Landscaping has long been a male-dominated business, but women are increasingly getting into the field.
During the early part of her 25-year-long career, Jennifer Cummings worked exclusively with men. Cummings, who owns Full Circle Landscaping in Falmouth, didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter; there weren’t many other women in the business. She learned a lot from those men about long work days, hard labor and the way competition can bring about newer and smarter ways of working.
These days, Cummings’ potential applicant pool not only includes more women, she’s seen women she mentored go on to open their own businesses, like Kate Sanders-Fleming, owner of Buena Vista Landscaping in Portland. Sanders-Fleming has a degree in art from the Rhode Island School of Design and experience as an art teacher. She also spent 15 years working on landscaping crews, including with Cummings, before deciding to open her own business. Today her crews are co-ed and all led by women managers. As her website puts it: “We are proud to be working in a male-dominated field and we appreciate your business.” Buena Vista Landscaping will never take the SWAT team approach of many roving landscaping crews, the ones that converge on the scene in their flatbed trucks, hauling riding powers and leaf blowers. With deafening noise, they make piles of leaves, clippings and yard debris disappear in a matter of minutes. Then they’re gone.
“We don’t do ‘mow and blow.’ It’s just not how we work,” Sanders-Fleming says.
Landscaping is big business, paying out $139 million in wages in Maine in 2017. The Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research & Information’s most recent data for the industry shows there were 874 landscaping service establishments in the state that year, employing about 4,260.
How many of those establishments are run by women or employ women? It’s hard to know. At the Horticulture Department at Southern Maine Community College, one of the state’s top training grounds for landscapers, department chair Cheryl Rich says the ratio of men to women enrolled in the program is fairly balanced. Her students’ interests cover a wide range of pursuits—greenhouse and nursery production, golf course management, sustainable agriculture, floral design, landscape design, landscape contracting, estate gardening and lawn care. Women are pursuing all of these options, she says.
Ruth Pease, an economic research analyst with the Maine Department of Labor, said the state doesn’t track gender breakdown specific to landscaping services. Neither does the Maine Landscape and Nursery Association. Don Sproul, the executive director of the association, points out that landscaper characteristics are particularly hard to quantify because the job doesn’t require a license.
Betty Ann Listowich, past president of that group, says she’s seen a natural evolution in the gender makeup of crews and that she has worked with crews that were evenly divided along gender lines. Her 35-year-old business, Norpine Landscaping Inc., is majority woman-owned, and based in Kingfield. Most of the work she does is commercial—landscaping at schools, airports, golf courses and, in the past, for the state’s Department of Transportation.
She joined the board of the Maine Landscape and Nursery Association seven years ago, and though the 10-member executive committee typically is almost all men, she said she was welcomed. “Never an issue,” she says. “And I didn’t wave my female flag.” But there are what she calls “unique challenges” for women in the business, including the constant reminders that it has traditionally been a male dominated field. “Especially in the larger, construction field there is a sense of being disgruntled about equal opportunity with the good old boy network,” she says.
“I felt that,” Listowich said. “To be perfectly honest, I played the system a little.” Her closest colleague was (and is) her husband Jim. “I let Jim be out front,” she says, specifically on commercial jobs where the good old boy network was in charge. But she’s hardly a shrinking violet. She served on the board of the Associated General Contractors of Maine, one of two women on a 32-member board. “I would come in from a work job in my Carhartts and work boots and a big long braid that hangs down my back and sit down at a table with a bunch of men in suits.” Clothing differences aside, it led to great contacts, she said.
Emily Buck grew up in the business and went to work with her father at Plants Unlimited in Rockport. “I can tell you that yes, this is a male dominated industry,” says Buck. “Times are changing but there is still the kind of stigma in the industry that women are for flowers and men are for the work. That women will do pots or container gardens. I think it is changing a lot, though.”
And for some, it’s true that a love of gardening does inspires a natural segue into landscaping as a profession. Like Sarah Wolpow, owner of Sweet Fern Garden Design in Brunswick, who got her start in the field as an avid amateur gardener. Years ago her garden was featured on a local garden tour, and her life changed. “I’m going to open a gardening business,” was her take-away from the experience. Today she’s certified as both a Master Gardener and a permaculture designer and has worked with the Resilience Hub in Portland to help spread the word about the benefits of permaculture design.
Does gender makes a difference? Cummings says men and women landscapers don’t work quite the same. “Each brings unique traits to the work.” she says. That’s just fine, she says. “My goal is to meet people where they are and learn from them while I share what I have learned.” Mentoring is a high priority for Cummings and guides the way she interacts with her employees. “I believe we’re all in this together,” she says. “I’ve found that each person who leaves Full Circle Landscaping and starts their own business will have a different goals and interests than I do.”
Sanders-Fleming approaches her work as a teacher. “I interact with both my clients and crew that way,” she says. That experience comes into play as she mentors her employees—mostly women—not only in the basics of plant care, but also in her business philosophy and practices. She also believes that sharing power and respect doesn’t preclude strong gender roles. “It’s a great learning opportunity for men to work for a woman,” she adds.
Her art school background isn’t all that unusual in the landscaping business. Cummings has degrees in interior design (and veterinary science) and gained much of her knowledge of gardening and landscaping on the job, but she also took every free class available, as well as horticulture courses at Southern Maine Community College. Meg Lord, who has nearly three decades experience running her own company, Meg Lord Landscaping, is a graduate of Portland School of Art (now Maine College of Art). She was raised in Cape Cod, studied botany and horticulture at the University of Vermont, and did some world traveling, including to Africa to climb Mount Kenya, before settling in Maine.
Lord’s landscaping career developed in fits and starts–with equal parts intention, serendipity and fate. After art school, she realized that doing physical work outside, tending to plants and creating beautiful spaces was where she found her joy. “One of my first jobs was working for a friend’s father who taught me all about pruning fruit trees,” she says. He was in his 80s and at one point asked her if she could mow his property. She said yes in spite of the fact that she had no equipment to do the job. “I went to a yard sale and picked up a used push mower and headed over in my little pickup,” she remembers with amusement. “I was so determined.”
She served as a mentor to Cheryl Rich, who worked for Lord for more than 10 years after graduating from the Plant and Soil Technology program at Southern Maine Technical College (now SMCC). In 2001 Rich earned her masters degree and took a full-time teaching position at SMCC, but kept working with Lord in the summers. She only gave that up, reluctantly, after taking the job as department head. “I really hit the jackpot when Meg hired me,” says Rich. “She is a talented designer with an expansive plant palette and strong environmental convictions.”
As well as a passion for both the physical and spiritual aspects of her work. “In some ways my work as a landscape gardener is just another channel for me to protect and care for what I think is truly sacred in this world,” Lord says. “The earth gives us so many gifts and I believe it is our job to look after her the way she looks after us.”
Candace Karu makes her living writing about food, fitness and travel. Follow her on Instagram: @candacekaru or at candacekaru.com