Most 11-year-old kids aren’t begging to get into the plant business. But by that age, Ryan Donohoe was determined to score a job sweeping floors at his local plant nursery. “My father was big into gardening and so were my grandparents, so I grew up in a green thumb family, basically,” he jokes.

He ended up working at that nursery into his late teens, straying from his roots only after he had completed high school. He spent two years globetrotting, and put in plenty of ocean time working for the Coast Guard.

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Credit: Luke Potter

The West Vancouver Multi-Sensory Residence was one of Donohoe’s first. “I was freshly out of school, I had so much passion—I was so inspired to just take it all the way,” he remembers. Mission accomplished.

But no matter how far he travelled, those roots kept tugging at him. Finding his way back to the world of plants, Donohoe enrolled in Capilano University’s horticulture and landscape construction program, then started his own landscape design and construction company. It was a 2010 trip to London’s Chelsea Flower Show—one of the world’s largest horticultural events—that truly inspired him to dive headfirst into design. “The displays were so architecturally strong, and so beautifully laid out—it was incredible,” he remembers. “I had never seen anything like it before.” He enrolled in England’s Inchbald School of Design and graduated with double distinction in garden design.

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Credit: Luke Potter

West Vancouver Multi-Sensory Residence

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Credit: Luke Potter

West Vancouver Multi-Sensory Residence

Today, Donohoe Living Landscapes seamlessly weaves together a grid-like architectural structure with the wild playfulness of plant life. “It’s art first, function second,” says Donohoe. But a focus on the creative doesn’t mean his designs aren’t practical. Take the West Vancouver Multi-Sensory Residence, one of Donohoe’s first projects out of school. “We actually set up a weather station in the middle of the yard for a month to measure the amount of wind that came into the site so that we knew how heavy to make the wind chimes,” he explains.

That same mindfulness is on display in the Deep Cove Woodland Residence, which features a gorgeous concrete staircase that wraps around a front wall, with native plants adding whimsy to the staircase’s strict geometry. In the Whistler Chalet, lush native species blur the line between the home’s backyard and the forest beyond. “We let the landscape support the house instead of standing out—sometimes it’s not all about being showy,” says Donohoe.

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Credit: Luke Potter

For the Deep Cove Woodland Residence, Donohoe transformed a very narrow walkway into a sweeping staircase entrance. Plant life balances the concrete’s precise geometry. “It’s not a big design, but it’s very careful and well thought-out,” he says.

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Deep Cove Woodland Residence

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Credit: Luke Potter

Deep Cove Woodland Residence

The designer has a “right place, right plant” philosophy when it comes to greenery. That mandate has become more complicated as climate change puts stress on the natural world. “We often select plants that can thrive in the harsher climate conditions we have been experiencing lately,” he says, adding that his plant palette is constantly changing.

Now, he focuses on plants that are more drought-resistant and that support local biodiversity. For the stunning Summerland Residence, Donohoe and his team had to rethink their strategy completely to deal with the challenging environment. They used local municipality guidelines and their own research to select plants that would naturally thrive. “The architecture is very linear and crisp, while the plants are very loose and wild and desert-like,” says Donohoe.

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Credit: Luke Potter

The Summerland Residence embraces the Okanagan’s desert wilderness.

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Credit: Luke Potter

Summerland Residence

You could define the West Vancouver Residence as grand, almost temple-like, and the others as minimalist and modern—and in another category completely is the Shaughnessy home. The classic English garden design is different from the firm’s other projects, but right at home in the tony neighbourhood. Beautiful blooms in the spring inspire many folks to lean out their car windows and snap a photo.

Each one of Donohoe’s gorgeous greenscapes is constructed with an educated eye and refined artistic sensibility, but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten his humble beginnings—that kid in the plant nursery who knows what’s really worth working for. So in addition to these dream house landscapes, the firm has started doing smaller projects pro bono. “These projects give our designers the chance to give back to the community, and to use their skills to create something that will benefit lots of people,” says Donohoe. “It’s not about money, it’s about creating something great.” 

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Credit: Tanya Goehring

Ryan Donohoe is photographed at the Shaughnessy Residence, an unusually traditional project for the firm.

WL Designers of the Year 2021 ▸▸▸