Green goddess

2013-09-11 00:00

JO-ANNE Hilliar never planned to become a jet-setting landscape consultant. Until 1985 she’d worked in human resources and marketing for an industrial relations firm. But, she says, her garden at home was “disgusting, everything died”, and so she enrolled for a year-long diploma in garden and landscape design at UKZN.

Doing the diploma took some determination. It was 1987, a time when the province was volatile and driving alone to Durban at night from her home in Pietermaritzburg didn’t feel safe. “I used to take my big dog”, she recalls with some amusement.

Twenty-three years later, she’s a leader in the SA landscaping industry. The recipient of multiple national awards, her company, Jo-Anne Hilliar Landscape Design Consultants, won two more in June, one for turf landscape and maintenance and the other for environmental work from the South African Landscaping Institute (Sali). This was for work done around the office parks at the old quarry in Hilton. The quarry was established 50 years ago and its stone was used in the construction of Midmar Dam and the N3 highway.

She has some of the biggest landscaping consulting contracts in the province, including Umhlanga Ridge, Gateway, Michaelhouse, and San Lameer Golf Estate, and 35% to 40% of her business is outside the country in the rest of Africa. Countries she works in include Nigeria, Mauritius, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Seychelles and Swaziland.

Her business has evolved organically over the years. In 2005 she made several life-changing decisions, including moving her office to Durban. “There are bigger opportunities in Durban,” she explains. She also changed her core business from construction to consulting. “I’d had enough of having big teams working for me. At the time I was employing 40 people.”

She now focuses on mentorship in the green industry, giving in-house training to staff on site, and helping owners of small landscaping businesses grow their businesses. Coming from a background where she was involved in a lot of training, this is a logical development, as well as being something close to her heart.

“The best part of my job is taking the spade and showing the gardener what to do. You have to make workers feel enthusiastic,” she says.

Apart from her landscaping diploma, Hilliar had little formal training, but she says she’s “walked the walk”. She grew up in Durban and went to school at Maris Stella and St Mary’s before joining TST, a company that worked in industrial relations, straight out of school as a secretary.

“I was a very bad secretary,” she says laughing. “I used to tell my bosses what to do. They gave me a company to run called Prestige Girl Recruitment. In those days there were massive opportunities for young people … but you worked hard. Nothing comes without hard work, and you learn from your mistakes.”

Her signature look in her landscaping projects is natural endemic and she strives for sustainability, using indigenous plant material that will work best in the space.

At Umhlanga Ridge she is working within the framework of a coastal forest environment so that the plants will eventually propagate themselves, while at the quarry job in Hilton she ended up with a meadow effect after allowing the environment to guide her (see box).

As for domestic gardens, Hilliar says what’s important is that they should make you feel welcome. “It should make you feel at peace. It should be a story about the people within the space and encapsulate the space so you’re not aware of what’s beyond.”

Her own garden, which has a medicinal grassland theme, cascades down a steep hill at her home in Montrose where she lives with her husband, optometrist Owen Hilliar. It’s a place she’d like to get to know better. “I work day and night,” she admits, saying she seldom gets to spend time in it. At the age of 60, she’s looking at scaling down her hectic work schedule.

“I want to move into succession planning. Life has different seasons.”


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