Wes Shelley, co-owner of Fallingwater Landscapes. (Story by Tess van Straaten, photography by Lia Crowe)

Growing passion

Early years at iconic Greater Victoria garden blossoms to future career

  • Jul. 8, 2020 10:20 a.m.

When he was just 10 years old, Wes Shelley unknowingly launched his horticulture career by helping his dad, Eric Shelley, who worked at one of the world’s most famous gardens. But despite those early years at The Butchart Gardens, Wes never planned to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“I never really thought much about horticulture and gardening when I was helping my dad,” explains Wes, co-owner of Fallingwater Landscapes. “It was something I just did to help him out.”

But after studying music composition in college and doing a stint at a recording studio, Wes changed his mind.

“I was hoping to have a career in music but I decided that would be a pretty tough life,” the 35-year-old says. “I’d always wanted to be my own boss, so I asked my dad what he thought of me starting a landscaping company. He initially said he thought it was a really bad idea!”

But Wes was determined to make it work, so Eric gave him his first truck, a mower and the basics to get him going. He was only 20 years old at the time, and he admits he had a lot to learn.

“I was pretty young and inexperienced in life and sort of relying on my own gumption to figure the whole thing out,” Wes recalls. “I’d picked up a lot working with my dad but I realized there was still a huge amount I had to learn.”

And that’s when his passion for horticulture really started to grow.

“As I started doing it, I realized there was quite a strong connection to what I learned in music in that there’s an endless depth of knowledge,” Wes says. “The amount there was to learn was so great and that actually made it more stimulating than I expected it to be when I started out on my own. And that propelled me onto a mission.”

As the business started to flourish, Wes realized he could help others find their passion by exposing staff to a field with limitless learning and the potential for career growth—including paying for their Red Seal training at the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific.

“There’s a common misconception that it’s just a labour job or outdoor janitorial work, but the amount that our supervisors and staff need to know and understand is huge, and it’s constantly changing because we’re working in a living environment,” says Wes. “We have lots of staff who have come from other industries and found their passion.”

Believe it or not, Fallingwater Landscapes doesn’t actually hire anybody with landscaping experience. Instead, it recruits people from other industries who are looking for a positive change. And while it might sound counterintuitive, Wes says it works.

“Victoria has one of the highest concentrations of landscaping companies in Canada,” he explains. “There are over 400, and most are really small. Because it’s such a low barrier to entry business, you get a lot of people that just don’t have the sort of depth required.”

In the past, when they’ve hired professional gardeners who have the knowledge, Wes says, they found they often didn’t understand the pace required for a residential and strata environment. As a result, they’ve developed a strong training program, and they can get people to the pace and knowledge needed relatively quickly.

“It’s worth it for us to take that time to train people right and get them excited,” Wes says. “That initial investment pays off because we end up keeping people for a long time and we don’t have to worry about re-training bad habits.”

Much like learning about plants, growing a business has been a big learning curve, and everything was put to the test four years ago when his father decided to retire from the landscaping company he started after he left Butchart.

“We were operating as competition for 10 years and he kept saying he was going to retire in a couple years, but never did. And then he called me one day and said, ‘I’m retiring in six months’—so we scrambled to deal with that.”

Both companies had about seven employees at the time they merged, and Wes was in talks to buy a small irrigation company.

“We tripled in size and it was a messy year,” he admits. “I learned that I didn’t want to do that again! We were just overwhelmed in how much shifting we needed to do in the way the business was run and there were a lot of dropped balls and a lot of unhappy clients and it was a really difficult period of time.”

Tough as it was, it taught Wes and partner Drew Coleman an important lesson. It changed their perspective on how they wanted to cultivate the business.

“It made me look at where the next phase would be, and where the next breaking point would be in growth. It’s at about double where we are now,” says Wes. “So we’ve kind of set that as the cap. We’re not interested in infinite growth.”

Instead, they’re focusing on mentoring their 21 staff and building client relationships with their high-end residential and strata customers, including dream client Dockside Green. They’ve also restructured so supervisors have more autonomy.

“We’ve really been able to step away from that dictatorial, ‘command and control’ business structure, which is how so many businesses are run,” he says. “I’ve learned how strong a company can become when everyone buys in.”

For Wes, it’s all about getting people passionate about something. And he’s the first to admit, most of the staff are now more capable than he is when it comes to horticulture.

“I think as humans we just thrive when we’re given opportunities to learn and grow.”

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