Liza Lightfoot Makes a Difference in the Madison Landscape - and Beyond
SHE’S BEEN TEARING DOWN WALLS HER ENTIRE LIFE. These days you’ll most likely find Liza Lightfoot moving the rocks or trees that are part of her eco-sensitive practices at Avant Gardening and Landscaping, based in McFarland. Few question the beautiful techniques of a woman who is celebrating 31 years in business. But she had to fight to get there. “The Madison area was growing fast in the late 1980s, and despite the demand, I would be asked by clients if I was capable of the work,” Lightfoot says. “And almost all the other landscape architects were men, who just didn’t think I’d make it past the first year.”
Lightfoot almost didn’t have a first year in business. She came to Wisconsin to attend the University of Wisconsin’s School of Music. But even that only happened after some terrible years in Philadelphia where she scraped by as a jazz singer by night, and any-job-shecould-find by day. Though she describes it as still being better than what she’d been able to escape. “I came to the U.S. when I was barely 19, and had nothing,” Lightfoot says of the move from her Johannesburg, South Africa, home in 1974. But, she says proudly, she earned her freedom to do and be whatever she wanted by coming here. “Resistance of the Apartheid regime at that time meant jail, and many of us felt nothing there
“America just seemed so full of opportunity, and supportive of not just human rights, but women’s rights.”
While she struggled in Pennsylvania, Lightfoot found a way to thrive in the Badger State. “I was studying music, traveling the country with some bands, but then working side jobs in landscaping because I’d always had a fascination with plants,” Lightfoot says. “Music still had barriers for women, and I was making more money doing something else I also enjoyed, so decided to change my major, and started my business while I was still in school. It wasn’t easy, but I can’t imagine it any other way.”
There were still other fences to climb over the years, including having men work for her, and surviving the recession. “My business has fluctuated, which can make it very complex in trying to figure out the labor, equipment, materials, weather, and even the seasonal part of our work,” Lightfoot says. She adds, “An important and somewhat new challenge is educating our clients. We recycle yard waste into compost that goes into all of our soil mixes. Soil with more compost will infiltrate better than heavy clay, which is common in our area. We also have a no idle policy with our equipment to avoid pumping added carbon monoxide into the environment. We maintain our equipment so there are no oil leaks on the streets or driveways which ultimately end up in the lakes and streams.” She describes this as another important part of Avant’s growth phase, and one allowing her employees to help shape the future of the business.
As for Lightfoot’s own future, she’s not ready to throw in the rake or hoe just yet, and is instead putting more of her focus on giving back—in both the Madison area, and at home. She’s created the nonprofit, Kidlinks World, and takes UW students to South Africa as a way of directly helping those less fortunate. It’s also forced her, post-Apartheid, to break down a wall she never dreamed could disappear. “I now have the ability to spend more of my days in my home country, and rediscovering my roots there,” Lightfoot says. Roots she has found to be deep. But also roots that made her strong enough to get over so many walls, in the first place.