Home Cover Stories Dirty Jobs: A Landscaper Hits the Bigtime

Dirty Jobs: A Landscaper Hits the Bigtime

Dirty Jobs: A Landscaper Hits the Bigtime
The backyard of one of Fierabend's Princeton Borough clients.

"It happens only about two days a year, but if you’re lucky the iris are in full bloom,” says David Fierabend of Monet’s gardens in Giverny, a 45-minute train ride from Paris. Last spring, when New Jersey was still wriggling out of winter’s icy grip, Fierabend had the horrible job of traveling to Paris (after a quick stop at the Chelsea Flower Show in London) to find inspiration for his landscape design company’s big debut at the 2011 International Philadelphia Flower Show. This year’s theme: Springtime in Paris. The show runs Sunday through Sunday, March 6 to 13, at the Philadelphia Convention Center.

“I love Paris. It is absolutely the one city that I would love to live in. I wanted to be inspired and bump it up a notch,” says Fierabend, owner of Hopewell-based Groundswell, a boutique firm whose client base has made many a high-end Princeton backyard ready for its close-up.

“There is a whole new regime with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society [which oversees the show]. They’re looking for different. And our landscapes are different — really lifestyle and tastemaking. I went to Monet’s garden in Giverny because the rules for the Flower Show say that you are allowed to go into the countryside.”

He says seeing the iris in full bloom simply took his breath away. “It was the most spectacular thing. I took thousands of pictures.” He was so taken, in fact, with the magic of the garden that he missed the last train. “I could not leave the garden. It was so beautiful.” Giverny is the size of a thumbnail and cabs were scarce; he had to hitchhike back to Paris that night. “I thought it would be an adventure; I’m a 13-year-old boy trapped in a 51-year-old’s body.”

As he and his partner, John McDowell, dined out in Paris bistros like Les Papilles, in the neighborhood of the Luxembourg Gardens, one of Fierabend’s favorite public parks, he started drawing out ideas on napkins, some of which he saved and actually put on the presentation boards to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS). In addition to the Luxembourg Gardens, he and McDowell scoured other Parisian parks including the Tuileries Gardens by the Louvre, taking note of all the elements of traditional urban European parks, such as pleaching, where the trees are cut along a sharp diagonal, “a style that’s evolved over the years,” says Fierabend.

“I marvel at the way European culture embraces park use and reveres and honors its public spaces. I was inspired by Paris in general, but I did not want to do the cliche Paris — the Eiffel Tower and so on. I’m anti-cliche. We wanted to do something inspiring but also something that got people asking questions. That’s important to me. I want people to ask, ‘how, why, how does this work?’ I also wanted to evoke an emotion. When I was in Monet’s garden I knew that was what I wanted to do, because it was art and it was landscaping.

“European culture is about public spaces so I wanted it to be a park. I wanted it to have traditional pleaching, then incorporate Monet’s garden into that. We wanted to involve water, which is a big element in European gardens, but we didn’t want to do the traditional pond. Ours is so non-traditional. It’s called Monet’s Allee, a park that you walk through.”

The $250,000 project is being built in a warehouse in Frenchtown. Four weeks before the show, when this interview took place, the project is totally on schedule. Playing off the tradition of concrete benches and furniture in European parks, Fierabend hired a set designer, Steve Binasiewicz of Kitchen Sink Fabrication in the Fishtown section of Phildelphia, to make faux bois (resin) trees, which resemble trees but then go up into a canopy that actually mists rain. He points to a simple square lampshade on a side table in his office, which, he says, inspired the trees. “The tops of the trees are square boxes, like the lampshade, thus creating a 1,400-square-foot living green wall, a ‘canvas’ on which Monet’s famous water lilies paintings have been reinterpreted with recycled glass by scenic artist Jen Cole (who also works for the film director M. Night Shyamalan —“The Sixth Sense,” “Signs,” “Lady in the Water”).

The logistics of the construction are overwhelmingly complicated. Each square at the top of each tree weighs 1,000 pounds. Everything is lit and the trees are irrigated through pumps inside the trees, so the water will come off the trees, down the glass, and into troughs fashioned from 300 pounds of recycled glass designed to look like the water swirling about in a Monet painting. Visitors will walk through the park over a Monet-style curved bridge and will be able to look up into the canopy of the trees. And they won’t get wet, because the water only falls inside the trees. Fierabend is relying on his contractor, Daryl Rost, owner of Rost Artisan Builders based in Upper Black Eddy, PA, to fabricate the entire framework of the project. Rost is also in charge of transporting the five sections of the construction, which in total weigh in excess of 40,000 pounds, to the convention floor, in five 40-foot trailers.

