Holde Fink and his wife at the coast. Fink has run Native and Urban Gardens for almost 30 years. Photos courtesy of Holde Fink

by Aliya Hall

Although Holde Fink is a landscaper, he also uses his position to help educate his clients on the environment and the most ecological practices to maintain their yards.

“I let people know within the confines of (a business exchange) this is a simpler way or less petroleum intensive,” he explained. “Get people to think of physical inputs going into the land.”

Fink owns Native and Urban Gardens in Eugene, OR, which focuses on using ecological and aesthetic design principles to solve common landscape needs. His mission is to emphasize sustainability through promotion of water management, growing native species and using organic fertilizers.

Native and Urban Gardens was founded two years after Fink graduated from college in 1995. He studied biochemistry and alternative agriculture. Fink’s background is in agriculture; he had a farm in Coburg, where he grew raspberries and nuts.

Fink’s design work has been informed by Piet Oudolf, a Dutch landscape architect. The first thing Fink looks at with landscaping clients is soil. The Willamette Valley has predominantly clay soils on slopes and foothills, but upland slopes have a mix of heavy soils that drain rapidly.

“Some are well drained and others sit on a pool,” he explained. “There are different niches depending on geology and topography.”

After looking at the soil, then he notes the trees that are growing because they are indicator species. Shrubs follow after because it leads him to see if the property is more of a wet or dry environment. From there, Fink will look at plants around the world that he thinks will do well in the climate. Mediterranean plants and Southeast Asian plants, like rhododendrons, do well in the Willamette Valley and were very popular in the 1950s, as well as heathers and other Japanese plants.

“Oregon has been a number one nursery location due to climate. We can grow a lot of stuff,” he said. “It provides a wide array.”

Based on the soil and plant communities that will most benefit from the location, Fink then designs based on the setting of a yard. For more acreage, he said that grass is intensive in terms of maintenance and brush management. He recommends sometimes bringing goats in to clear it, but lately he’s been trying to sell clients with more acreage on native grass meadows. “They’re beautiful during spring and then in summer go dry and dormant for two and a half months and then with the fall rains they come back to life,” he said. “The organic playbook is really wide.”

Fink added that many people view gardens as static things, like houses, that only need occasional maintenance (like painting and maybe at some point a remodel). He said the organic vision of gardens, however, is the natural world is a lively place that uses perennial plants, grasses and shrubs as well as big architectural features like trees. He said it should move throughout the seasons.

A project Native and Urban Gardens did in June 2020 when the native plants were in bloom. Fink prides himself on utilizing native plants in his landscaping.

“We live in a very dynamic four-season climate,” he said. “Let’s respect that and not create a stagnant environment. We don’t live in a desert. If you don’t think about plants you’re not seeing or thinking about that kind of stuff.”

Although it may not seem like it, Fink said that landscaping is political. He pointed out that there’s finite space on the plant and there’s only so much to go around. “We have to wake up and think about what we’re doing,” he said. “We can’t hack endlessly and try to control the environment.”

Some of the challenges Fink has faced in his career include imparting that philosophy in his work and have his clients not understand it. “People have come behind me saying ‘You haven’t done anything. I threw all this stuff out and look at how much better it is,’” he recounted, adding that it happened more when he first started out.

Despite Eugene being known for it’s environmentally friendly attitude, Fink said it was a slow process to get organic going because the market was just starting when he established the business.

“People didn’t see it. They thought it was too expensive because it was organic,” he said. “People weren’t buying it or people who could afford it didn’t think it made a difference.” It was only in the last 10 years that organic started to become more mainstream, he said. Bigger companies in Portland and Salem realized the niche market and spent the money to test soil instead of assume.

Now, Fink is getting pickier about the clients he wants to work with. Even with the pandemic, Fink said cash flow has been steady, but the focus has been connecting with the right clients.

The other challenge that Fink has had to overcome is that landscaping is viewed as “lesser” and is at the bottom of the pay scale, despite it being a brutal job. He said it’s dangerous and heavy lifting that’s done in all kinds of weather conditions, and generally employs a lot of Latinx workers.

“Like agriculture, it’s marginalized and not seen,” he said. “How do we get a job people don’t want to do anymore back to the land? It’s an uphill battle.”

Despite the challenges, Fink said his work is rewarding, especially when he has a good relationship with a client – when they ask him to come back and maintain it for them or mention that they love the plants. “It’s when I get the ‘We want to sit outside now all the time,’” he said.