Chances are, you’re well-acquainted with R.S. Walsh Landscaping. Over the past 40 years, the company has earned a stellar reputation for one-of-a-kind, sustainable tropical designs that perfectly complement Florida’s architectural styles while meeting the specific needs of a site. Before Hurricane Ian ravaged Sanibel Island, their lush 7-acre garden center had long been a favorite spot for locals to wander and dream. Post-Ian, the Walshes were some of the first on the scene, arriving via boats and barges to survey the damage, clear debris and provide much-needed fuel to residents.
The dedication to the community and land is nothing new—family patriarch and company founder Robert “Bob” Walsh has been getting his hands dirty around Southwest Florida since childhood. “My father was with the lead plant inspector for three counties at the State Department of Agriculture,” Bob says. “We lived right next door to [A.W.] Kelley’s Gardens in Fort Myers. That was my first playground from the time I turned 2.” By the time he was 10, he was working there every day after school and learning as much as he could from owner and horticulturist Arthur Kelley. “He was so giving of his knowledge,” Bob says.
Bob studied at Edison Community College (now known as Florida SouthWestern State College) and jumped right back into landscaping after graduation for a more hands-on higher education. He worked under George Causey (“One of the finest landscape designers in Southwest Florida,” Bob says), who was well-known for his projects, like South Seas Island Resort.
“I also trained with Robert Wood, one of the most creative people I’ve ever known. We’d spend all day laying things out, draw until midnight or 1 a.m., and then we’d do it all again the next day,” Bob says. He credits the Oxford-trained landscape designer for introducing him to a tropical modern plant selection of ferns, palms, bromeliads and philodendrons.
That knowledge allowed him to put down roots of another kind. Bob met his wife, Lisa, through mutual friends, and it didn’t take long for love—and other things—to bloom. “Right after we got married, we started planting a vegetable garden together every year,” Lisa says. “Now, I have a flower garden that’s everchanging.”
The couple also shared a can-do spirit. They launched their business in 1983, even though they didn’t exactly have money to burn back then. “I had a pickup truck and $3,000,” Bob says with a laugh. “I took $2,000 and spent it on a honeymoon to the Caymans, and I used the rest to buy an open trailer to pull plants and trees around. It was a lot of hard work, but we made for a good team.” While their style tailors to clients’ dreams, the Walshes have a knack for abundant gardens that respect the natural ecosystem and foster a love of nature. Drive through Sanibel and Captiva, and you’ll see lot after lot of theirs, where pygmy date palms line driveways and 40-plus varieties of palms, wild coffee plants and small wildflowers may be interspersed with blooming grasses, citrus groves and buttonwoods for textural scenes. Intimate areas for gathering, playing and conversation typically find their way into Walsh designs.
Today, the company employs more than 75 people, including five landscape designers and architects, at the Fort Myers location. Bob remains involved in design projects and customer relations, and Lisa still handles the finances, while their sons, Jeremy and Justin, are taking on more leadership. Rather than silver spoons, these brothers came into the world with shovels in their hands. “Some of my earliest memories are helping stand up plants at the nursery when it was windy. We’d unload trucks, and I could pick up one 3-gallon pot at a time,” says Jeremy, who earned a horticulture degree from the University of Florida. “We started working in the fields when we were teenagers. I would plant and lay things out, and I always loved seeing how a home and yard evolved over time.” After earning a business degree from the University of Alabama, Justin also returned to the fold.
Since the hurricane, the Walsh family has been working around the clock to replant the garden center and their clients’ homes on the island. “We’re pushing so hard and as fast as we can to get a lot back. That’s where more sustainable landscaping comes in,” Justin says. “The vegetation code and environment standards on Sanibel are some of the top in the state, and that’s what keeps that island looking great. Going forward, we’re hoping to help implement some of those ideas across the board to make more properties more sustainable as the sea level rises and the weather changes.” Some of those ideas include adhering to a more native plant palette to reduce the need for fertilizer, bringing in proper dune plantings to protect the interior landscape and prevent storm erosion, and providing proper drainage layouts to direct rainfall runoff properly without impacting neighboring ecosystems.
As for the future of the business? Bob says that’s covered, thanks to his young granddaughters: “They like to play in the flower garden.”