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Cool Job: Landscape designer finds it easy being green

Topiarius-Headshots

For Chicago-based landscape designer Craig Jenkins-Sutton, the small city yard is both his challenge and his reward. Jenkins-Sutton is the co-owner with his wife, Sara, of Topiarius, a firm that specializes in creating outdoor living spaces from postage-sized properties. However, Jenkins-Sutton's affinity for small spaces hasn't prevented him from thinking big. In recent years, he has expanded from having two full-time and one-part-time workers to a staff of 11, and still sees room for growth.

You got your first taste of outdoor life helping your dad run a summer youth camp in rural Minnesota. What did you learn from the experience?

At a not-for-profit, there's never enough money to do anything. Any repairs or building projects that are needed are done in-house. We did everything from cleaning toilets to cutting wood -- we put up 27 cords of wood every year. It's extremely hands-on -- it taught me to be a problem solver.

How does your college major in biblical studies relate to your career as a landscape designer?

It doesn't relate to anything I do now. But I don't regret my degree choice at all -- I really enjoyed it. It took two or three years after college before I made any actual career decisions. I was attempting graduate school and was completely broke, and one of my friends asked me if I wanted to come work for him [as a landscaper] at the Chicago Christian Industrial League.

What crucial skills did you pick up at CCIL and other related jobs?

Because most planners are school-educated, I think my time at CCIL and working for a construction company and another landscaping firm taught me to think backwards about projects. Typically, designers come into a space and try to create a finished space and work backwards from there. For me, the realities of on-site work inform how I do the design. Before I start designing, I think about the logistics of a job.

How did you make the leap from landscaper to landscape designer?

I've taken some basic industry classes, primarily on the plant side, but as far as actual design, I'm really self-taught. I think very spatially in general -- I always liked puzzles and problems. Transitioning into a career that thinks in three dimensions made a lot of sense to me.

What role does the Web play in your work?

If I had to pay for Google images per use, I would be a poor man. I'm on that site 10 to 15 times a day, trying to come up with new creative ideas. I'm constantly using other designers' ideas to inform me. As I move forward with a design, I make sure I'm citing my sources and tell my customers that I got this idea from this website.

Why did you decide to start your own landscape design business?

The easiest answer is that I'm a horrible employee and apparently I like risks. But the reality is, other than the 10 years my dad spent in the youth camp, he started and ran three different businesses. It really was modeled for me -- it's in my DNA.

What's a "typical" day like in the field?

For anyone who owns a small business, I don't think there is a typical day. You've got to carve out time every day to do certain core things. You've got to drive the business, you have to block out time to do design work and estimating. When projects are sold, and you have to implement them, you have to go through them with the project manager. But the most important thing I do on a daily basis is interact with customers.

How do you and your wife juggle your personal partnership with your professional life together?

It helps we've been married for 14 years -- we had to learn to fight fair. We can have a disagreement, but these are the rules that go into how we engage in that conversation.

The one challenge I don't know how we're ever going to resolve is how you separate work from personal life. That's all we do. We both work 10 to 12 hours a day. The other six hours are spent sleeping. That's down to six hours of the day that aren't work-related.

Given all the challenges of running a small business, what's the biggest reward?

It's a phenomenal thing to take an unused space and make it usable, but I think my favorite thing is that I get to employ 15 people. I try to be an altruistic person, and I like to do things for others and give back. When you're running your own business, how do you make time for that? One of the ways I'm able to give back is by employing 15 people who otherwise wouldn't have work.

I really find that rewarding.

Questionnaire:

1. What did you eat for breakfast? Cold cereal with yogurt

2. Which day of the week is your favorite? Sunday, because that's my day off

3. Which day of the week is your least favorite? Sunday, when I have to work

4. What was the first job you ever had? Maintenance at a summer camp

5. What makes you angry? Bosses

6. What makes you joyful? My business's positive impact on my employees' lives

7. If you could have any job, other than your own, what would it be? I never thought about having another job

8. If you had the time and the money to study anything at all, what would you choose? Another language

9. What did you want to be when you grew up? I just wanted to be older

10. Can money bring you happiness? I'm working really hard to try to find out