A fine-arts background combines with construction and plant experience

Catherine Clemens brings a fine arts background and hands-on experience to landscape architecture in Santa Fe.

Catherine Clemens describes herself as “basically self-taught” as a landscape architect. Growing up in Albuquerque, N.M., she started out with a fine arts background and built on that. Today she operates Clemens & Associates (, a design firm in dry, dusty Santa Fe that has been creating some of the area’s most dramatic gardens since 1980.

It all began rather casually. A partner who was a stone mason taught her how to do construction work early on, and she did quite a bit of it, building walls and creating structures. Clemens had always loved working with plants, so things started to come together toward a career. The combination of her art background, the plants and the construction background melded together to become landscape architecture, which she started studying basically on her own. Eventually, she would become one of the first few landscape architecture licensees in New Mexico.

Today, Clemens & Associates employs two landscape designers in addition to Clemens, the design architect and an owner. Their regular workforce fluctuates between 12 and 25 employees. While they see their specialty as creating and maintaining outdoor spaces for living, they actually offer a variety of design, installation and maintenance services for gardens, water features, stonework and garden structures.

Clemens & Associates enjoys a solid reputation in this elite artistic community as a design/build landscape firm that will take a project from start to finish. “As the public becomes more cost-conscious,” Clemens says, “we emphasize the value people are getting out of good design and quality installation.” Clemens & Associates finds that people want the complete package their firm can provide. They can design, build and maintain a garden project, where other companies might weigh in on only one part of the process.

“We’re not the cheapest company,” Clemens says, “but we really home in on what people want.” She begins by giving customers a thorough questionnaire to determine what they want and need. “We can really design to any budget,” she says. “The process we use, and being able to solve problems creatively, is what sets us apart.” She points out that if clients are not getting what they want, it hardly matters that they are getting the cheapest price. “If the quality is not good and it starts to fall apart, you basically have wasted all your money,” she says. In contrast, her firm prides itself on quality workmanship and dedication to customer service. “We love what we do, and the quality follows naturally,” she says.

A fountain and well-chosen pots of flowers focus interest in this landscape where the growing season is short, but sweet.

Residential design projects range from intimate gardens to estate-scale projects. The company’s commercial portfolio includes landscape restoration, renovation of a section of the Santa Fe River Park, subdivision entries, community parks, streetscapes for neighborhood developments, and the renovation of the dining patio and entryway at landmark hotel Hotel Loretto.

With Clemens’ keen eye for artistic composition, it’s fairly easy for her to come up with a good, workable plan for individual clients. In recent years, the company has ended up working with smaller, more compact spaces to maintain budget. “We believe in focusing your efforts and your dollars in a smaller space and not really spreading it out so much that you don’t really see anything,” Clemens says.

Clemens & Associates considers its specialty to be hardscapes. “That’s probably one of our most successful responses to the drought,” Clemens says, “not to have such a plant-based landscape. In dry climates like ours, that’s a pretty historic kind of response, to have a courtyard and then to have more isolated planting beds within that. We use plants more sparingly because we have a fairly short growing season here. We try to get interest in other ways, with fountains and overhead structures and ironwork, a variety of things that give texture and interest all yearlong.”

Plants in beautiful pots draw the eye to this simple, but elegant doorway.

Hardscape elements like pathways, patios, stone walls and fountains can be the start of an effective and unique garden design, the team at Clemens & Associates believes. In an area where water can be scarce, a water feature built from local sandstone can turn even a small spot into a peaceful and refreshing southwestern oasis.

Plants employed may include both native and adapted species, deciduous and evergreen. Whenever possible, the designers at the company promote the use of natural, low-water-use plants and recycled water for irrigation. They combine the principles of xeriscape and permaculture to conserve natural resources.

The company has a robust maintenance division, with 100 clients. “We provide a customized maintenance service,” Clemens says, “because not everybody has the same aesthetics as far as their maintenance is concerned. Some like things trimmed back very carefully, and others don’t. You have to get to know every client and what their specific needs are.”

They stress the use of organic maintenance methods, practice integrated pest management (IPM) and encourage water conservation techniques. “We look at the root cause of a problem,” Clemens says. “We focus on the stressor that initiates the problem. For example, if a plant is having pest problems, maybe it’s not getting enough water.”

For years, they have based their service on careful attention to the concerns of individual clients. The company thrives on providing creative answers to questions people have only begun to ask about their outdoor living spaces.

Anne Morris is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Turf. She resides in Austin, Texas.