FIRST, ABOUT MY BEGINNINGS
Hi there! My name is Natalie Cousins-Robledo and I’m the owner of successful landscape design firm, Minanda Landscape Design. We’ve been creating spectacular gardens for 16 years now but, my personal journey to this point was hardly a straight shot. It’s been more like a circuitous, meandering one through multiple careers and life changes on my way to doing something that I truly love.
Like many of you, I didn’t graduate from college, jump into my dream job, and BAM! Successful career! I changed my major a few times first, got a degree in Peace Studies, worked for a while and then went back to school to study landscape design. I’ve been a mediator, a voice and piano teacher, a bank teller, a case manager for pregnant and parenting teenagers, a fundraiser for a major cultural institution, and more along the way.
The 1998 memory of my first inkling to explore landscape design is as salient today as ever. Grumbling over a bowl of noodles, I was again, miserable at my current job and pondering if I’d ever land on a career that fulfilled me. “Well, what do you like doing?” my husband prodded.
That was easy. We had recently rented a house with a huge back yard and I was taking it over. Vegetables in the sunniest spots, a compost bin in the back and even a home made worm bin which I’m particularly proud of considering this was before Google and YouTube. I delighted in spending every minute of unscheduled time in my first garden since childhood when my dad used to tell me I had to work in the “Weed Patch” before I was allowed to go out and play. Now, the nostalgia of that sweet memory drew me into the garden day after day. How could I turn this love of gardening into a career? Design was my answer.
I didn’t immediately leave my job, or jump into a classroom though. I started by devouring everything I could get my hands on. I bought books, subscribed to magazines and took classes at our local nursery. I bought plants (promptly killing most of them before buying more and learning what I did wrong). I even designed friends’ gardens for free just for the practice. Only then, after really proving to myself that this was not another phase, did I begin studying landscape design in a small and short lived but exciting program at Cal State Northridge. Licensed Landscape Architects taught us everything from design theory, and construction materials to irrigation design and plant ID. It was heaven!
I made it my goal to dive in 100%. I wasn’t taking a traditional approach with a degree from a 4 year program so I needed to make myself as knowledgeable and professional as my future counterparts who had. I won’t kid you. It was a lot of work. But here’s the thing, it never actually felt like work!
Six months after completing my design certificate program, I interviewed at 4 landscape architectural firms and got 2 job offers. I began working for a firm where I learned the ropes of project management for both commercial and residential projects. I’d take a project from the earliest iterations of a concept and to the grand opening. I took on side jobs for homeowners in my neighborhood and cut my teeth on going it alone. I networked with other professionals and joined associations which led me to getting a job working on a successful landscape makeover television show called The Outdoor Room with Jamie Durie for 3 seasons. I’ve won a couple of awards for my work and have designed and installed gardens for countless fabulous clients. When, after 4 years in the field, I became pregnant, and the phone calls began coming in at a regular pace, I knew that I was ready for my own firm.
It was the best move I’ve ever made!
NOW, ABOUT THE BLOG
Now that you know all about my landscape beginnings let me tell you about this brand new beginning and why I’m here, in the blogosphere.
Recently, I had a huge life-change! My family and I relocated from Pasadena California to Tokyo for 18 months, and what an amazing experience it has been so far! With so much to see and learn my expertise as a designer has deepened greatly and every garden and green space that I explore fills me with wonder. I am thrilled at just being here in this place of rich historical significance, and witnessing the remarkable achievement of living art everywhere you look, as one season unfolds into the next.
Since arriving here in August 2018, I’ve continued to design and manage the maintenance division of my company from here. The physical distance that separates me from running the hectic day-to-day aspect of business, however, has brought into focus an exciting, new opportunity that I’m eager to explore.
It was not too long ago that someone asked me how I got into designing landscapes. It was a new friend who was picking my brain about her own garden. She had good ideas but was frustrated because she was having trouble tying them together and executing them. She felt great about the plants she selected but wanted to include a stone patio. This is where things started to get tricky. She tried doing it herself but had some trouble with the pavers staying put. Her regular gardener offered to help and although the pavers didn’t sink this time, he arranged them in a way that just looked all wrong.
I realized in that moment that I’d heard this story before. Not exactly this story, but versions of it. Many times. People who at the heart of it, are just like me: lovers of gardens and design, who want to take their skills to the next level. Maybe they want to transform their own garden or begin branching out to transform the gardens of others. But how?
I had an employee a few years ago who was a landscape designer in her own right—great skills and a degree in the field. After we got through a particularly tricky project, she offhandedly remarked, “They really don’t teach this stuff in school!” It’s so true, I thought! When I finished my certificate program, I thought I really knew my stuff. Years later, when I left my job working for a Landscape Architectural firm, I felt even more empowered. Once I was face to face with a homeowner, on the other hand, someone who had just paid me real money to solve their landscape quandaries, I felt very differently.
None of my classes taught me which plants are poisonous to dogs, for example. They also didn’t prepare me for how many plants in the Sunset Garden book, really aren’t available to purchase. Learning about gardens in different regions of the world and through history—that I studied that on my own. The first time I had to deal with the City’s permitting process, I was stymied. And then there’s the biggy: budget! Not one minute of my two years of classes was spent on how to understand and convey the complexities of project scope in relation to the money available. Zero!
So here I am, 20 years into my career, and I assure you that every new project I take on delivers me the opportunity to learn something new, spread my wings a little further, and to deliver newer, more conscientious and creative gardens to my clients. It is this accumulation of experiences and knowledge beyond what the classrooms offer that I want to share with you! I am here to fill your tool kit with real life, get your hands dirty (literally and figuratively) information about all things garden design.
Plants? Sure, we’ll talk about plants, but we’ll also talk about how to space them, what size to buy, and how much you can expect to pay. We’ll talk about how much patio you need to fit six chairs. There will be secrets on how you can make the farthest corner of your garden as interesting as the space right outside your back door. We, of course, can’t forget that the materials you choose when you create a border, walkway or fence can mean the difference between a nice garden and an amazing garden. We’ll therefore, look at some really sensational and unexpected choices! Also, particularly because I’m in Japan, we’ll look at existing gardens designed in a far gone era to find inspiration for our tomorrows. I have a list of topics a mile long and I simply can’t wait to dig in and share them with you!
This blog is an exciting new addition to Minanda Landscape Design and the services that we provide. It is a place I intend for you to come back to over and over to find inspiration, learn new skills, and grow in the garden as I have. Join me! Let’s make the world a more beautiful place, one garden at a time.