Change of Pace


Massachusetts couple trades corporate salaries for job satisfaction

Nikki and Ethan LaForte, co-owners of Ethan’s Eden Landscape and Design.

At one time in their lives, Ethan and Nikki LaForte were toiling away in large corporations. While the money the couple was earning at their corporate jobs was decent, their level of job satisfaction was not. For Ethan, there was another type of job he enjoyed and yearned to return to. “I had been doing yard maintenance since I was 13 years old and had been servicing some of the same clients for many years,” he says. “I loved working outside and working for myself. I studied business management and horticulture at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and used my education to start Ethan’s Eden Landscape and Design in 1996.”

Nikki worked as a chemist after graduating from Mount Holyoke College in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology. “I felt stifled and unhappy working in a lab all day and yearned to be outside and to become an entrepreneur,” she says. “I always had a natural affinity for landscape design and what some would call a ‘green thumb.’ I decided being a business owner and a designer would be wonderful and was excited to be working with my husband, but wanted to be more formally educated in horticulture and business first.”

Nikki went on to earn a master’s degree in business and computer information systems and a diploma in landscape design from The Institute of Garden Design. She joined Ethan’s Eden Landscape and Design as half-owner in 2000. She is also a member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers.

Company basics

The company services western Massachusetts, northern Connecticut and parts of southern Vermont. Work is mainly in the residential sector, and clients are typically those who “tend to be environmentally conscious professionals,” Nikki points out.

Services include landscape design; installation of stone walkways, patios, retaining and freestanding walls, water features and fencing; lawn restoration; turf management; grounds maintenance; gravel driveways; fine grading work; drainage solutions; organic lawn and plant fertilization; and gray water harvesting.

The company has six employees. Ethan says, “Staying a smaller company is very important to us. By having fewer employees, we are able to have excellent quality control over every job, ensuring happy clients with beautiful landscaping and stonework.

This garden was designed with mostly native plants. A combination of Goshen stone and native round stones was used to evoke the feeling of water flowing through the path. For the heavily shaded area, it was important to incorporate various textures of plants and foliage color to make the area feel brighter and more inviting. The element of mystery was incorporated into the design by the use of plants and the S-shape of walkway.

“Our clients love knowing the same crews that come to work at their homes, whether it be for landscaping or grounds maintenance. In fact, two of our crew foremen have been with us for 10 years.”

Ethan’s Eden strives to be different from other landscaping companies by “catering to our clients by providing what is required to fulfill and surpass their expectations of our services,” says Nikki. “Once the job is done, we spend as much time as needed with our clients to educate them about their new landscapes.”

Each design incorporates a sustainable approach, while providing an environment that is aesthetically pleasing for the client. Ethan favors creating prolific and thought-provoking rock designs that give the illusion of flow and movement. Choices for stonework include Goshen stone, bluestone, brick and pavers. Gravel and pea stone are also offered for driveways.

Mowing packages offer flexibility for clients: mowing can be done weekly, biweekly or on a one-time basis. The company offers a coupon for a reduced price for first-time mowing clients, as well as an online coupon for stonework and landscaping services.

The company’s organic lawn care program includes multistep organic lawn fertilization applications with aeration, dethatching and liming. Grub problems are also addressed with organic approaches.

Lawn restoration services include overseeding and slice seeding. Cleanups are conducted in the spring and fall, and the company also provides general cleanups. Mulching services utilize pine, hemlock or whatever the customer prefers. Small tree and hedge pruning round out the landscape maintenance services.

Water feature installations include pondless water gardens for clients who are concerned about water chemistry.

An informal English garden, with asymmetric bluestone patio. The garden was designed with mostly flowering shrubs and perennials to keep flowers blooming from April to November. The patio was raised 2 feet to create an elevated vantage point for a better view and enjoyment of the landscape.

Focus on quality, environment

“We offer a five-year guarantee on all stonework and a one-year guarantee on all new plants, which is something nurseries in our area don’t even offer,” Nikki says. “In addition, we buy all plant materials in the Pioneer Valley. Buying local is vital to keep our local economy and small businesses thriving.”

The company has an ecological approach to its business practices, Ethan adds. “For example, we buy the most efficient equipment available to minimize our impact on the environment,” he says. “We use Organic Materials Review Institute [OMRI]-certified products whenever available and apply only OMRI-certified organic fertilizers.”

To get the landscaping work done, Ethan says his most trusted piece of equipment is the company’s Kioti tractor and backhoe. “It’s a machine that just keeps on giving and going,” he notes.

Ethan says the company’s biggest challenges are “the ever-changing business environment and the cost of doing business.” Nikki notes that the cost of health insurance went up nearly 20 percent this year. “Fuel costs are quickly rising, and supplies such as organic fertilizers have gone up more than 10 percent,” she adds. “The economy is still shaky, and it’s difficult to pass all of those increased costs onto clients. We have found the solution is to know your business inside and out. The economy has forced us to streamline expenses and increase productivity and efficiency. By doing this we can stay profitable without sacrificing quality.”

Other challenges include “all of the pollution and pesticides constantly being put into our environment,” Nikki adds. It has caused the LaFortes to rethink the impact of each business practice on the environments in which they work, so their actions reflect their beliefs. “We made a commitment beginning in 2009 to completely cease use of all lawn and plant pesticides,” she says. “Our responsibility as a company in the green industry is to make sure we take care of our environment and treat it with respect. In addition, we design our landscapes giving special thought to minimal water requirements and the use of native species. Land is a stewardship; we pass it on from generation to generation.”

This Japanese Garden has a Goshen stone patio and granite toro. Moss grows between the stones, giving a more natural and informal look to the garden. Use of large evergreens provides privacy from the house to create more of an outdoor room and gives the garden structure all four seasons.

Five years from now, Ethan sees the company increasingly evolving more into organics, and hybrid and solar-powered technology and equipment. “Conservation and recycling of rainwater is another area we are delving into, as well as creating and installing more self-sustaining landscapes and turfgrasses,” he says.

The couple believes that “beautiful landscapes should evoke as many senses as possible and deliver us to an inner peace. Well-designed landscapes and stonework create an extension of the homeowner’s living space by forming an outdoor room to live in,” Nikki says. “Stone and landscape style should integrate well with the home, be harmonious with the environment, and feel like they have always been there.”

Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.