The design is already getting a lot of buzz. “When we submitted the design, the PHS said, ‘Wow, we’ve never seen anything like this.’ It’s exciting but it’s also a lot of pressure,” says Fierabend. He says it’s welcome pressure though, since the exhibit “is an outlet to be a designer where no clients are guiding us and there are no parameters. I love that freedom of being able to design whatever I want to.”

What’s almost more remarkable than the logistics of creating — and moving — the project is the fact that Groundswell is in the show to begin with. The Philadelphia Flower Show is the world’s largest indoor flower show. In its one week at the Philadelphia Convention Center it brings $35 million in revenue to the city of Philadelphia and attracts 250,000 people, many of whom fly in from overseas just to go to the show. The application process is highly competitive.

It boiled down to being in the right place at the right time. Even with kudos under Groundswell’s belt like being named “Best of Philly” by Philadelphia Magazine in the landscapers category in 2009, Fierabend admits he was naive enough at the beginning of 2010 to think that he could just jump into the 2010 show. He contacted Groundswell’s marketing person, Gene Underwood, formerly of Dana Communications and now owner of Bluest Sky in Bucks County. “He’s the suit,” says Fierabend, who on a typical workday wears jeans and a tee shirt. Underwood calmly explained that the Philadelphia Flower Show is the “ne plus ultra for landsape and floral designers.” He said decisions for who gets into the show can take place years in advance.

Fierabend was undaunted. “Just call,” he instructed Underwood. Underwood got them into a February, 2010, meet and greet for 2011 hopefuls and a chance to meet the incoming president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. There was a changing of the guard underway at PHS; Jane Pepper, who had been president for 30 years, was set to retire in May, and Drew Becher was coming in. Becher is the former executive director of the New York Restoration Project and spearheaded New York City’s MillionTreesNYC greening initiative.

Fierabend and Underwood showed up at the meeting with a bagful of Groundswell’s magazine coverage and company collateral, which they spread out on a table. Partway through the evening, Becher sat down at the table where Fierabend was talking with Sam Lemheney, the director of the flower show. Becher idly started paging through the magazines. He pointed to a photo in an 11-page spread in the fall-winter 2009 issue of Philadelphia Home magazine. It was Groundswell’s total re-do of a circa-1860 seven-acre gentleman’s farm in Durham Township, near Doylestown, PA. A series of outdoor rooms and gardens, including a grape arbor, a mini orchard, and an uber-secret garden that resembles a New York garden cafe, are connected with paths of fieldstone and river gravel and dotted with items from owner Larry Dumont (a psychiatrist at KidsPeace in Schnecksville, PA)’s own folk art collection and commissioned pieces from Groundswell’s roster of artisans.

Becher turned to Underwood and remarked, “Oh, I love this garden. Who did this?’’ And Underwood said, “Actually, David Fierabend. He’s right here,” to which Becher replied that he had a tearsheet of this very garden in his own personal wish list file. “This is the garden that I want,” he said.

Shortly after that, in May, Becher came to Hopewell to visit Groundswell and take a tour of several of the company’s projects. “We took him on what we call the Groundswell Reality Tour (stolen from the Kramer Reality Tour on “Seinfeld”), a tour of about five or six hot properties,” says Fierabend.

The tour included three Princeton Borough properties on Linden Lane, Parkside Drive (behind Princeton Battlefield), and Hodge Road (about 75 percent of the company’s client base is in the greater Princeton area); the famous garden Becher had admired so much in Easton, PA; and two designer showhouses that were in full swing at the time. The first was the Junior League of Greater Princeton’s showhouse on the Great Road (U.S. 1, cover story, April 21, 2010), for which Fierabend had created a stone courtyard with a “living table” of lettuces, vegetables, and herbs for salad, and the other was the “green-themed” Bucks County Designer House & Gardens on a working equestrian farm in Furlong, for which Groundswell had created an outdoor patio and a tree house made of reclaimed barn wood and bamboo fencing.

“It didn’t hurt the tree at all,” Fierabend said in an interview in Bucks County House & Home. “We used cable so that it is suspended above the space — almost floating — but not doing any damage to the tree. It was important that we be true to the green theme in every aspect.” Groundswell has done seven designer showhouses.

Fierabend says it was good for Becher to see in particular the two designer showhouses because, “well, they are showy, just like the Flower Show, which is about showing off; it’s not reality-based.”

Then Fieraband got the call. Becher told him that not only was Groundswell going to beein the 2011 show, they would come in as a second-tier competitor. “There are five tiers in the flower show,” explains Fierabend. “You get a little space as a fifth tier competitor, then you work your way up to the first (top) tier.” Becher had bumped up Groundswell to the second tier spot, a 24 by 40 foot space, right off the bat.

