Not Your Typical Garden: Behind the Scenes with Crystal McConnell, Owner of Organic Live Art

Crystal McConnell

Gardening is the best medicine,” says Crystal McConnell of Organic Live Art Landscaping. I see the plants sparkling and dancing in confirmation as she says this. “Just get into it! Get dirty! It’s the best thing for your overall health. Creating your own special space fills the soul with joy, calms your being, and gives you a sense of accomplishment. Your garden will always be your friend.

I had the privilege of talking story with this gem of a human at a 1 acre estate she installed and now maintains at Anini beach. What she has created here is nothing short of an enchanted garden. “You should have seen this place before we took it over,” she says. This is hard for me to imagine, for all I see is a tropical oasis on the beach.

What are her secrets? Do you want to know? Let’s find out!

10 Questions

1. How did you get started in landscaping?

“As a kid my mom Starla Landon and my dad R. Jennings McConnell ran a landscaping company in               South Florida. They called it Streetscapes. They then went on to designing hotels and estates in                       most of South Florida. I tagged along to different nurseries and learned the trade without even realizing it!”

“When I was 26 I moved to Kauai and immediately got involved with landscaping. My first client                     Maria is still my loyal client today.  I fell in love with the craft. All of my past years of knowledge came flooding to my mind.”

It was then that Crystal then started her own company, Organic Live Art.

2. Why did you choose the name Organic Live Art, and what’s your approach to landscaping?

I chose that name “because we make all the plant material flow together which creates a natural feel to it. We also only use Organic pest control and fertilizers. This is super important, especially by the ocean where everything eventually leaches out into the ocean. Plus, using Organics works a lot better and costs a lot less than dropping a bunch of chemicals.”

For example, “salt works great as a weed preventative and maintenance, especially in coral driveways or rock beds. We will even spray ocean water on weeds near salt tolerant plants to keep the beach pathways looking nice.”

Our approach is based on the fact that “each estate has a different placement and exposure to the salt and wind. We use different kinds of plant material based on the mini-ecosystems of each property. You’ve got to know what you’re working with. You also have to know what the owner wants and work with that.”

“My dad taught me the 6 P’s… Piss Poor Planting Promotes Poor Performance. I keep that in mind daily! As long as you have plants placed where they need and like to be, you’re golden! We want to make sure everything we do will be done right the first time around.”

3. What challenges have you encountered along the way?

“There are always challenges when it comes to landscaping. It depends on so many factors. At Anini, the challenges are mostly in the soil and wind exposure. Beach front property needs Zone 1 plant material. Zone 1 is salt tolerant. However, throughout the years of managing 4 ocean front estates we’ve learned that some plant material on one property won’t work on another. As a result, 2 houses next door to each other can have completely different gardens.”

4. What triumphs have you enjoyed?

“All of it! Being able to come down to work and see Orchids blooming oceanfront (which people say is impossible), and seeing a full and luscious landscape of healthy plant material, makes me happy daily. Bringing plants back to life and restoring a landscape is a huge accomplishment that I’m proud of.

“The knowledge of plant material, zoning, care, placement, all those things I learned as a child, when they come together, it’s awesome. I am able to put all my knowledge to use and create beautiful, enchanted, tropical gardens which I love, and the owners love too! Seeing the installation last for years, filling in, and blooming beautifully is just awesome!”

5. You now have a crew working with you! How has that changed your approach?

“My crew is awesome! We are people who whole heartedly love what we do. We are not in it for the money or because it’s easy (which it’s not, however everybody should do it). It just comes second nature to us and we have the eye for it. Together we blow things out of the water. We are able to go into estates that are completely overgrown and transform it into an enchanted garden.”

“I met William Graham aka Billy, 5 years ago. We started working together. Between his style and experience with Japanese gardens, ponds, and hardscapes and my experience with tropicals and orchids, what we create, it’s off the charts. We are able to create what some people think is impossible.

“People will say you can’t mix certain plant material, but we like to think outside the box, and work to combine it all together so it all flows together. It’s not your typical garden. As a team we are able to walk into an estate and completely transform the property. It’s quite awesome.”

6. That is awesome! Is there anything else you enjoy about this work? Any favorite plants?

“I love the whole process. From start to finish (which never ends). Gardening fills my soul. It gives me such a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Plus, plants don’t talk back!“(laughs, she’s a mother of 4!) “As long as you’re giving it what it needs then the plants will reward you with beautiful flowers.”

I also love it when my clients fall in love with all the details. I love playing with the little things, like statues and orchids.”

“Oh Orchids! They are my favorite. We have a special bond. I can get them to bloom every 45 days growing by the ocean! I love doing crazy things with them, like attaching them to ladders or plumeria trees. One of the estates we manage down here has 400 plus Orchids on it. One time I got almost all of them to bloom at once! Everybody tells you you can’t grow Orchids on the ocean. You totally can! You just gotta know the right place to plant them and know which ones will work best in different areas. ”

7. What other plants work well in Zone 1? What’s your top 5  “secret weapon” plants for beachfront properties?

  • Naupaka is a given when it comes to creating a wind block and holding back erosion from ocean exposure. We like to interplant it with bromeliads, agave, succulents, ti leaf, and lilies to create garden eye candy. Privet can also be used, but it is harder to maintain.
  • Spray of Gold is my new favorite. It has beautiful yellow blossoms and can be shaped into a nice bush or hedge. It grows well in sandy soil and gives a great pop of color and elegancy to an ocean view.
  • Indian Hawthorn has dark green foliage and sweet little pink or white flowers. It is also super salt tolerant and hearty and can handle wind exposure. It works really well as a first layer hedge. It is also low maintenance.
  • Bird of Paradise is another one of my favorites. They are slow growers, and also low-maintenance. They really like Orchid Bloomer. I use seaweed extract to keep the foliage nice and dark green.
  • Blue Agave works really nice down by the ocean front too. They are hardy and beautiful especially around statues. They just add a special touch and pop of color.

Overall, “low maintenance is key to creating a tropical paradise.


8. Where did you get all of this plant knowledge?

“I learn everyday. If I don’t know something, I google it! Or I talk to my dad, pull resources from my mom, refer to Billy, and even Keoni who takes care of my lawns. The communication as a team between all of us, all the ideas and knowledge we share, is like an encyclopedia! Some of it is also trial and error, which I feel should not be repeated because plants have lives too.”

“The knowledge of how to trim things properly, how to place things properly, and knowing what is and isn’t gonna work has come with time and experience.”

9. Where do you get all of your plants?

95% of my plant material comes from Kauai Seascapes Nursery. I love it! Seascapes has the healthiest plant material on this island. When I install plant material from KSN and plant it in the right place, I know it’s gonna do fine. It’s gonna be good.”

10. Any suggestions or advise for landscaping homeowners?

“Do it! Get Dirty. Create a peaceful place for yourself weather it’s a reading area, a space outside your window to look at, a place to go meditate or zone out, or maybe just to create some privacy. It can be done.

  1. Start with a plan, and know what you’re working with.
  2. Ask yourself, what kind of vibe are you trying to create?
  3. Don’t over plant.
  4. Keep in mind how much maintenance you’re willing to deal with.”

“If you don’t want to install it yourself…call us! We can install, recreate, resurrect a property, or whip into shape all kinds of different styles of landscapes. We can also add water gardens and hardscapes to add a special touch.  We also provide lawn service.”

Wow! Crystal that’s so great! Thank you so much for sharing your Mana’o about plants and landscaping!

” My pleasure! We love and have fun with what we do. We bust our butts too. It’s awesome.”



No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

We give away free plants every month! Sign Up Now