Cherie Ciotti-Rocco, a landscape designer and mother of three, founded Terra Prima Inc., a landscape design and construction company. She is also in her second year as president of the local chapter of the California Landscape Contractors Association. She volunteers with the OC Master Gardener hotline answering questions at night.
Q: Work on a Big Canyon project was recently recognized with a beautification award.. What key details got the judges attention?
A: We won for the best overall lighting project combining workmanship, craftsmanship and creativity, along with two other awards for this same project. It is an amazing landscape that utilized beautifully hand-cut basalt in a stunning layout for a contemporary home. We focused on safety for the kids and placed LED lighting on steps, walls and pathways so it was properly lighted. The wall wash illuminated the landscape and showed off the outside beauty at night. Using LED lights, the colors of plants are preserved instead of halogens that actually wash colors out of everything. And we used color changing lights to preprogram for the holidays.
Q: Has working in this male dominated field been a challenge for you?
A: At first when I started it was a little bit of a challenge working with vendors and suppliers. I’d walk into one of the wholesale stores for product and they wouldn’t help me. But soon I realized they assumed I was a homeowner, not a landscape professional. At that time I was about the only female out there in the business. Once I started talking to them and doing jobs, it got much better. In fact, since I was the only girl, they got to know me more quickly and by name, which worked to my advantage. And with my clients, the women usually made the final decision on the projects, so the girl-to-girl connection really helped. I have to say the men involved in this field have always been amazing and so helpful. I never felt slighted. But just because I was a women didn’t mean I didn’t work. I have lifted my share of 90 lb bags of concrete. But I figure it was cheaper than a gym membership.
Q: Tell me a little about yourself and why you choose landscape design as a career?
A: It has actually been my second career for 17 years now. In my previous work life I was in the computer sciences. I have two degrees in computer science and engineering, and worked for big names such as IBM. When we moved out here, we bought a house and I planted a garden and nothing grew. In Ohio where I lived you could grow anything so easily. But I found out that was not the case here. So I contacted Orange County Master Gardeners and enjoyed learning all about gardening. I liked it so much I took night classes at OCC for landscaping while I worked during the day. After three years I finished my degree. By that time I had decided I didn’t want to work in high-tech anymore, so with money I had saved I started my own business. At that time I had three toddler children and my husband traveled five days a week for work (and still does.) I joke I am the only married single working mom I know.
Q: How does your savvy tech side help you with your business?
A: Mixing the technology with aesthetics is what I love to do. About 75% of the work is done underground – running irrigation, pipes, and lighting. I really do love the technical side of it, starting with the design process. I use 3D computer design software. The clients can see the entire design before I even demo the first plants. A flat 2D rendering can be hard to visualize. During the construction phase after the approval of the 3D design, we focus on using the latest building techniques, purchasing the highest quality materials and utilizing the newest technologies on the market.
Q: What are some of the latest technologies you use on your projects?
A: Right now the big trend is everything off the smartphone. The irrigation controllers that run off your phone can pick up weather information. This lets the controllers know whether to water more or less due to weather patterns. I can run it from my phone as well since we are typically in charge of maintenance. If my clients are on vacation, they simply ask me to water for them and I press a button on my phone. Lighting with color-changing LED lights that works off the phone is also a big trend right now. There are a lot of colors and variations to create for each season, holidays, parties and everyday living. It’s really a lot of fun.
Q: Why do you feel it is important to create outdoor environments?
A: It’s the California way! Yes, there are some people that don’t care about outside. But with our beautiful weather, most people want the space outside to look nice. Also space is so cherished in our ever-growing population. Homes are now built right up against another home, leaving very little outdoor space. And smaller homes try to utilize every square inch of the home, including the outside. Any home, small or large, grows a little bigger when you open the doors up to let the indoors and outdoors flow back and forth. Our challenge as a landscape designer is to find a way to make it look pretty but stay functional, giving it the right amount of space for family including the dog. By looking at the home and listening to their needs and desires we collaborate and come up with three different ways to build it. Then it is consolidated into one final design. Each project becomes unique, no two are ever alike, and I like that.
Q: You work every step of the way with the clients?
A: People love being part of the process and is why we end up with a great design. It also helps them understand what is happening throughout the installation process. Trust is built between us and I keep them up-to-date daily on what is happening. For me, working with the clients is actually the best part of the project. I am able to help create something that makes people happy. Most of our projects last two to three months and I am on site every day, always available to my clients. I truly get to know and bond with them. Seriously, we never have a problem because we talk to the client every day. I can do this by devoting time to only one or two projects. They are normally large projects so we end up with only eight to 10 a year, which is enough to keep my guys busy and moving along.
Q: What makes you a steward to Earth?
A: I feel very responsible towards our beautiful planet. We truly try to show our dedication to earth-friendly practices by minimizing waste on the jobsite, reducing water use by installing smart controllers and lower water use plants, and recommending the use of LED light fixtures. I make sure we build efficient irrigation systems. It’s possible to grow quite a lot of plants without wasting water.
By Gina Dostler