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I have come to loathe the term “low maintenance”.  It is essentially meaningless.   I am starting to wonder if when a client requests a “low maintenance” design, what they’re really saying is that they don’t want to do any work themselves, including taking the trouble to find a decent gardener or asking questions.

It is imperative for both the client and the designer to discuss exactly what types of gardening activities may occur before doing any design work.  Be honest!  REALLY!  For example, when I got my hair cut last week, I told the stylist that I wash and comb my hair, nothing more.  I would not promise to use any appliances or products, and she gave me a cut that works well for my specific needs.

You can see from the above photo (taken on my patio earlier this month) that thanks to my personal distaste for weeding, I have a number of (un-planned) plants just growing together, willy-nilly, doing their thing.  I am okay with that, so this is the design solution that my personal garden employs.  I’ll let nearly anything grow as long as it is healthy and doesn’t produce anything painful (thorns, burrs, stingers).  This works for me because I live in an apartment and I know that if/when I move, the whole thing will be ripped up  – there’s not much to be gained by fretting over weeds.  Given a different situation, my personal garden might look quite different or it might not.

I also grow several roses and a few shrubs – some in containers, some not.   I grow dozens of rare bulbs, more than dozens of perennials, and a few orchids, but I don’t do much “work”.  Every year I reliably cut Roses, Freesias, and Sweet Peas for indoor bouquets.  I know that rose flowers develop at the very end of a branch and that each cut to remove a flower is, in fact, a pruning cut (and where to take that cut).  I also know that my Sweet Peas will bloom nearly forever as long as I keep cutting the flowers off – it is just terrible having an apartment full of sweet pea flowers, just awful…

There are countless ways to design a garden so that it doesn’t feel like a ton of unwanted work, and so that taking care of it is at least somewhat enjoyable.   Getting it to that point is as good a reason as any to work with a design professional and/or do a bit of research for your own garden design solutions….but please don’t call cutting flowers “maintenance”, that just takes out all the fun.

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I am working on the design of a garden in San Francisco and was pleasantly surprised today by the delivery of the Hellebores that were ordered from Canada.  While I was potting them for protection during their wait to be installed at the site, it occurred to me that this shipment of plants represented some thoughts on customer service and the design/construction processes.

Most Landscape Architecture firms would not be able to accept delivery of plants for a client and care for those plants until they could be installed.  They might rely instead on either using only the plants that are seasonally available or contract growing (with someone else) to care for those plants that must be received before the site is ready.  There are issues of liability (what if they die?!), space, and materials for the task.  What results can be either a prohibitively complicated and expensive ordeal, a garden that is skewed to one particular season, or having to ask the client to be patient and wait while plants become available in the future (not always acceptable by some clients). 

Included in this particular project there will be a discrete courtyard featuring a statue.  We are using four different plants; Ficus pumila (Creeping Fig), Ophiopogon nigrescens (Black Mondograss), Helleborous ‘Onyx Odyssea’ (a double black flowering Lenten Rose), and Iris ‘Frosted Velvet’ (a “miniature tall” form Bearded Iris).  The Ficus and Ophiopogon are evergreen and will form the main planting to show off the sculpture, then the Iris will be in bloom in the Spring with leaves from late Winter through Summer, and the Hellebores will be in bloom in Winter with leaves holding on through Spring.  I don’t expect to have both Irises and Hellebores flower at the same time, though it is possible that this could occur depending on weather conditions and temperatures (especially in the Bay Area).  While the Irises prefer more sun and the Hellebores more shade, the site location and orientation make it possible to use both in the same small area.

I presented the palette (above) to the client earlier this month.  Before doing presenting, I learned that the Iris were not going to be shipped until next July, and that our local growers who carried the Hellebores had already sold out for the year.  I explained to the client that we would be ordering the Iris for delivery nine months in the future and that the Hellebores would need to be ordered immediately from Canada before the grower’s shipping season closed.  He accepted the planting concept, so I had the plants ordered with delivery to my home.  I did this for a couple of reasons:

1.  I wanted to inspect the plants before anyone else saw them to make sure there were no problems (and I work from home).  Having them shipped to my home also meant that I could accept delivery at any time (they arrived today – the Saturday after Thanksgiving) regardless of holidays, weekends, and business hours.

2.  The plants would be shipped bare root and would need immediate attention by someone who knew what to do and had the time.

3.  The landscape contractor had not yet been formally retained.

4.  This also made me feel that I was giving my client the best service I could by personally protecting his investment in them and, by extension, his trust in me.

It is my habit to order plants from all over the world.  Because of this, I knew ahead of time that both mail order companies were reputable and that the plants would likely be in great shape.  I was not disappointed!  Fraser’s Thimble Farms worked with me to hold the plants until the payment arrived.  I took their advice to pay for air priority shipping.  The plants also required a Phytosanitary Certificate (they were inspected by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency) before coming into the U.S.   The shipment was also opened and inspected by U.S. Customs upon arrival.

