APLDWA Featured Designer:
Courtney Olander

Olander Garden Design
Member since 2013

This quarter we welcome Courtney Olander as APLD Washington’s next featured designer. We hope you enjoy Courtney’s story and this focus on her projects.

Patio with umbrella and outdoor sofas, firepit and table and chairs on slate and gravel with surrounding plantings.
A classic contemporary back garden planted with Hydrangea, Boxwood and Evergreen Magnolia. Installed by Avalon NW

When did you start designing gardens? Tell us about your path from then to now.

Headshot of Courtney
Courtney Olander of Olander Garden Design

I started designing gardens in 2013, when I officially launched my business. However, the dream of actually being a landscape designer began several years earlier. After graduating with a BA in Environmental Studies and a Minor in Art, I chose to follow my interest in photography. I worked several years as a photo editor, followed by a stint in market research, studying and reporting on visual trends in advertising. That time was both challenging and rewarding. Following the birth of my first son, and the 2008 downturn in the economy, I decided I needed a change.

After some poking around, I embarked on a reconnaissance mission to the Horticulture Department at Edmonds Community College where I met then head of the department, Walt Bubelis. He convinced me to take two classes – plant ID on Saturdays and Horticulture Careers in the evenings. Simply put, that was it. I loved being exposed to a whole new world of plants and was enthralled by the professionals who spoke about their jobs in horticulture. It was through the Hort Careers class that I connected with the Miller Botanical Garden. While a volunteer and then an intern at the Miller Garden, I started doing maintenance for clients. It was an intense but rewarding period in my life. A 20-hour-a-week internship, maintenance projects, and night school made for one tired mom. I was still running my own maintenance business and beginning to transition into container design when I became pregnant with my second son. I do remember having a few, “Oh my gosh, what am I doing?” moments. “I’m 39 years old, pregnant and shoveling five yards of mulch. By myself! In the rain!”

Soon, I began to work part-time as an assistant for other designers. The experience was invaluable. Slowly, I transitioned into full-time design under my own name, Olander Garden Design. I like to tell this story because I think it helps anyone considering the field of landscape design understand that it takes time and perseverance. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had generous and talented mentors along the way – many of whom are members of the APLD WA Chapter.

Front of home with fall color in trees, steps and gravel walk way
Edmonds entry. Installed by In Harmony Sustainable Landscapes

How would you describe your design style?

Watching and learning under other designers helped me define my own style. I’m drawn to a contemporary aesthetic. And I’ve discovered, after several years in the business, I like color! My strengths lie in figuring out the flow of a space and how it will be used by its inhabitants. I have a logical brain and I like things to “make sense” and function properly. Elements need to line up, and be proportional. I drive myself nuts sometimes getting way too detailed in the concept phase of a design. But it seems to work for me. I love researching different materials and plant combinations. I think my research background supports my design process.

I can see now I’m fortunate to have a background in photography. Those years as a photo editor for a stock photography agency in my 20s and 30s really helped train my eye and taught me how to compose spaces. That applies not only to my designs, but also to how I capture them in photographs. The importance of representing your own work through high-quality imagery cannot be overstated. Going back to a job site, cleaning it up, waiting for the right light…It’s time consuming, but incredibly important when representing your brand and attracting future clients.

Plantings and steps and chairs in front of shed.
Chocolate Cosmos echo the red Modern Shed

What would your ideal project be?

An ideal design project for me is not about the size or amount of money earned, it’s when a synergy exists between the homeowner, myself and the contractor. That’s when landscape design is really fun. It happens when the homeowner allows for a certain level of creativity and a sharing of ideas. Then, mutual trust emerges. As I mentioned, by mentoring under several talented designers I’ve also been very fortunate to partner with creative and highly-skilled contractors. These relationships and the joy of creating something beautiful and functional makes being a landscape designer so rewarding.

Plantings and steps and chairs in front of shed.
A built-in concrete and Ipe bench and Paloform firepit complete a modern woodland garden.
Installed by In Harmony Sustainable Landscapes

Tell us about some of your favorite or most memorable projects.

One of my favorite projects resulted from such a synergetic experience. It happened early in my career and has been a benchmark ever since. It was the first time partnering with Kevin Monahan, owner of Avalon NW. What started as a backyard renovation morphed into a full-property redesign. A dingy, un-used corner turned into a water feature, a dark, poorly draining side yard transitioned into a colorful shade garden and a favorite sitting area off the homeowner’s kitchen, and a front garden overgrown with bamboo became a multi-season full-sun bed with tons of color. We had to scramble to keep up with the client’s additions, but the finished product was a space she thoroughly enjoys – entertaining and puttering around on a daily basis.

In another project, I tackled the challenge of completely transforming the front entrance experience. What we started with was a patch of dirt with an uneven flagstone path leading to the front door. I took inspiration from the Mid-Century architecture and added a new concrete entry and a large steel planter. With the “straight shot” to the door removed, guests now walk past the steel planter to reveal the front door. Again, my client let me play with color. We chose a bright chartreuse door that served as a foundation for the plantings.

Front of home with flowers and plantings, fence and walkway leading to a gate
Windermere spring color. Installed by Avalon NW

Close up view of same area showing detail of flowers, plants and gate
Subset hues of purple and gold play off a chartreuse polycarbonate gate. Installed by Avalon NW

How has permitting requirements (stormwater, ECA, etc.) or site limitations affected your design process and creativity?

Being an Environmental Studies major, I’ve always been in-tune to make choices that align with what’s best for the site and long-term preservation of our region’s natural resources. While staying abreast of the everchanging codes and regulations is challenging and adds an extra layer of complexity to a project, especially with respect to stormwater management, it feels good to do the right thing and educate clients.

Front of home showing flowers, walk way, planter boxes, garden lights and lawn
Bright golden plantings of Rudbeckia, Carex ‘Everillo’and Heuchera play off the bright yellow door.
Installed by In Harmony Sustainable Landscapes

What experiences have you found to be most rewarding?

I feel lucky every day to have made the career switch from marketing and photography to landscape design. Beyond the obvious of being able to be creative and work outside with plants, the aspect I like most about being a landscape designer is that it is constantly changing. There are always new trends in materials, plant introductions and design styles. As my father advised me decades ago, “Find a career where you can be a life-long learner.” I’ve found it and love it.

Side yard of same home with rock wall, large concrete pavers, large container with plant, fence and gate
Stacked stone wall and Koda XT polycarbonate gate. Installed by Avalon NW

Courtney Olander

Olander Garden Design
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