David Ilfrey has always had a passion about the proper use of native plants to restore nature, and while working at the Dallas Arboretum he'd share his knowledge about native plants with anyone who would listen. His views became so well-known amongst his colleagues that one of his co-workers tagged him with a nickname, "Native Dave."
When Dave and his wife Christy started their own landscape/design business in 2001, they mulled over what they should call it. "We started the business as Native Texas Garden Designs," recalls Christy, but there was a problem. "Nobody – not even our parents – could remember the name of the business! Everybody, however, could remember 'Native Dave,' so when we incorporated in 2003 we opted for the more memorable NativeDave, Inc." The rest is history, and we asked Christy to fill us in on how their design business merged with Christy's passion for communications to become a premier landscape consulting firm.
Green America: What does your business do?
Keeping it native
at a home landscaped by NativeDave in Texas.
Christy Tinsley-Ilfrey: Native Dave does sustainable landscape design and consultation in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area of Texas. We offer three traditional services: full design package, "notes only" consultation, and "notes and sketch" consultation. We also offer an online design option which is gaining in popularity.
What makes Native Dave green?
Christy: All of our products and services, processes, and workplace practices are guided by the four tenets of our mission to create positive changes in our community: to conserve, preserve, restore, and celebrate local natural resources (e.g. water, soil and air quality, and habitat for native birds, butterflies and other wildlife.)
What did you do before you started your green business?
The original Native Dave.
Christy: I taught developmental writing at Collin County Community College in Plano, TX. I had also been a recruiter for that institution, and I found I enjoyed encouraging people to strive toward their dreams.
David completed the professional gardener training program at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA, and worked as a grower, a nurseryman, and landscaper, eventually becoming horticulture supervisor of the Dallas Arboretum’s Lay Ornamental Garden, a garden was designed to showcase Texas native plants in a botanical garden context.
David left the Arboretum to start his own landscape design/build business that would specialize in native plants. The concept was (and in many ways still is) new to the Dallas-Ft. Worth market, and he spent more time educating than landscaping. He realized his exclusive training at Longwood combined with his degree in environmental studies (and his passion for Texas) was unique in this market...and in great demand.
After a couple of years as a design/build company, and reading Po Bronson’s book What Should I Do With My Life?, we discovered our true motivation: to inspire positive changes in our community. Immediately we began to phase out the "build" portion of our business to focus on “intellectual property” – design, consultation, speaking engagements, and writing projects. We partnered with local, small contractors who could implement our designs in a sustainable manner. Always keeping “people and planet” in mind, we constantly seek ways to work (and live) more simply, more harmoniously with Nature.
My mom always taught me that anything I did “just for money” would be unfulfilling. She follows the adage of “do what you love and the money will come.” Most of my jobs have allowed me to write and speak – the things that I love. However, whenever I took a job merely because it paid well, I was always disappointed. As for David, almost every job he had before staring this business was disappointing and, at times, disturbing. He resigned from what would be dream jobs to horticulturists, because the companies sprayed harmful pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers on a regular basis; or they planted known exotic-invasive species; or their business model allowed for excessive wastefulness of our precious water sources.
What motivated you to start your own green business?
Christy: We both grew up in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, a metropolitan area that has been developing perpetually for about 40 years. Our local creeks have been filled in and paved over with neighborhoods, displacing our native plants and wildlife. Our ecoregion – known as the Blackland Prairie – is nearly extinct. Due to outdated farming methods, overgrazing, overdevelopment and neglect, less than 1 percent of our ecoregion exists. But the encouraging fact is, it’s not too late. By making small, economical and environmentally sound changes in the way we landscape, we can restore pieces of our ecoregion, one lot at a time.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Christy: In the beginning, we struggled because there just weren’t enough clients in this market interested in conservation, preservation or restoration. We knew we had to maintain high standards if we were to be a legitimate green business; we knew once we compromised our integrity we couldn’t restore it. Nowadays, after a historic drought in 2006 and near-record rainfall in 2007, interest in our knowledge and experience has soared. The demand for native plants and sustainable landscape methods exists, and there are contractors willing to change their business model to fit with ours, but our greatest challenge now is plant availability. Most of the native plant growers in Texas are located in the Austin area, and their plant palette focuses on plants native to that part of the state. Some of the species overlap with our local plants, but there are plentiful species not yet available in the nursery trade here in north central Texas. That’s changing, fortunately, but it’s still a challenge. Our job, we believe, is to keep talking about native plants and sustainability, and the market will correct itself.
What's been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Texas natives Pink Skullcap, Mexican Feather Grass, Pink Gaura, and Four Nerve Daisy.
Christy: Honestly, every day I am thrilled we get to do what we do. We have worked hard – and made many sacrifices – but it has all been worth it. When we receive an email from someone who has driven past Prairie Creek Baptist Church (Plano, TX) and admired the developing prairie restoration project we designed, I feel pride. When the City of Dallas presents a homeowner with a WaterWise Landscape award, I smile because I know we designed the project and our preferred contractor implemented it in a sustainable manner. Evidence of our work is everywhere around us. For me as a writer and speaker, my proudest moment was serving as keynote speaker of a water symposium at Texas State University—San Marcos, our alma mater. Professors and staff I had gotten to know when I was a student attended my program and congratulated David and me for the work we are doing on behalf of Texas.
What is the most hopeful sign you've seen recently in the green economy?
Christy: I’m thrilled to see green becoming mainstream. Someday, I hope the modifier (green) will be dropped; I hope, culturally, green becomes “normal.” Recently I gave a presentation to city employees at Dallas City Hall and remarked that their questions were intelligent and insightful, and indicate our market is getting smarter about green topics. I have noticed this “enlightenment” trend becoming more prevalent within the past 2-3 years (at least in our market). We have begun to offer an online design option to better serve clients who are located outside our service area. To encourage more clients to select the online product, we offer a substantial discount (30-50 percent off the full design package fee).
What advice would you give to green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Christy: I would recommend charting a clear path toward your goal, but keep your mind open to alternative routes. You might start out as a landscape company – planting, hauling, getting dirty – and quickly become a consultant firm – advising others to plant, haul and get dirty. Along the way, you might take a detour into retail and discover this is not your calling. All of these are learning experiences and will be invaluable to you, your business and your clients. Also, be creative with your very limited advertising budget (and nearly all start-ups have severely limited funds.) We found that the best way to reach potential clients, and to build our credibility as native plant experts, was to make presentations to garden clubs, native plant societies, homeowners’ associations and on educational campuses.
What are you excited about going forward?
Christy: We would like to shift more of our work online to reduce our consumption of fuel (and time.) We have also streamlined our meeting schedule for efficiency. By meeting only a couple of days per week (during busy months, and only a few days per month during slower times), we drive less, pollute less, consume less, and spend more time working together in our office/home. Often our clients want to include edible plants, e.g. vegetables, herbs, fruit-bearing plants, etc., in their design. I’m most excited about incorporating these plants for culinary as well as medicinal uses, because it reconnects people to our agrarian heritage. An element of permaculture, raising one’s own food is a step toward self-sustainability.
What green product could you not live without?
Christy: Green products I can’t live without: cloth shopping bag from Green Earth Market; organic cotton sheets for both our bed and baby’s crib, Dr Bronner’s baby-safe castile soap, vinegar and baking soda (so many uses!), many items from Tullyfields/Natural Living, and Dr Christine Farlow’s Dyingtolookgood.com (I love her books and Web site!).
Check back for answers to reader
questions by the end of the month.