Icons of Healthcare & Therapeutic Garden Design: Julie Moir Messervy, Part 2

by Lisa Bailey, ASLA

The Toronto Music Garden
The Toronto Music Garden / image: Virginia Weiler

Healthcare & Therapeutic Garden Design Interview Series: Julie Moir Messervy

The first part of this interview with Julie Moir Messervy, owner of Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio (JMMDS), covered inspiration and the creative process. This week in part 2, the conversation continues with questions on marketing, post-occupancy research, maintenance, and challenges encountered.

How do you market your firm?

We don’t market except through our blogs and newsletters. I used to do a lot of lecturing, and I still do some, but I’ve been very busy lately. I learned from a marketing course that all of my books are marketing devices, but I never did them for that reason; I did them because I had something to say.

We’re lucky to have great projects come to us through word of mouth. The American Public Gardens Association has been a wonderful source of botanical garden work. We love designing for cemeteries, which are very spiritual and the most important healing gardens of all. You really have to get the details right there. When somebody you love dies, you grasp how important that work is. To make a place that feels comfortable, and yet a little bit transcendent—it’s one of my favorite challenges.

At JMMDS we’re really good at big ideas and concepts, and then making it real and getting the money so people can build it. We help with development, create naming opportunities, and design fundraising graphics. We created books that serve as brochures for the Toronto Music Garden and Tenshin-en at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. We’re the best ones to advocate for our design: we can explain it verbally, show it graphically. We need to create the conditions so that it can come into being. That’s why fundraising and communicating are so important. We think big, and getting our projects built is part of what we do.

Do you do any post-occupancy research or evaluations of your projects?

We learn from our gardens informally; only once was a federal grant involved that required a formal process—for Hidden Hollow at the Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich, MA. The client received a federal grant to study how the 3-acre children’s garden was used. The attendance went up 40% after Hidden Hollow was opened! We loved seeing those results. But most of our projects don’t have that, and we do it informally. We’ll go back and observe to be sure everything is working right, and make adjustments if not.

How do you handle maintenance?

Ideally we stay involved with our projects to assess changes and update the design and planting plan over time. The budgets don’t always allow it, but we return as much as we can. We try to educate our clients from the start that we really want to continue, because they are important to us and we want to continue working with them, especially the larger scale projects. For instance, our contract with the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park has a line item for a once-a-year return to oversee maintenance; I put it in there from the start.

I can show clients the Music Garden, and how it looked when we didn’t come back for many years. The garden is now 20 years old, and for a period of time there had been a lot of foot-traffic damage to the shrubbery and perennial beds, and someone had installed off-the-shelf wrought-iron fences. When I saw photos, I said, “Oh, we need to come back!” So for five years now, we’ve been coming back; we’re getting those fences removed and putting in a prettier design that fits the garden better. And Erica Bowman, my best plantsperson, goes up there and spends three days every summer to install fresh plantings. That’s fantastic. It’s a happy thing when you can do that. Every garden needs specialized maintenance, not just adding pansies!

We create maintenance manuals for clients when we can. We just finished a residential Japanesque garden in Edinburgh with the oldest stones in the world—Lewisian gneiss that is three billion years old. We did a maintenance manual for the owner because he loves maintaining it; it’s his full-time job in retirement, his contemplative work in the world.

JMMDS Vermont Pool Terrace / image: Susan Teare

Describe your challenges.

Payroll can be difficult in the middle of winter. This is not small; it’s a big responsibility for me. Frankly I’ve gotten so spoiled: to lose anyone on my team would be hard to imagine. Each one of them has a role that’s really critical to the beauty of the working group. They all do JMMDS work, and some of them work more on the Home Outside side as well.

We’re doing this cutting-edge frontier thing with Home Outside; it’s never been done before. We’re learning, working with the developers. I’m about to get some investment, which is a whole other thing to learn about (venture capital, C corporations, etc.). I have to learn how to be an entrepreneur, how to pitch to investors. It’s really interesting, and nothing I ever thought I’d be doing at this point in my life!

And for JMMDS, there are always fascinating new projects. You never know what’s going to come in the door, and there are always a million challenges. I like a good problem, I like to solve it. Having a limitation is really the best designer of a garden. One of the most exciting gardens we ever did was a little Cambridge residential garden with a tiny shady yard, a vertical house, and a big level change. The clients wanted to have a tree house, but they loved the mature pine trees, and we didn’t want to make deep concrete footings that would harm them. We had to do it differently than the obvious masonry solution. So, we thought, let’s do it with sonotubes and self-weathering steel. The steel turned into a handrail and a rill we call the Handrill.

The job is to figure out where the problems are. It might be the relationship between the contractor and one of my people. Or maybe the client’s anxious about the money. It’s not the happiest part of my job, but I need to go in and fix it so we can go back to joy. Fun is so important!

JMMDS designed a “beaver lodge” to serve as gathering space, outdoor classroom, and contemplative seating area at Shore Country Day School. / image: JMMDS

How have you changed over time?

I’m more of a business person than I used to be. I never felt like I was very good at managing business details, but I’ve had to learn. I went to entrepreneurship school four years ago. I’ve done accelerator courses for Home Outside that I never thought I’d be doing at my age. It’s all been a big, interesting piece of learning I’ve enjoyed.

One thing I’ve been trying to do, without a lot of time to do it, is write up my seven archetypes as a book. It’s not ready yet. I want to expand the archetypes (Sea, Cave, Mountain, Sky, etc.) from being physical and virtual landscapes into showing another way of looking at life.

I’m trying to finish everything up. At my age, I’ve got another 15 years of productivity, I hope. I have that time to take everything I’ve started and make it beautiful and meaningful, to give it back so that more people can have it and use it. That’s what the rest is all about. Set everything up for my team so they can continue to do the wonderful work they do. I want to get the app and online service completed as an entity, set it up so that it’s flying. 475,000 downloads isn’t bad, but I want more people to have access to good sustainable design.

I’ve had a wonderful life in gardens!

This interview with Julie Moir Messervy, landscape designer, author, and speaker based in Bellows Falls, VT, was conducted this spring by Lisa Bailey, ASLA, sole proprietor of BayLeaf Studio in Berkeley, CA, and a consultant with Schwartz and Associates, a landscape design firm in Mill Valley, CA.

Check out the ASLA Healthcare & Therapeutic Design Professional Practice Network (PPN)’s previous interviews:

Icons of Healthcare & Therapeutic Garden Design Interview Series:

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