Tiny Firm In Oregon’s High Desert Promotes Irrigation Industry


People don’t move here to become a gardener. And, people don’t move here expecting to do a lot of lawn maintenance either,” says Molly McDowell Dunston of North of South Landscapes. “People move here because they want to go outside and play.”

She’s referring to Bend, Oregon. Located on the eastern edge of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, Bend is a magnet for folks seeking the outdoorsy lifestyle. Mountain biking, fishing, hiking, camping, skiing, white-water rafting — you name it and the region has it. Consequently, several major publications have, over the past decade, lauded Bend as one of the best places in America to live. Fueled at least in part by these accolades, Bend’s population has grown from about 52,000 in 2000 to more than 83,000 today.

Dunston is a transplant to central Oregon herself. She came to play, yes, but also to further her career in the green industry. Born, raised and educated in South Dakota, Dunston put down roots in Bend’s thin, high-desert soil 12 years ago. The move marked the beginning of her professional career as a self-described “irrigation nerd.”

Today, she and her partner, Angie Snell, operate North of South Landscapes. The two women (yes, just the two of them) provide irrigation services along with landscape design, lighting and other specialty services in Bend and the surrounding region of central Oregon.

Do what you love and love what you do

It’s hardly an accident that they’re now running a small but highly respected green industry company. Dunston earned a degree in agriculture with an emphasis on landscape architecture from South Dakota State University in 2005. Snell came to Bend after earning her academic credentials in landscape architecture at the University of Idaho. Academics aside, they attempt to live each day and perform their services in a spirit of “Do What You Love. Love What You Do.” It’s this positive attitude that delights clients and has them firmly established in the central Oregon business community.

Being such a specialized operation, however, the two women are careful not to take on more they can do at the highest levels of their ability.

“If we come across a project that is bigger than the two of us want to tackle, we pass on it. There’s plenty of work out there for everyone, and we’re open to helping other contractors,” says Dunston, claiming that her greatest on-the-job pleasure is designing and retrofitting irrigation systems.

“I love that part of the business; it’s the perfect intersection of art and science. I love the challenge of figuring out how to provide clients with the best looking landscapes using the least amount of inputs.”

Bend, at an elevation of 3,200 feet, is located in a high-desert, semi-arid environment characterized by sunny days and cool nights. The region’s soils are generally shallow and range from sandy to volcanic. For the most part, they lack organic matter.

Consumers shifting to low-input landscapes

“You must have irrigation here to have a successful landscape here. I don’t care how cool your design is or what kind of plants you install, if your irrigation system isn’t up to speed your landscape will not be successful,” says Dunston.

For that reason, property owners — especially homeowners — are increasingly recognizing the benefits of turning their large lawns and other water-intensive plantings into naturalized, low-input landscapes.

“We’ve had a lot of newcomers from California moving here in recent years and they already have that mindset. While these landscapes still need irrigation to get them established, as an irrigation specialist that’s what I like,” Dunston adds.

As busy as Dunston and Snell are within their business (Snell is also a master stained glass craftsperson), they’re both active in community and industry affairs. Both women have served as officers with the Central Oregon branch of the OLCA (Oregon Landscape Contractors Association). And, Dunston, who teaches Irrigation Basics at Central Oregon Community College, remains active on the Oregon Landscape Contractor Board, as well as the Irrigation Association.