Tom Lawson, Land Masseur

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Tom LawsonTom Lawson was a massage therapist until he bought a piece of property in the Hamptons.

The land was overgrown and neglected. Tom spent years lovingly redeveloping the landscaping. Then, over the years, more and more people said to him, “You need to go do this professionally.”

So he tried. As projects fell into his lap, he realized he needed a language to communicate his ideas. Words weren’t enough.

“Most people don’t have the ability to visualize something that isn’t there,” Tom said.

He realized he needed to learn how to sketch, how to draft. He found his way to The New York Botanical Garden Adult Education Program, where he earned Certificates in Horticulture (’12) and Landscape Design (’13), and continues to study.

“For me, it wasn’t so much about learning the hands-on maintenance stuff,” he said. “It was about using my brain and using my management skills.”

Tom Lawson landscape design plansThe Graphics and DynaSCAPE classes taught him to speak with images and suddenly, everything he’d done on his own property, he could translate to paper.

Now, his Hamptons-based business, Mad Gardener, which also serves New York City, deals mostly in residential landscape design, creating personalized environments as unique as the individuals who own them. Tom summarizes his job as helping homeowners craft an overall vision for their property. He also wants to make sustainability something chic and desirable for homeowners.

In the three years he’s owned and operated Mad Gardener, Tom has noticed trends in landscape design. One is finding creative solutions to keep deer out of private lawns and gardens.

“As real estate is developed and spread out, we’re going into [the deer’s] environment, and they really only have one option: go into the suburbs and look for food,” he said.

Tom has a few tricks up his sleeve to help repel the deer from prized petunias and tender tomatoes. He works with plants that deer don’t like or that can tolerate the nibbling, like native grasses and carex. He also recommends a double fencing system.

“Deer have a problem with depth perception,” he explained. “They can tell how high they need to jump, but they can’t tell how far they need to jump.”

Two fences four feet apart from each other interrupt the deer’s traffic. If you have your fence up twice a year while the deer set grazing routes, you can generally keep them away during the season.

These tricks, plus other design strategies, work cohesively to create a landscape less prone to suffering damage.

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Then, there’s the growing trend of sustainability and stewardship of the land, Tom’s passion and personal mission. His Portfolio and Presentation Skills class helped him outline this—he was there to expand his knowledge and ability to design, implement and manage landscapes connected to the people that inhabit them.

It’s the connection between people and the land, Tom said, that fosters stewardship and responsibility. Without it, people tend not to care about each other, the environment, or the planet.

“If you can convince someone of their own responsibility, of stewardship, they will start to do the little things that need to be done on their own property,” Tom said. “It’s not just about getting someone to start a compost pile, but about getting someone to take care of things in a different way.”

Through that vision of sustainability, that drive to spread the idea of stewardship, and being in the business of problem-solving, Tom developed a personal mantra: “Follow your passion, but ground it in science.”

He cites it as one of the reasons he enjoys taking classes at NYBG.

Tom Lawson pool landscape design“There’s wonderful design being taught, but it’s also grounded in science,” Tom said. “And to me, that has a yin and yang aspect.”

Most things in our world are dynamic. Following passion is about emotion, and grounding it in science is about logic.

“When you have both at the same time, it becomes holistic,” he said. “It’s not so one-dimensional.”

While Tom continues classes in the sustainable management program at NYBG, he’s also working with a former classmate to help reduce erosion through proper plant selection and landscaping on a property atop a bluff, overlooking the Peconic Bay. He’s brainstorming ways to pioneer stewardship to “leave the Earth better off than we found it.”

They’re pretty big undertakings for a former massage therapist who, at first, wasn’t sure he could be a landscape designer.

A new season of Landscape Design and Horticulture classes has just been released at

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