Below are some photos from this morning’s potting:

All in all, excellent plants – potted and ready for what comes next.  My own Hellebores have not leafed-out yet, so it will be interesting to see how these behave, but they each have new growth on them (see the middle photo).  They’ve been through a lot, being bare-rooted, inspected twice, then finally re-potted (they’ll be disturbed again soon when they’re planted in their new home).

I have been frustrated in the past with the issues that come up when trying to design a garden around the seasonal availability of the plants I want to use.  I think it is well worth the extra effort to get the exact plants desired rather than giving up and just finding something else that is less of a pain.  I am looking forward to seeing them planted in their new home and will post again….

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It seems that everyone is aware that gardens can require some effort to maintain.  Professionals in the landscape design and construction industry understand that the success of any outdoor space depends on thoughtful design, quality installation, and ongoing, intelligent maintenance.   Not one of these three items can deliver the desired result without the other two.  Nearly every client I’ve ever known has brought “low maintenance” up as part of their wish list, often right at the beginning of the first meeting.  Let’s consider:

Thoughtful Design – the design process should take into account the needs and life-cycles of both living plant materials and non-living hardscape materials.  Naturally derived hardscape materials may not be “alive”, but they do change over time.   Metals oxidize, woods weather, and stone materials can do both…

Quality Installation – poor installation can cause good design ideas to fail miserably.  Bad planting practices will kill your plants and trees, poorly installed paving will sink and shift, retaining walls can fail, and irrigation systems can be mal-adjusted in so many ways.

Ongoing, Intelligent Maintenance – taking care of your investment is critical.  There’s no way to design around bad gardening practices or neglect.  Understanding your plant and hardscape materials is half the battle to having a garden that doesn’t require more of your (or your gardener’s) time than is reasonable.   Understanding is the key to this.  For example, I firmly believe that you could grow roses (considered by many to be high maintenance) without much fuss if roses that are suitable for your area have been selected and you understand how to care for them.

So if we keep the focus on maintenance, what are we talking about?

  • Pruning, shearing, dead-heading, weeding and mowing.
  • Fertilizing, spraying against disease or insects, watering.
  • Cleaning (water features, stains on hardscape), sealing (deck wood, stone, etc), repairing broken items, etc.

There are countless books and internet resources on low maintenance gardening.  Not one of them can take the place of using good common sense.  Below are a few quick thoughts:

Containers:

  • They must be big enough to support the plants grown in them.
  • Smaller containers dry out faster, and don’t have as much room for roots as larger containers.
  • Some plants are more tolerant of container culture than others.  Shallow planters are better for some things than deep planters and vice versa.
  • Containers need a hole for drainage.
  • Dark containers heat up more and can cook the plants’ root system (and dry out fastest).
  • Containers (or raised beds) of different materials create different environments for your plants: metal, wood, ceramic, terracotta, and plastic all have unique qualities that should be considered.

Plants:

  • Each different kind of plant has different needs.
  • Individual plants of the same kind are individuals and may not look exactly the same as the same kind of plant nearby.  Healthy plants are better looking than plants that are struggling.
  • Lots of different plants are harder to care for than a simpler plant palette.
  • Plants grow.  Trying to keep a naturally large tree small to fit a small space is … less clever than planting a smaller growing tree in the first place.
  • Lawns are a lot of work, period.  They don’t have to be so bad, but the appearance that people typically demand of their lawns requires work and chemicals.
  • Plants have annual life cycles.  Some go dormant, others look pretty much the same year-round.  For example, Bulbs need their fading foliage to store up energy for the next season, and lavender starts to look ratty after about two years without annual pruning.  Honor your plant’s needs.  Some plants re-seed themselves, others don’t.  How does that fit with your design intent?

Hardscaping:

  • Stone is a natural material and is meant to oxidize and weather naturally.  I wholeheartedly disagree with sealants on stone to “keep it looking new”.  My feeling is that this is like applying clear nail polish, and that the true beauty of stone is expressed with age and patina.  Choose surface finishes carefully for the out of doors as smooth stone can be slippery when wet.
  • Tiles 1/4″ thick are not meant for paving.  Materials this thin are usually meant for vertical applications or indoors.
  • Wood is a natural material that weathers and rots.  My personal preference is not to use sealants on wood decks unless you really enjoy sanding them down and re-sealing them annually.  Containers and other sources of consistent moisture will accelerate the decomposition of the wood on your deck, so be careful.  Different woods degrade in different ways and at different rates.  They also have very different costs associated with them.  The most vulnerable part of lumber is the end cut.  Working with the characteristics of wood can produce wonderful results, but ignoring its natural tendencies is fool-hearty.
  • Bricks are a man-made construct from natural materials.  They can age beautifully like a soft stone or be chosen for their resistance to weathering.

