Tom Stille’s enthusiasm catches on in Reno

Photos by Don Dale Unless Otherwise Noted.

The owner of Interpretive Gardens, Tom Stille, says that community outreach is crucial in promoting sustainability.That includes opening a path to the public through the company’s property to demonstrate the use of native plants.

Tom Stille has gone just about as far as he can go with sustainable landscaping. So, what does he do now? He takes it further. Stille, owner of Interpretive Gardens, Inc. in Reno, Nev., with his wife Kathie, offers information, designs, community classes and even a demonstration farm that use and advance the concept of sustainability. His workplace is an illustration of the principle, with straw bale walls and partial solar energy. His employees are committed to it, and his customer base loves it.

Stille, who has a degree in horticulture and a master’s degree in parks and recreation, came to Reno as the superintendent of parks in 1967. His duties included the oversight of two municipal golf courses. He later quit and traveled the world for three years, rethinking his place in the arena of urban landscaping. He returned in 1973, and started his own lawn and landscaping business.

For Stilles, it wasn’t enough. He began participating in meetings on subjects such as xeriscaping and bioregional landscaping, which coalesced his ideas on topics related to sustainability. In 1992, he bought commercial property on the bank of the Truckee River and began using it to promote and demonstrate his ideas to visitors and potential clients. The topics discussed in classes here aren’t limited to horticulture. They also include subjects such as beekeeping, children’s music, African drumming, grape growing, home gardens, and arts and crafts, as well as raising chickens. A separate division of the company, named the River School, was set up to organize these activities and lend a “venue of creativity” to the landscaping company.

“I’ve always been interested in recycling, reusing, trying to be efficient,” Stille says, but he’s come to realize that a complete involvement in the surrounding community helps build the idea of sustainability. He can spread the word about the concept—and about his landscaping business—by interacting with and educating local citizens about related concepts.

His company specializes in residential landscaping and gardening, but also tackles commercial or industrial projects. The concept of sustainability applies to all of it, he feels, and his landscape design division (he’s also a landscape architect) proves that. He has designed and built many sustainable projects for homeowners and businesses in Reno, Carson City and the surrounding area.

The two big ideas that Stille uses to ground his sustainability concepts are bioregionalism and permaculture. From these ideas, and drawing heavily on the climate of northwestern Nevada as well as the ideas of Low Impact Development (LID), Stille has come up with four kinds of landscaping that fit the Reno area. Each has a plant palette, as well as its own kind of mulch—mulch and compost are normally used as a unifying ground cover in his designs. The Great Basin design incorporates native desert plants and gravel or rock mulch. There’s the Sierra Nevada design, which is a mountain plant theme with pine needle mulch. The riparian design utilizes streamside plants and round cobblestones for mulch. Then, there’s the more traditional overhead irrigation designs utilizing grass and less sustainable elements.

Any design using overhead irrigation is frowned upon by Stille and his crew. Since one element of turfgrass is high-water use, he tries to minimize that by incorporating elements such as subsurface drip irrigation where possible.

“The most sustainable landscape approach is to cover the soil with plants,” Stille notes, but they should be the right kind of plants. He can mix and match his four design styles and come up with lovely gardens for anybody—and leaving existing native plants in place is always desirable. Rocks or hardscapes can provide unifying elements. Even hardscapes, however, tend to either the natural—such as rocks and boulders—or practical—such as ground-level bird baths to encourage wildlife. His office is a summertime demonstration of how elements can be integrated.

Another sustainable element is the food garden, says Stephanie Stika, the company’s construction and gardening manager. “We try to encourage planting of food crops,” she says, and integrating food plots with landscaping has long been a signature element of the company’s designs. An idea derived from permaculture, the placing of often-used elements closest to the house and seldom-used elements farther away, gives a homeowner’s yard an efficiency that some designers may not even think about. A division of the company, Mayberry Farms, has been set up to demonstrate food gardening and animal culture on the property.

Construction Manager Stephanie Stikasays that it’s definitely a morale boost workingfor a company so committed to sustainability.
Because Interpretive Gardens owns onlyone work tractor and small trucks, itsconstruction yard in Reno is small.

The buildup of good soil is a primary aim, Stika says, because an Interpretive Gardens’ design can include the idea of self-sufficiency. Stika, who has a degree in horticulture and previously worked for a traditional landscape company, says that much of mainstream landscaping feels like workers are pushing against nature.

As the person in charge of most construction, she says that these techniques are not difficult to teach to field workers who have less experience with the idea of sustainability. Stille is a good teacher, she says, and workers readily learn the particular techniques of materials such as Netafim drip irrigation and mulch.

Because of Stille’s experimentation over the years with sustainability techniques, Stika says, the company has come up with some of its own ideas for efficient landscaping. She gives the example of the methodology they use to replace a lawn with mulch and natural landscaping. They place a layer of cardboard over the grass, and biodegradable mulch over that. Native shrubs are planted through holes in the cardboard and watered by drip lines buried in the mulch. After three years, the company comes back and removes the drip irrigation.

“It allows the grass to become part of the soil,” Stika says. By then, the cardboard has also become part of the soil/mulch blend, and the changeover has been completed. And, some cardboard has been recycled as well.

Stika says that the company also has a commitment to being more fuel-efficient in its own operations. They have one old tractor with attachments, but most jobs are completed with manpower. The company likes to minimize its purchase of mechanical equipment to the necessary, owning essential pieces like a plate compactor and a jackhammer, but renting other pieces, such as trenchers, when necessary. They have one full-size GMC truck, but the rest of their crew vehicles are small Toyota Tacomas. The company also has a Honda hybrid car.

She points out that there is an inherent morale boost to a green industry company that adheres to sustainability principles. Still, she emphasizes that this is a “production-oriented” company that maintains a diverse list of jobs.

Stille calls it a full-service company that can handle many of the aspects of a landscaping job, including irrigation and outdoor lighting. The department heads, including the designer, are considered project managers on the jobs that suit them best. For example, Stille specializes in irrigation jobs, while Designer Jana Vanderhaar has a flair for playground areas. Still, any manager may go to any job, and Office Manager Kim Swearingen can help out, too, as she is also the permaculture expert. The company has about 15 peak-season employees, which is cut down to half of that in the winter, doing about $500,000 annually in sales.

Photo Courtesy of Interpretive Gardens.
Some of Interpretive Gardens’ landscapes include lawn, but the use ofsustainable plants and mulches is emphasized.

The River School and Mayberry Farms are not profitable divisions, Stille acknowledges, but they are essential to the thrust of what he is trying to do. His efforts to show how to grow vegetables and herbs among rock gardens and other landscaping features can be valuable to potential clients. He certainly gets landscaping work from visitors who see his ideas take shape, including those who walk through on a path along the river contiguous with a local park.

Stille hopes to instill the spirit of sustainability in both his employees and clients. His outreach also extends to other parts of the community. For example, he helped start a local food cooperative and a community supported agriculture (CSA) group that utilizes locally grown foods. This may be the only landscaping company where you will find chickens being raised, but he will sell one to anybody wanting to get a self-sufficiency program going in the back yard.

His advice to other landscapers who want to “ride the wave” of sustainability is to, first of all, not fake it. “I think you have to have an interest,” Stille says, and then take some classes in related topics such as native plants, ecology or LID. He says he was probably ahead of his time in the way he has been designing landscaping, food production and native aesthetics into backyards, but now there is a lot of interest in the efficiencies and water-saving qualities.

Don Dale resides in Altadena, Calif., and is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Turf. He has covered the green industry for more than 10 years.