Mike Clifford: The Face of Bear Creek

If you were around Seattle’s Green Lake district in the 1970s there’s a chance you might have come across a 10-year-old boy hauling his dad’s lawn mower around the neighborhood, earning pocket money by raking leaves and mowing grass. And if you’d seen the way he approached his work you might even have guessed he would one day become one of the region’s most valuable and experienced resources for property owners interested in adding beauty to their external environments.

Meet Mike Clifford, general manager of Bear Creek Landscaping. As the company’s founder and operator, he’s the driving force behind Bear Creek’s mission to provide both residential and commercial property owners with a unique one-stop shop that combines all design, installation and maintenance services with the quality and efficiency you would expect from nearly four decades of experience. If you want to know exactly what Bear Creek is all about, you need to know Mike Clifford.

A love for nature

Mike credits part of his early work ethic to his grandfather, a role model who made a living through hard work during the Depression Era: “He taught me that if you want something, you go after it.” As for his choice of occupation, he points the finger at having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, which left him with an affinity for being outdoors and a passion for the natural world. All things considered, landscaping was the perfect fit. “I was fortunate,” he says. “I found my calling at an early age.”

Growing a business

After a short stint doing landscape renovation work for a small real estate company, Mike struck out on his own in 1981. As his first business got rolling he began thinking about how to build it into an operation focused on more than just maintenance. He enrolled in an environmental horticulture program at what was then known as Bellevue Community College, which provided him with a deeper understanding soil chemistry, plant ecology and other concepts that he had started to become familiar with through his on-going hands-on experience.

For a person who had been drawn to landscaping partly by a love for nature and the outdoors, the education was both fascinating and invaluable. “We have such a unique environment in the Pacific Northwest,” he says. “There are all these different microclimates and one of the secrets to creating beautiful landscapes is understanding how and why certain plants thrive in these different microclimates, and why others don’t.”

Landscaping as an art form

With the fundamentals in place, there was one more major ingredient that went into the building of Bear Creek — a passion for design. For Mike this came about almost by accident. Growing up he had been drawn to creative pursuits like music and photography, but he had also assumed that a career in the arts would be a tough way to raise a family. Then while attending college he happened to take a course in landscape design. This opened his eyes to the world of landscape architecture, and to the realization that creativity can play an important role in his line of work.

Unlike general architecture, where the oldest traditions date back thousands of years, landscape architecture is a relatively newer field of study. And while traditional architecture is focused exclusively on the style and function of structures, landscape architecture involves a much wider array of disciplines. It still concerns buildings and other constructed environments such paths and walls. But it also requires knowledge of soil science, botany, water drainage, horticulture and ecology. And more importantly, it deals with understanding how those two environments, natural and built, can be integrated in ways that are both functional and pleasing.

Given this large range of required skills, it’s not surprising that landscape architects are usually employed to oversee the development of large, big-budget projects like parks, golf courses, shopping malls and cemeteries. Mike had no interest in such mega-projects, but he was intrigued by the idea of applying the principles of landscape architecture to smaller-scale jobs such as residential properties. This led him to enroll in the Landscape Architecture program at the University of Washington, maintaining his business even while studying full time.

“It was a bit unusual,” he says looking back. “I’d be practicing on the weekends what I was learning during the week.”

An eye for practicalities

By melding creative spirit with a concern for practicalities, Mike has built a business that provides clients with some unique benefits. A good example of this came early on in his career when he relocated to the Monroe area and made the decision to invest in a four-acre plot of land that would allow him to stock his own supply of trees and shrubs. His vision was to build his own “plant orphanage,” a place where he’d have access to vegetation of all shapes and sizes for use as the raw material for his landscape creations. Part of this was driven by common sense. In an urban setting where landscapes are continually being developed or renovated, trees and other mature plantings frequently need to be uprooted for no other reason than the fact they’re in the way. Having a nursery allowed Bear Creek to give this unwanted vegetation a second life.

But Mike also saw it as a way to take greater control over the creative processes inherent in landscape design. By having direct ownership of the maintenance and stocking of a wide range of plantings, he’s been able to offer clients more options when it comes to type, size and shape of various garden elements, including those individual plantings that end up fulfilling the role of dramatic garden center-pieces. By cutting out yet another middleman, the nursery is another way for him to meet budget targets with top-quality results.

“Oftentimes less is more,” he says. “You don’t always need to go in with a whole bunch of new plants. Maybe you just need one or two nice mature plants to complement the scene. Usually what I do is assess what’s there and let people know the value of their existing plants. What’s most important is getting the right scale. That’s a real art.”

The design-build approach

Mike’s practical side also makes him a firm believer in the design-build school of construction, which favors keeping all phases of a project, from design to the final stages of construction, under one manager, as opposed to separating architect and builder and relying on sub-contractors. Although relatively new, this increasingly popular style is a throwback to the master builder approach that has guided human architecture for millennia.

In Mike’s view, having direct personal control over all aspects of the quality and pace of installation is best for the client’s interest for several reasons. It allows his team to get the job done faster. It makes it easier to deal with unforeseen challenges that inevitably crop up during construction, or likewise to implement beneficial modifications once the process is underway. It ensures greater quality by holding one person accountable for the entire job. And as a more efficient process, it can cut costs or add to what can be accomplished within a given budget.

Bear Creek designs have been featured in the Northwest Garden Show. They were a finalist in the prestigious Street of Dreams competition. And they consistently earn praise from satisfied clients, both for the quality of what they do and the efficient and professional way they get it done quickly.

Bringing it all together

In the end, what sets Mike apart is his accessibility.— he continues to serve clients no matter how small their needs or budgets. The same kinds of clients he was serving 40 years ago.

Part of this stems from his continued belief in the value of maintenance. A fantastic design has the potential to create a beautiful landscape, but only attention to maintenance will ensure that it stays that way. That’s why Bear Creek continues to provide maintenance service and why all its more complex landscaping projects are always designed and installed with the logistics of maintenance in mind.  If a great looking landscape involves too much time to maintain, then it is unlikely to stay that way in the future.

This accessibility also carries over to multi-component design projects. While Bear Creek’s most impressive projects have involved large estates with wrap-around driveways, regal fountains, multiple-tier decks, grand gardens and tailor-made lakes, an equal number are projects where the design and installation occur on a much smaller scale. Indeed, one of Mike’s favorite challenges remains transforming a tiny over-grown urban yard into a magical oasis that becomes a favorite space for its owners.