Groundswell is actually Fierabend’s second career. He grew up in Ewing and Yardley, the middle of three boys. His father was a civil engineer for the state of New Jersey; his mom was an administrator in the School of Psychology at TCNJ. Fierabend, who will be 52 in June, graduated from TCNJ in 1982 with a degree in marketing. And though he had come from a gardening family — the Ewing house had a greenhouse attached to it and Fierabend says he grew up by his father’s side planting and caring for his beloved roses and vegetable garden — he never for a second thought of it as a career. “I came from a family who said, ‘You’re going to college.’ I never had a choice. I graduated with a marketing degree but on the day I graduated I said, ‘I don’t even know what this marketing degree is.’”

After working his way up in the junior executive training program for Macy’s in Newark, Fierabend moved closer to home to be closer to his father who was very ill. He took a job in management with Fine Design (whose owner was based in New York) in the then brand-new Princeton Forrestal Village, which had just opened as a high-end shopping destination. Once he started buying for the company he realized, “I can do this, I can design and figure out how to manufacture things.”

In 1989 he borrowed $1,000 each from 15 friends and opened his own chain of stores, Knits and Pieces, which sold moderate- priced private label men’s and women’s knitwear all made from natural fibers and all designed and manufactured in the United States. One of his signature designs was a sweater with a large American flag knit into the front. Within six months it was picked up by the Hahn Corporation (now part of the Rouse Corporation), which had one space left in Bridgewater Commons. “It was the early ’90s,” says Fierabend, “and business was good.” The chain expanded into many of the Rouse Development tourist destinations, including South Street Seaport in New York, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and Faneuil Hall in Boston, as well as Newport, RI, Easthampton, Willow Grove Mall, Philadephia, Peddler’s Village, and three stores in Princeton (Forrestal Village, MarketFair, and Palmer Square).

At the height of its run, Knits and Pieces had 19 stores, 65 employees, and was grossing $8 million. Life was good. Through friends Fierabend had met his partner, John McDowell, in 1994 — both liked biking and did races and charity rides together. McDowell runs the operations side of Groundswell, including administration and project management.

“I did very well with the all-American concept,” says Fierabend of the Knits and Pieces operation, “but the market was changing.” He found that he eventually couldn’t compete with the foreign market. “I could definitely feel a change coming on.”

Just before 9/11 he saw the beginning of the end. Though the Knits and Pieces stores in tourist destinations continued to do well, he sold off all his stores by 2002, most to a firm out of Washington, DC, and some to the stores’ managers. He turned the Palmer Square store into a high-end kids’ clothing store, Tadpoles and Caterpillars, adding two more in Peddler’s Village and Newport, but eventually sold those too.

He was at a crossroads. “I had considered consulting in retail and had struck a sweet deal with Pea in the Pod [the maternity clothing chain] but I thought, ‘I don’t want to do retail the rest of my life.’ I was 42. I felt like reinventing myself.”

He says he began the journey of reinvention by reading — and searching. “It all kept coming back to the old adage: do what you’re passionate about. And I thought, ‘You know, I can do that now.’ Timing was everything in my life.”

He remembers reading an article about landscape architecture, which appealed to him. He remembered gardening with his dad. “I loved being outside. That was my thing; for years I would garden whenever I had a house, even if I was renting.” In the Knits and Pieces years, he had bought and fixed up an old farmhouse in Doylestown, then sold it and purchased a Lambertville log cabin, along with a cottage in Newport. His houses in Newport and Doylestown were always on the garden tours.

“I loved gardening, and everybody would laugh in my retail world because if they ever wanted to reach me they would just call me or get a hold of me, and I’d be in the garden, or, for example, in Newport, they’d send someone over from the store. It’s literally a fiber in my life, it really is. I can literally be outside sunup to sundown, in any kind of weather, covered in dirt.”

He knew he’d have to go back to school and was loathe to get another bachelor’s degree at age 42. Instead he entered the masters in landscape architecture at Florida International University in Miami, graduating in 2006. There were just 15 students in the program. While he was in school he purchased a home in Coral Gables. “Being in school tapped into my creativity. I realized I could do something else besides sell sweaters.”

Reflecting his growing interest in urban planning, Fierabend’s thesis was a re-design of Cadwalader Park in Trenton, his boyhood playground. Gaining permission from the university to live here while working on his thesis, he and McDowell bought a 14-acre Hopewell property, across from the old Lindbergh estate in the Sourland Mountains, and began fixing up the residence, a log cabin built in 1975. A hundred feet from the front door is a creek that runs through the property. His office is housed in a 1930s fishing cottage on the property, which he also, naturally, fixed up. He and McDowell have four dogs, three cats, two peacocks, and two rabbits. “Everybody’s a rescue,” says Fierabend. “One cat we found on the way to a client meeting.”

