Painting with flowers
Wild inspirations fuel small business
Ben O’Brien isn’t a farmer, but he makes his living from the earth. Growing up in the County, he spent a lot of time outdoors, developing a curiosity for the beautiful plants and flowers that crowded the rural landscape. Visiting his grandmother’s house, he recalls her preference for the wild and natural over the traditional, well-manicured English-style gardens others prized.
“My granny was always in the garden growing wildflowers. She didn’t grow the kind of stuff you grow and maintain. She liked wild stuff,” says O’Brien. “So I would always go on little walks around, she would show me.”
When he had to choose a profession to learn about in his Grade 10 careers class, he chose landscape architecture. Most teenagers change their minds several times about the career they would like to pursue. But for O’Brien, the idea of landscape architecture stuck.
After high school, Ben left the County, choosing to study landscape architecture at Guelph. It was an eye-opening experience.
“I didn’t really develop a passion for it until I started studying plants at Guelph. On the open house day, when I went to campus, the director of the school said, there are a million things you can do, whether it’s design golf courses or subdivisions or highways or gardens or parks, whatever. It’s a huge, really broad profession,” O’Brien explains. “So to begin with it was kind of a leap of faith. I didn’t know what I was getting into or what it was, but now that I’ve done it I would do it again, 10 times out of 10.”
It was an introductory class on plant identification that truly caught O’Brien’s attention. Although the class didn’t cover much, it started O’Brien on a path of selfdirected learning about the wide variety of plants that grow naturally in this climate and the ecosystem they create.
He was also excited by the possibilities of using those plants as his canvas. So O’Brien decided he wanted to specialize in planting design.
“The greatest thing is using them for expression. I’m not very good at drawing; I can’t paint worth a damn. But when I can play with plants and put them together in interesting ways… the ecological component is a big part of it. I really like creating gardens that are really diverse and dynamic and full of life. But it’s also equally motivated by the artistic side,” says O’Brien. “Painting with flowers.”
When he graduated in 2014, O’Brien considered following his colleagues into Toronto, applying to large firms to work as a junior landscape architect, designing outdoor spaces. But the lure of the County’s relative wildness was calling him home.
“I was looking at all these firms in Toronto where I could have applied, where my classmates were applying. But most architect firms don’t really care all that much about plants, strangely,” says O’Brien. “I didn’t want to just spend time in an office doing Auto- CAD work, which I find soul-crushing. So I figured I’d come home and see if I could make a few gardens for clients and start out that way.”
It was O’Brien’s first winter back home. He had time to prepare. He looked to County artist Kato Wake to help him develop business cards. Ben O’Brien, landscape architect. But she wanted something more, to make it personal. So Wake pressed O’Brien to describe exactly what it is he does.
His company’s name, Wild by Design was born out of that discussion.
With the aid of programs like Encouraging Young Entrepreneurs (EYE), O’Brien got his business up and running. Today he has a variety of clients around the County, many owners of secondary homes.
“Most of my clients are not from the County. It’s a lot of people who have a summer place here or they retired from Toronto. Most of them aren’t here full time. But they’re certainly a clientele who are interested in what I’m doing,” says O’Brien. “If that whole market wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be able to come home and work. I’d have to go somewhere else.”
He also has some clients closer to his heart. Like the Ameliasburgh Garden Club, a group that had given him a student bursary— twice—and had seen it pay off. The group commissioned O’Brien to create the Drew McCandlish memorial garden around the main entrance of the Ameliasburgh Town Hall, once nothing but lawn.
“Creating gardens that look really wild takes a lot of choreography. There’s a lot of science to it. It’s kind of wild, but by design.”