Consider that Filoli in Woodside, CA has 12oo volunteers plus a paid staff to maintain it.  I think it is totally worth it for such an impressive estate and extensive gardens.  Oh, and make no mistake – those people know what they’re doing, too.  So what is low enough maintenance for you?  One hour a week?  Three?  Do you need to hire someone, or are you going to do everything yourself, and do you really enjoy doing it, or will the work ruin your enjoyment of your outdoor space?

Truly high maintenance:  bonsai, String Garden, topiary, zonal denial (growing stuff that isn’t really suited to where your garden is), and trying to cram in too many amenities so that the feel of the space suffers.

Please add your thoughts in the comments!

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I recently received this request:

“Could I request a post on finding and making first contact with a designer for those of us with gardens out of your jurisdiction so to speak? You’ve convinced me that outside help would be a good idea for my yard, but I don’t know where to go for it, and I don’t want to give the wrong first impression by not knowing the right terms.”


I thought about that a while (too long, since it is actually a fairly simple question).  All clients, projects, and designers are different, but everything begins with the design program for the project.   Without being too long-winded (I hope), here’s some vocabulary that I hope will help:

Design Program:  This is a wish list.  It can be super simple or fairly detailed, and may change during the course of the project.  For example, the project (the client) wants a pool.  In adding more detail, you might say that the pool needs to be suitable for lap swimming.  Additionally, you might say that the pool should be suitable for lap swimming and parties of 15-20 people, but not have a diving board.  There is no design yet.  The program is something that the client and designer may (should) develop together during the conceptual and schematic phases to assist the client in making decisions.

Survey:  The project site, represented on a drawing that is to scale (measurable on the drawing) and accurate.  This is not a doodle, and contains no new design work – it illustrates the location, size, and elevations of things like existing trees, structures, paths, or whatever else is requested.  Before hiring someone to perform the surveying work, make sure that you have a list (good to work out this list with your designer) of items that you want to make sure are included.  It is much easier to have this list before the survey is performed than to ask the surveyor to go back and get more information.

Here’s the tricky part.  Design Drawings.  These can range from napkin sketches to a complete set of technical drawings and documents.  There may be a wide range of detail required depending on the needs of the project, the budget, and the abilities of the designer to meet those needs.  The overriding concept is that these documents are a tool for communicating the design intent with everyone involved.  One important thing to understand is that once the design work is underway and drawings are being generated, a change that seems simple may need to be adjusted in many places (which takes time).  This is one reason I feel it is important to discuss the design intent thoroughly and make sure everyone is happy at every step of the way.

Rendering: So much fun, this is where the designer takes the new design and adds some color and presents it to the client.  It is so much easier to review drawings that aren’t just black and white.  Renderings aren’t always done, and they’re often abandoned once the client is comfortable with the design work to move on to more technical decisions.

Demo (demolition) Plan:  Illustrates what will be removed to make way for the installation of the new design, but does not show the new design work unless the project is simple enough to include demo notes on a Layout Plan.  A Demo Plan should also indicate items to be saved and protected from damage.  For example, there may be an additional drawing (usually on larger, more complex sites) called the Tree Protection Plan.

Layout Plan:  The new design!  woo hoo!  Finally some design work.  These drawings show only the new design work with what remained of the previously existing items (things that were not demolished).  If a structure remained, or a tree was saved, they’re included as part of the new design and noted as “existing”.

Grading Plan:  Grading includes slopes, drains, spot elevations (heights of things in relation to each other), and any earthwork.  For instance, if you are planning for a new patio, there should be a slight slope on it so that the water either runs off or into a drain.  Similarly, if there are new steps in the design, you need to know what elevation the bottom of the steps is vs. the top step, which also relates to the height of each riser.

Construction Details: Several small drawings gathered together that show additional detail about how things will be built.Planting Plan and List:  My favorite part!  Some people put a lot of information into a planting plan, others very little.  I like to tailor the level of detail in the planting plan to the needs of the client and the site (and include a lot of information).   I expect to be at the project when the plants arrive and to personally count and approve or reject the plants.  I move them around until they are in a configuration that I like when I am there.  My Planting Plans include the scientific and common names of the plants to be used, the quantity of each and their size (at the very least).  If there is a special note, like if a tree is already on hold at a nursery for the client, that is noted on the drawings.

Other drawings: You may need a sheet for Lighting, Pool Layout, or Irrigation Design. There may be enlargement drawings or sections and elevations.  All of this information is to communicate the design intent, so the needs of the project determine the level of detail to be designed and drafted.
I hope this helps, and thanks again for the request!

