Tuft Love

by Keith Morrill

This Cabot native grew a history of planting trees and an eye for design into a full-fledged career

distefano_1015Chris di Stefano and his wife, Jennifer, are the owners of di Stefano Landscaping in Essex Junction, which he founded in 2005 with a small loan, a truck, and a retrofitted trailer.

Although Chris di Stefano founded his eponymous landscaping business — and was its first and, initially, only employee — he still considers it a second-generation family business. He sees himself as the caretaker of a legacy that started during his childhood in Cabot, when he worked under the guidance of his father. While his father wasn’t a landscaper, he did own a nursery and tree farm, and people often called on him to plant the trees that he propagated and sold. Along the way, the young di Stefano learned more than a few things about plant care and installation, even if the hours spent watering and weeding plants were more than a little tedious for a boy.

When his father died unexpectedly and the business was subsequently sold off, those hours spent together stayed with di Stefano. And now, as he drives around Vermont helping to shape the landscape for his own clients, he sees trees he planted with his father, or that he knows his father planted, and he is reminded that while his father was never a part of di Stefano Landscaping, he is continuing his father’s work. “I’m just caretaking it, and kind of improving it,” he explains.

Di Stefano is not a horticulturist, but his Essex Junction business provides full landscape design, construction, and maintenance services to clients throughout Vermont, eastern New York, and western New Hampshire. With 16 employees on his team, he is infusing the Vermont landscape with vibrant greenery and exquisite stonework on properties ranging from private residences to large commercial properties.

How he pruned his childhood experiences into a successful landscaping business isn’t as straightforward as it might first seem. Not long after he graduated from high school in ’96, he headed to Johnson State College intending to become an environmental science teacher. But a semester short of graduation, in 2002, he decided that teaching about nature wasn’t as ideal as spending his days outdoors and perhaps he wasn’t bound for the classroom.

Instead, he started working for a local landscaper. Before long he was moonlighting, running his own operation on weekends. It turned out he had a knack for it. “I realized I was good at it and I was good with people,” he says. Demand for his services increased, and after a summer of moonlighting, he decided to start his own business.

In 2005, armed with a small loan, di Stefano purchased a truck and some tools, retrofitted an old trailer intended for hauling Christmas trees, and opened the doors at di Stefano Landscaping operating from his Burlington apartment.

In the first year, he was putting in 80-hour work weeks, each day spending 12 hours in the field, another few drumming up new business, and capping it off with a few hours of landscape design at home. He was fortunate, he says, that this came at a time before he was a husband and a father.

By the end of that first year, di Stefano had both hired a part-time employee and promoted that employee to full-time status. He moved the company several times to bigger quarters and has been in Essex Junction several years.

Now the company employs 16, including his office staff, which is composed of operations manager Andrew Newton, landscape designer Marie Limoge, and officer manager (and Chris’s wife) Jennifer di Stefano.

The company also employs a number of field crews, including two design/build crews — one led by foreman Mike VanNostrand, the other by foreman Jeremiah Shook — and a third crew led by Eddie Jacques, which primarily plants and deals with projects that are strictly horticulture-based. On top of that, di Stefano employs a full-time gardener and two maintenance crews.

While landscaping may be a seasonal occupation in the Northeast, di Stefano managed to grow his business into a year-round venture by adding winter operations. “Snow removal has become a big part of my business,” he explains. “It’s something we’ve gotten really good at.”

The bulk of his winter work comes from commercial entities, everything from medical offices like Maitri Healthcare for Women in South Burlington to the Redstone Apartments at The University of Vermont to the River Walk community in Winooski — the kind of discerning properties that have bare-pavement policies and must be kept ice-free at all times.

“We’ve made a really good reputation for ourselves on that,” says di Stefano, adding that he’s been able to transition “our really well-trained, quality-oriented, detail guys from our design/build work” to managing winter properties.

In an industry that struggles with high turnover and staffing problems, di Stefano believes that his push to provide year-round work may be one of the reasons his staff is more stable than the industry average.

He’s also actively tackled one of his industry’s other challenges: respectability. “Historically,” explains di Stefano, “it’s been something that is sort of bottom rung — wheelbarrow luggers and ditch diggers; low pay, hard work.” Di Stefano is part of a movement to bring professionalism to the forefront of the industry and break down stereotypes of landscapers as gruff crews of chain-smoking individuals.

“I spend a lot of time trying to promote that here, giving everyone a sense of pride in the trade that they’ve chosen, even if they’re just lugging a wheelbarrow.” To that end he has carefully vetted his crews and joined a number of professional organizations such as Green Works and the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Northern Vermont.

Maureen Connolly, executive officer of the Home Builders and Remodelers Association, speaks highly of di Stefano and his crew. In 2014, the company won the association’s Better Homes Award for best landscaping in the state, and its People’s Choice Award. As a result, di Stefano Landscaping became one of the underwriting sponsors for a recent home show, and he and his crew were responsible for building the entire landscape around the home show’s village.

Through Green Works, the company won honors for large-scale residential build and an Exceeds Excellence award for its commercial project at Topnotch Resort.

Connolly speaks of di Stefano’s pressure under fire. “Chris is probably one of the most amenable and calmest persons that you will ever have on projects,” she says. Despite the hectic environment leading up to the show, she adds, it was just business as usual for di Stefano. “Chris just calmly went around his business and finished his landscaping with plenty of time.”

One of di Stefano’s clients attests to the bar of professionalism set by him and his crews. Chris Lundberg hired the company in 2014 to redesign the outdoor space at his Essex residence. The crew installed a patio and fire pit and created a natural flow between the indoor and outdoor spaces of the house. This year he has brought them back to do more work in designing a grand entrance to the home.

“He exceeds expectations every time,” Lundberg says. “And the crew is pretty remarkable. It’s not just the outcome that we’ve been thrilled with, but the process to get there is also equally impressive, and that’s not always the case with home renovation projects.”

This kind of dedication has led to major growth in business and brought about some dramatic changes in di Stefano’s role within the company. These days, he finds himself spending less time in the field, and more time managing staff, reviewing bids and designs, and managing projects. He tries to work in at least one field trip a week, where he checks in on current job sites.

He still gets the chance to work his skills in the field from time to time, such as a recent large-scale project at Champlain College’s new Center for Creative Media that had to be finished under a tight deadline in order to be ready for this year’s incoming students.

Perhaps this diminished field presence inspires di Stefano to spend his free time landscaping at his Underhill home, which is one of the many ways that he likes to while away the hours.

He admits the busy landscaping season doesn’t leave him as much spare time as he would like, but he makes a point of mountain biking and hiking when he can. He and Jennifer, who just celebrated their 10-year anniversary, have two daughters, Althea, 8, and Nina, 5, and the whole family spends much of the winter on the slopes. Di Stefano is an avid snowboarder, and the girls have been skiing since they were 2.

Althea already shows an inclination for landscaping, he says. “She’s always wanted to be out there with me since she was young.” He has been more than happy to show her the ropes, even teaching her the basics of driving a skidsteer. It’s unclear at such a young age whether she will follow in her father’s footsteps, but her interest perhaps shows that the di Stefano bloodline does run green, and that if nothing else, he has tended his legacy well. •