment surrounding them.

Although it might be more profitable to keep the care of the plantings a mystery and take on as many maintenance contracts as possible, Brownell says one of his greatest pleasures is to see his customers weeding, watering and planting. "There's no rocket science to planting stuff," he says. "You just have to be respectful."

Through the sharing of knowledge and the encouragement of a hands-on approach, Brownell believes he is promoting stewardship of the land. "Let's get some more plants into the ground," he says.

Brownell attributes Landmark's longevity to the lasting relationships he establishes with his customers. He enjoys talking with them -- and not necessarily just about landscaping. He has fun.

Mitchell agrees that Brownell's approach to clients has had a beneficial effect on the business, but he also sees a great deal of hard work and commitment. Brownell admits to a 95-hour work week and the occasional on-the-job injury. In July he was recovering from broken ribs while still following the same demanding work schedule. Machado says that it is not unusual for Brownell to exceed a bid on a job, and absorb that cost, if he thinks additional labor or material is necessary. "We want it to look the very best it can," she explains.

The attention to detail and the commitment to excellence has brought more business and more challenging jobs. Brownell is working on an equestrian trail for his former employer, Shelburne Farms. Two years ago he completed the restoration and landscaping of a 300-acre farm on U.S. 7, which is now the Charlotte Park and Wildlife Refuge.

The installation of miles of road and bridges adds a new element to the job, according to Brownell. "The scale is bigger," he says. "It requires an engineering mind. You need to know what a boulder will do if you put it on such and such kind of soil." Because of the larger scope of such projects, there can also be surprises. Designs are apt to change on the spot with the discovery of a rare woodland plant or an osprey nest. It's this kind of work that integrates all of Brownell's skills and knowledge, and sets Landmark apart from other landscaping firms. It is where "land management" comes into play. "There are not many companies that can do that kind of work. Jon has created a niche for himself," says Mitchell.

Creating that niche does not seem to have been difficult for Brownell. What was difficult, he says, was learning to run a business. For more than 10 years, he enjoyed his work and received praise for it, but an important ingredient was missing: profit. "There comes a time when someone has to insist on a profit," Brownell says. For him the time came five years ago. Until then, he says, he was receiving an education and paying for it. "I tried to delegate the management of the business. It didn't work," he continues, "but I've matured. I'm slowly getting smarter."

What he learned was that he had to be available to the people he entrusted with responsibilities. While Mongeon, Machado and Hart have a great deal of independence within Landmark and many opportunities for creativity and decision-making, constant communication keeps everyone on the right track and makes a big difference in the company's revenue. Communication has become a part of Landmark's mission statement right along with environmental responsibility and conscientious job performance.

"We're a team here," Machado says. Everyone works together to establish priorities and to determine where resources need to go. As a result, the work atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable. Seasonal help is usually anxious to return the next year. During the winter, when the Vermont landscape disappears under a cover of snow, Brownell gets back to his roots in forestry. A certified arborist, he works with municipalities and power companies to keep trees in their place and to keep a place for trees. A member of Branch Out Burlington, a group of volunteers devoted to planting and caring for Burlington's trees, Brownell describes himself as a tree advocate.

Wood lot work is also a part of the fall and winter schedule at Landmark. When plants and trees are dormant is the best time for logging and cleanup projects. Hart says he enjoys the change and the opportunity to see more of Vermont. While most of the landscaping jobs are in Chittenden County, the forestry work takes them all over the state. "Our specialty is to go in and leave it looking untouched," says Hart, explaining the demand for Landmark's services.

Conservation and non-invasive techniques have become as important as aesthetics in the landscaping industry. Some clients have been with Landmark for 15 years.

Brownell's interest in the environment and his commitment to improving the landscape continue even after working hours. He sits on the board of directors of UVM's Horticulture Farm.

Over the years, Brownell has managed to create a profitable business, which also brings him and his employees great personal satisfaction. Hart, who began working at Landmark when he was 21, was not sure landscaping was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. Brownell's environmental approach to the business is what kept him there. The opportunity for creativity and the chance to make a difference are further incentives for him to continue with Landmark. "My work stands out," says Hart.

For Brownell the career he has chosen and the business he has built are right despite the demands they make on his time and his body. "I've discovered I'm good at it," he confides. "Maybe part of that is middle-age."

His long-term plans do not include retirement. The only concession he might make as he gets older is to hire additional help. "In 10 years, my job might be a little different," Brownell admits, "but I'll still be in this business."

Susan Trzepacz is a journalist and free-lance writer living in Franklin County.