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I just got this blog post in my e-mail from Seth Godin this morning which ties in nicely with the book What Your Contractor Can’t Tell You that my good friend Susan introduced me to.  Nevermind that Mr. Godin uses logo design as his example, and never mind that the book focuses on working with Architects and contractors as opposed to Landscape Architects.  BOTH sources discuss the same notion: being a “good” client, or at the very least, an informed one (weirdly, though, they seem to disagree on some points).

“Good” clients are beneficial to the entire process, save everyone time, money, and headaches.  The responsibility is not the client’s alone, however.  When the relationship between the client and the professionals they’ve hired is a productive one, the project always benefits.  I am thinking about getting extra copies of that book for my office (knowing full well that suggesting to someone that they read either the post or the book won’t necessarily result in them reading either).  It is that good.  No, really.  The $15. you spend on that book can save you thousands in the long and short run.  Not a bad return on investment!

I leave you with images from the Windmill Garden in San Francisco – a seasonal planting that I really enjoyed back in April 2006.

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I would greatly appreciate it if anyone who sees this would answer the poll.  You may click as many answers as apply.  I don’t anticipate that I will close the poll anytime soon unless there is a problem.

Please also make comments, fill in your own notes in the “other” section, and explain any answers that you think may need explanations.  I cannot see who posts what, so feel free to be candid.  THANKS!


THANK YOU!!

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I have decided that I dislike client questionnaires very much.  For the purpose of designing a landscape of any sort, they fall far short of useful.  I am sure someone somewhere found a client who enjoyed filling out forms, but I have yet to meet any prospective landscape project or client who responded well to (or was well-served by) a written questionnaire.

Here’s how it often goes:  The service oriented company or design firm spends hours dreaming up questions that will help them in their design process.  They plan and scheme and write down as many questions as they can.   The questions are relevant, the information asked for is important, but this approach leaves a LOT to be desired and does neither the designer nor the client any favors.

client questionnaire search screenshot

This questionnaire may include questions like (in no particular order):

  • What types of activities do you envision in your garden?
  • How many children do you have?  pets?  types and ages?
  • Do you have any favorite plants or colors?
  • Where did you / your spouse grow up?  Do you have any favorite childhood memories of gardens?
  • Who will be performing the maintenance on the garden?

The more short-sighted firms send this out in a packet with a contract for the client to sign.  It is a standard form – the creative equivalent of those lists of symptoms that we all have to deal with at every doctor’s visit.  Do you have any pain?  blurry vision?  vomiting? Please check all that apply, thank you so much.

I would expect that every landscape project (and this is my personal approach) would be better served if their designer were observant and took the time to not only visit the project site and talk to the client in person, but also took careful notes.  Listening, observing, and interacting with a client ALWAYS tells us more about both the project, the client, and the direction of our work than any questionnaire ever will.  Intuition plays a significant role when employed by skilled designers.

If you simply google “client questionnaire landscape” you’ll even come up with a number of Landscape Contractor websites, Landscape Architecture firms, and Landscape Designer websites that feature or at least mention their questionnaires.  They assert that this is an effective way of producing a design for you, the client, that is customized to your needs.  Baloney.  This way, you, the client, can download a static form and fill it out.  What fun.  How engaging!  So inspiring.  I am sure you feel special already, right?

Don’t get me wrong here – many of these questions need to be considered (see my previous post “Client Homework”).  However, written questionnaires do a dis-service to the client, site, and creative process.  They cannot replace gut-feelings and aesthetic impressions.  To use one (in my humble opinion) is to insult the client, minimizing the value of their input, while exposing a lack of intuition and focus on the part of the designer.

There is no way any set of questions will allow me to distinguish client aesthetics better than an in-person visit on-site.  If the project site is different than the initial meeting site (i.e. another home or office), both are important.  I want to know if this is a client with doilies on the furniture or modern art on the walls.  Does the client have a strong emotional attachment to the project, or are they more detached?  Whether I am visiting with a single individual or a committee, I need the benefit of the input and reactions of everyone during those important first meetings.

I once had the honor of meeting a couple who were developing 8700 acres of property into a master-planned community and resort.  We met on their future home site to decide the placement of their new home on the parcel that they were planning to keep.  The wife expressed her views to my boss and I during a 2-hour site visit.  The husband was more the strong and silent type – for most of the meeting, he stayed with us while we hiked the hills of the site waving our arms and talking about views.  However,  during one of his wife’s assertions about their future home, the husband quietly turned away and wandered a few paces off.  I could see that he did not agree with what she had said, but would not say so in the company of others (or at all?).

In the end, the approach to the client / landscape designer relationship that makes a project sing and builds good working relationships is a straight-forward chat.  Reviewing the very landscape issues (that could have been addressed in a lousy questionnaire) in a face-to-face meeting goes much farther to producing a successful design than anything else conceivable.

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