Terms like “curb appeal,” “outdoor living room” and “backyard retreat” are catchy phrases that those with HGTV subscriptions probably know well—and they’re phrases that landscaping professionals hear often, too. Landscaping professionals do everything from winter snow removal to spring mulching and summer mowing. Yet the full conceptualization of modern outdoor spaces needs a trained and qualified landscaping and hardscaping professional.
Bordentown-based Terra Verde Design, helmed by Tim Mellor, offers all these outdoor skills amid the issues of new entrepreneurism, our fluctuating economy and family life.
“I’m not an architect,” Mellor said. “I knew I wasn’t gonna pass all the calculus.”
Mellor, 47, and his younger brother Michael, 43, are working on finishing a project that began earlier this year. In a quaint and very green backyard in Princeton, he’s installing a wooden fence enclosing some lush trees and shrubs along the far side of the house.
The project began with a new landscaped driveway along the other side of the home, which showcased a magical porthole fence, a green garden path and stepping stones into a backyard gathering space ideal for cities or for the suburbs. Projects like this require process and planning, not just gardening skills and a good eye for nice plants. Mellor, a Bordentown resident, plays down his talent for juggling all these different skills.
“We create little rooms,” Mellor said. “We sort of teamed up this year, my brother and me. He has his own company and I have my company. But on these installations, like hardscaping jobs, we do them together and split everything right down the middle.”
Raised in Ewing, where his dad owns a mechanic business, Mellor played tennis and showed a real talent for art. The love for outdoor spaces came later. Terra Verde Design began in the early aughts as his family entrepreneurism came together with his artistic nature and lack of fear of hard work.
“It’s such a fabulous garden back here. It’s a retreat,” said Alexi Assmus, the Princeton homeowner. “In this kind of weather we’re out here in the morning, in the evening. With the stone work it completely transformed. Tim is an artist. He has a vision. He works really hard. I asked him to put in a lot of plants because I’m not into all the mulching. I think we have the best garden in Princeton.”
Assmus has an outdoor dining table, a wicker sitting area around a coffee table, and other smaller, more quirky elements in her yard. She recommended Mellor to a neighbor before the project on her own yard was finished. She’s a very satisfied client. One of the frustrations in the landscaping business is how difficult it is for potential clients to really understand the vision for a project. Mellor usually draws. Many companies use computer software programs. Mellor didn’t pick that up.
“When I went to Mercer County Community College for horticulture, they hadn’t really gotten into it yet,” he said. “I had been in the advertising design program before that and they were just starting using Macs. Kids were coming in for summer camp and were using the same programs I was paying for in class.”
Before a project begins, Mellor likes to know the lifestyle and the personality of his client. He’d really like to work on a property and do small jobs here and there before coming up with bigger ideas because he then gets to see how a client uses their property.
“I want customers to hire me because they want me to figure it out,” he said. “We do things a lot slower because we’re a small company. Things just come out better. Some of these big companies bang out a design, then send 50 guys over and they bang it out. But they miss all the little things they could tweak if they had a designer who was there the whole time.”
After Ewing High School and college, Mellor lived alone in the Chambersburg neighborhood in Trenton. He eventually was recommended to a place on Farnsworth Avenue. He recalls almost crying walking in there. It had pumpkin hardwood floors. It was super cheap. There was a second and third floor, even a third floor deck. He started Terra Verde Design here and has been a Bordentown resident ever since. Mellor met his now wife, Jennifer, in town. She was born in Texas but moved to New Jersey at age 13. They were married in 2008 and have a nine-year-old son, Liam.
“I’ve been on my own in business since 2002. It took a while for things to start moving,” Mellor said. “In 2005 I knew the economy was on its way out because all the people I worked for were money conscious and would stop jobs right in the middle because they knew they’d never get their money back out of the project. Things plateaued and this was before everybody else caught on to it.”
Recessions hit entrepreneurs differently. There’s the economy, specific seasonal business challenges and life’s ups and downs. Despite how the marketplace changes, a business owner has to surf those sometimes steep waves.
“When the economy completely dropped off I’d already nailed this really big customer in Princeton that kept me busy for three years,” he said. “I still had some other clients and it was going well. Then the economy started to affect them too, the stock market crashed in 2011, and that was the worst time. I used to do everything for everybody, then it was just, ‘Okay, we’re only going to hire you for the brain stuff…the design and the installation.’ But the maintenance stuff, the mulching…nothing. They’d only pay the scabbers and the side job guys for that stuff.”
Mellor went from five to seven laborers in one year to only three guys, then down to two guys. Then it was no guys. He worked by himself for a year and a half. He lost his core group of workers because there wasn’t enough work. Every year there’s another shortage and across all trades. Mellor has been through half of dozen laborers this year because they don’t always work out.
Then Jennifer was diagnosed with cancer. She’s fought it and has been feeling a lot better since this summer, with the help of Mellor’s mom, a retired ETS administrator who now lives near Bernardsville. She’d come down for two or three days a week when her grandson Liam was born. Jennifer even started back to work recently. She’s a contract counselor at McGuire Air Force Base working mostly with children.
Despite things in the landscape business being tight, Mellor does his share of community work. He was introduced to the staff handling the Clara Barton playground revival. Mellor donated time, materials and playground plantings and worked with an environmental group to put in a gazebo and landscaping at the Northern Community Park a few years ago, as well.
“I do mostly residential stuff, but during the last couple years I’ve been trying to get more maintenance stuff,” Mellor said. He’s recently scored a contract with Mastoris Diner to do their winter snow removal, some immediate landscaping work, and landscape maintenance. “We want the maintenance stuff for steady work. But I want the creative projects too. We’re a one stop shop.”
Mellor believes that landscapers are pretty lucky overall, even during an unsteady economy, regarding getting permits and cooperation from a township. In Princeton or some other specific townships that are cracking down it may be harder. They want a permit for everything, but Mellor says that most contractors get irritated at the landscapers because they can just schedule a job and go do it, not get caught in a “hurry up and wait” bureaucratic process.
“When you get into these more high end jobs where you’re doing more construction—maybe a gas line installation or adding electricity—you’re in the same boat as other contractors. Some townships are better than others and get to you faster,” Mellor said.
Smooth dealings with townships notwithstanding, the juggling Mellor and his brother Michael need to do in the landscape business is not for anyone without passion and persistence. It balances out, though. Terra Verde got the contract to do the Ward Avenue soccer fields in Bordentown.
“We’d like to just be out bidding on and designing jobs,” he said. “It’s usually a referral for me — from another customer — how I get jobs. Sometimes it’s a phone call, then a meeting where I can walk through the property. Either way my brain just starts going. From the minute I see your property I’m already thinking about it. On my way home I’m thinking about it. In the shower I’m thinking about it.”