After a short stint working for a friend, a landscape architect in Trenton, Fierabend realized he had to be his own boss, without the structure and responsibility of having employees. It was 2006 and he was just finishing his thesis. He became friendly with Peter Soderman, who invited him to participate in Quark Park, the urban project in Princeton behind Palmer Square, which paired up landscape designers with artisans and scientists from the university (U.S. 1, cover story, August 23, 2006). Fierabend worked with sculptor Jonathan Shor and Perry Cook, an acoustics scientist.

Quark Park won several AIA awards. “I wasn’t even out of school, and I was getting calls, saying, ‘I saw your work in Quark Park,’” says Fierabend. “It put us on the map.” Quark Park also helped Fierabend develop a relationship with architect Kevin Wilkes, owner of Princeton Design Guild, with whom Groundswell now collaborates.

The Quark Park project nailed Fierabend’s commitment to working with artisans. “It got me excited about incorporating sculpture into landscaping and not just having landscaping being about planting a couple of shrubs. I also loved that aspect of collaborating on projects,” Fierabend says.

As he began to build Groundswell, he forged relationships with several dozen artists and artisans, including Shor and the aforementioned Cole, Rost, and Binasiewicz, using them on individual projects. Groundswell also works with Dave Cann and his wife, Constance Bassett, of Moorland Studio in Stockton, who have over 40 years’ combined experience in conserving, designing, and building with metal (Cann is making the two metal park benches for the flower show exhibit); Ray Matthis, a metal artisan in Bucks County; and Mare Bennett of Cape May, a painter and ceramicist, among others.

Fierabend’s merchandising sensibilities, honed in the retail world, come into play when designing a space. “I know how all the individual elements need to be brought together.”

He designed the flowers for the wedding of the daughter of Princeton clients Curt Richmond, a managing director with JP Morgan, and his wife, Dezra, on the property of the American Boychoir School Princeton, which was covered in Brides magazine. The restaurateur Stephen Starr recently hired Groundswell to design the planters for a new restaurant in Philadelphia’s Washington Square — but ended up having Fierabend design the interior as well. “I believe in the inside-outside being one fluid movement,” says Fierabend.

He has eagle eyes and doesn’t miss a beat. When a visitor drives up the unplowed driveway to his office, after one of this winter’s many snowstorms, he takes one look at the tires on her Camry and says, “You need new tires. Those are completely bald. You might never get out of here.”

Groundswell’s projects can be as small as the one memorial tree he planted for Princeton Township resident Tamera Matteo, corporate salesperson for Princeton Tour Company (and current candidate for the Board of Education) to $1,000,000+ — the ongoing work for New Hope residents Brad Levie, a hedge fund manager, and his wife, Nancy, owner of a fashion rep company in Soho.

Fierabend is a self-described workaholic. But the happiest kind of workaholic. “I love what I do. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. I feel like I’m really lucky. We’re being successful, and it’s being acknowledged. I work 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. And if I’m not working, I’m paging through magazines.”

In warm weather it’s not unusual for him to wake up in the middle of the night, pad over to his office in his boxers, and start working on an idea. He’s back to having fulltime employees — he’s now got 11, plus summer interns from Rutgers’ landscape architecture program.

How does he regenerate? He works out with a personal trainer three times a week, eats healthy (“I never touch fast food”), and goes to the Newport cottage once a month, where Groundswell has several clients. He and McDowell love to travel; they have been to Europe numerous times and are particularly fond of London and Paris. Although raised Catholic, he’s now a member of Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton. He attends 8 a.m. mass on Sundays; clocking in at 45 minutes, he dubs it “church lite.” And yes, Trinity has asked him to do a master plan for its entire property.

The line between work and play is non-existent for Fierabend. He becomes friends with almost all his clients. After this interview, he rushed off to have sushi with longtime client and Princeton resident David Botstein, director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton, and his wife, Renee Fitts, an attorney, at Sumo Sushi in Pennington. (Groundswell landscaped the Botsteins’ entire property, situated behind Princeton Battlefield, including patios, decks, and walkways.) This spring he and McDowell are going to Berlin with a Bucks County client who is in finance. They traveled to Venice with other clients two years ago and are working on plans for a trip to St. Barth’s, also with clients.

Other Princeton clients include Sara and Warren Wilson of the Snack Factory (U.S. 1, cover story, January 9, 2008); Frank Calaprice, a physics professor at Princeton University; and Scott Carver, senior VP and associate general counsel for LS Power Development in East Brunswick, and his wife, Teri McIntire, marketing for architect/developer Bob Hillier.

Perhaps the most telling anecdote of Groundswell’s success is the one Fierabend shares about Peter Soderman. “When I first met Peter in 2006, he said, ‘I don’t know why you’re getting a masters degree in landscape architecture. You’re never going to make any money in landscaping.’ And I said, ‘Wanna make a bet? Watch me.’ Last year, he came in for a meeting.”

Groundswell Design Group, 609-466-8100. www.GroundswellDesignGroup.com. Owner: David Fierabend.

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