In His Element
by Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos
Photography Irvin Serrano
Gnome’s Rick Campbell built his company from the ground, up
Rick Campbell was 6 when his father helped him plant his first vegetable garden. As one of a half-dozen children in a family that fed itself on what it grew, he always had his hands in the dirt—and he always loved it. From seeds grew magic.
Campbell bought a farm of his own in New Gloucester while he was studying history and English literature in college. His wife was seven months pregnant at the time; Campbell was only 24. He grew five acres of asparagus and tended livestock, and he sold and traded organic produce. To make ends meet during the winter, he spent a year learning how to prune fruit trees at Royal River Orchards. Most Mainers had old apple trees, he reasoned, and with a little care and tending, they would weather storms and bear more fruit than ever. It seemed like a business he could grow.
Campbell pruned all winter long. Come summer, he would farm his own land. Soon, though, his customers wanted more and more of his time—help building walls or planting gardens, projects that stretched into the warmer months. One of his first clients looked up at the bearded 26-year-old in a ski cap perched in her apple tree and said, “You look like a gnome in that tree!”
“It was perfect—gnomes are the people that guard the earth and the trees,” Campbell says today. “And that’s what I do.”
What began as Gnome Fruit Tree Pruning thirty-two years ago has blossomed into Gnome Landscapes, Design, Masonry & Maintenance. Campbell’s former team of one has grown to twenty-two. The business is a four-time People’s Choice Award winner at the Portland Flower Show, and it has been voted New England’s favorite landscaping company five times. “I’ve always believed that God will move the mountain, but you’d better bring your shovel,” Campbell says.
The irony is, Gnome has grown heartily in part because Campbell’s back gave out. Dropping large trees and moving heavy loads took a toll on his body. Campbell knew that if he wanted to save his health at the ripe age of 31, he would have to climb down from the treetops and focus his mighty energies on running and marketing Gnome. “It was difficult,” he says. “I still take a project on every so often, and I make 200 or 250 visits to people a year. But I miss being in the dirt every day.”
The watershed moment came in 1991, when Campbell moved into Gnome’s current home on Route 1 in Falmouth. He and his nine employees worked out of a single small room that now houses the company’s reception desk. Over the next four years, the company grew 30 to 40 percent annually. In the right place, at the right time, Campbell later bought the whole building.
Just as he learned from apple trees, regular care and tending has helped his company weather storms, too. Gnome returned to its roots in 1998, when it began offering garden and property maintenance—everything from orchard pruning to snow removal. And the maintenance division, run by Campbell’s son, Chace, has been solidly profitable ever since.
That’s especially true in tough economic climates. While gorgeous gardens and outdoor kitchens are on hold for some, many of Gnome’s clients can’t live without them. And plenty need help maintaining their outdoor investments.
Yet Gnome is best known for the magic: its inspired pergolas, arbors, lighting, stonework, water features, fire pits, and outdoor fireplaces and living rooms. “I believe in structure in the garden,” says Campbell, who has co-written two books on the subject, Natural Stonescapes and Landscaping Makes Cents. “Great structure is a blend of nature’s art and man’s interpretation of that.” To that end, his team’s garden designs feature stone in all shapes and sizes—from walkways to low walls to punctuating granite monoliths.
Campbell describes them all as he strolls through the verdant demonstration garden that wraps around his building. Examples of paving, a rocky brook, specimen plants, and a welcoming outdoor kitchen offer customers plenty of ideas for their own properties.
He is equally proud of the business he has grown from bare root. Creating fulfilling careers, not just summer jobs, has been his goal from the start. And he has achieved it: health insurance and paid holidays are standard for year-round employees. Despite a few layoffs (and his accountant’s advice) last year, he was thrilled to use company profits to match 401K contributions.
Campbell has helped improve his field, too. A former executive board member of the Maine Landscape and Nursery Association, he worked to create certifications for landscape professionals, and plans for a statewide sustainable-gardening certification are next. But it is not in response to a trend; good earth stewardship has always been his passion.
This June, the one-time organic farmer unveiled his own green-garden program called Gnome Healthy Landscapes. “You can get a really great, healthy, green lawn by soil testing, composting, and using—what else?—Gnome Loam. It’s magic!” Campbell says, grinning, as he points to the three-story-tall, deep-brown pile in his back lot. There, both materials and machinery stand ready for service. “It will grow plants much bigger than you could ever imagine.”
From his first garden to his seed of a business idea, deep roots have always grounded Campbell. “People tell me that we have a style about the way we design things,” he says. “It’s a blend of sustainability and charisma, with a dash of the unexpected.” If the hat fits…