Green Gardener Spotlight
Alejandra Aleman - Rincon Landscapes
Advanced Green Gardener Alejandra Aleman pauses at a job in Montecito, where the homeowner is taking more steps toward sustainable landscaping. Every four plants were to be replaced by just one, and all but two of the tall plants, which had grown to 8 feet tall and needed regular trimming, were being replaced with low height drought-tolerant plants to save on maintenance. Finally, improvements to the existing drip irrigation and mulch were made to cut water usage. Alejandra co-owns Rincon Landscapes with her husband Nicolas Lebrero.
Almost 20 years ago, Alejandra Aleman was a broker in New York City's high-dollar real estate market. Outside of work, she would design gardens for her friends in a hobby that held a place in her heart. The job held a place just in her bank account. The two didn't mix. Dissatisfied with the direction her life was taking, Alejandra chose to pursue a path in a small California city that she had once visited – Santa Barbara. It had been during that visit when she made a commitment to settle there someday, and the day came in 1992.
Since then, Alejandra, of Goleta, has become among the first of those to be trained as Green Gardeners in the 10-year-old Santa Barbara County Green Gardener program, and remains on a relatively exclusive list of those to be trained as Advanced Green Gardeners.
On one sunny spring afternoon, Alejandra was delivering supplies to a job in Montecito. She's a fit figure, wearing army green bush pants, a rose-colored ribbed pullover with half sleeves, and stylish work boots with laces that had been tied before they could make it through the top two holes. A shock of hair dangles freely on the right side of her face, the rest tied back by a long-toothed hair clip. The gray brushes in a character that she becomes conscious of during a photo shoot. As she speaks in her Argentine accent, she uses repetition to emphasize the affirmative: "Yes, yes, yes," she'd say, or "yeah, yeah, yeah."
Much of her advancement in landscaping has come from her association with Nicolas Lebrero. En route from New York to Santa Barbara, she had stopped for a visit in her hometown of Buenos Aires, and talked to Nicolas about prospects in Santa Barbara. He had earned a degree in agronomics, and brought up his desire to grow flowers in California, a notion that appealed to Alejandra. He followed her out here, they married a few weeks later and together they grew flowers organically. It was a match that holds today. Over the years, their organic farm had become too costly and had to be subsidized by a landscaping business that Nicolas started. Today, they operate Rincon Landscapes.
Even in landscape maintenance, the Argentine natives have managed to showcase their roots in flowers. One of Rincon's clients decided to enter some roses in the last Santa Barbara Garden Club competition and won two of the top three categories, Alejandra said, surprised that the roses she cared for had even been entered.
Roses are not a key ingredient in sustainable landscaping, but in a way led Alejandra to learning about more environmentally friendly landscapes. A couple of years into their organic flower farm, which at one point was a field of 1,500 rose bushes, Alejandra was determined to perfect her craft, and enrolled in the horticulture program at Santa Barbara City College. It was while there that she had heard of the Green Gardener program, and signed up. First, she got her Green Gardener training, then her Advanced Green Gardener designation.
These days, Alejandra tries to talk clients into going sustainable. They haven't always agreed, but in the last year, it seems, folks are starting to get it, Alejandra said. It was like "something incredible happened" that convinced homeowners to say, "Yes, yes, cut our water bill," she said.
When a traditional landscape can be loaded with camellias and azaleas and, yes, roses, even a small step can be an accomplishment. In one Montecito home with traditional landscaping, Alejandra simply switched from sprinklers to drip irrigation, and the homeowner reported that her $2,000 water bill had been cut to $800.
One thing that Alejandra said she has learned from experience is not to over-plant. Her company has provided the labor to install designs from other landscape designers, and when her company has stayed on as the maintenance contractor, it allowed Alejandra to see the original design mature. In some cases, plants would eventually encroach on one another. In those cases, her crew could end up pulling as much as one-third of the vegetation.
If she had her preference, Alejandra would design gardens that are practically maintenance free. Designers should consider the existing conditions of the landscape and work with it, not try to change it, she said, which in this region calls for more drought-tolerant plants. She prefers to avoid creating an oasis that nature wouldn't allow in this climate. "Every time we try to fight nature, we lose, or it gets very expensive," she said.