I recently wrote a Letter to the Editor of Landscape Architecture, the magazine of the American Society of Landscape Architects, in response to an editorial he wrote on the lack of interest among landscape architects in plant knowledge.
The gist of his commentary was that, for too many years now, landscape architects had been focusing on hardscape and overall design and were reserving little creativity, interest, or care for botanical adornments. My response was a supportive rant, as this has been a pet peeve of mine for years and I strongly believe that landscape architecture needs to get back to its roots (pun generously intended).
Way back in one of my first columns for WaterShapes – in April 1999 – I wrote about the distinctions among landscape architects, landscape designers and landscape contractors. I knew then as now that it was a broad generalization, but I observed that landscape architects tended to focus on hardscape, landscape designers on plants and landscape contractors on installing the stuff.
I’m not asserting that all landscape designers focus on planting while landscape architects direct their main attention to hardscape, but as a landscape designer, I know I’ve always directed most of my attention to the plant side of landscapes. I put my all into hardscape, too, but I’ve always believed that an interesting planting is the heart and soul of the final product – and my bias doubtless shows.
PLAYING TO TYPE
I can’t tell you how often I’ve driven around town and seen beautiful new buildings, parks and other public places with disappointing plant selections. I’m tired of seeing these fabulous spaces plastered with Agapanthus, Raphiolepis, Nandina, and Dietes – all perfectly good plants, but I suspect they’re used in these settings because they virtually guarantee good, cheap grows.
I see it so often that I’ve become increasingly outraged by the utter lack of creativity.
I know it’s not exclusively the landscape architect’s or designer’s or contractor’s fault: I believe that a lack of understanding among building owners, managers and the public has fostered a landscaping trend that favors common, low-maintenance greenery over interesting solutions that enhance our overall environment.
It’s not a good situation – sort of like settling for the starter set of eight crayons when a little knowledge of the available range of colors will let you exploit the big box with 128 colors. So why not use all 128 if you’ve got them at your disposal?
My point is this: The consumers of our services have a responsibility to communicate with and understand the capabilities of those they hire to take care of their landscape needs. They can’t simply assume that a landscape architect knows all about plants, nor can they make that assumption about a landscape designer. It’s also incorrect to assume that a landscape contractor is unaware of the growth habits of plants or that he or she wouldn’t know what to do with a list of plants without a blueprint.
Our role in this, I think, is to make certain these consumers are armed with some of the right questions, that they know the value of determining the level of knowledge and expertise of the professionals they’re dealing with, that they’re emboldened to ask to see samples of past work and that they know enough to ask the professionals how much they know about plants and the way they focus their designs.
That’s a substantial burden to pass to consumers, but I see educating and encouraging them in these areas as our responsibility – and as the only way to ensure that consumers hire us in full knowledge of our strengths.
And it’ll work with consumers because most landscape professionals really do tend to specialize in one area or the other – plants or hardscape – and their work shows it even when they won’t say it in words. In my experience, relatively few will say they’re good at both; if they do, they should be asked to document the claim with photographs, client references and visits to sites they’ve installed.
To give all of this a practical focus, let me mention a job I’ve worked on for more than two years now. A friend of mine had built a very large estate on a two-acre property and believed that the design professionals she had involved in landscaping it were all that she needed. (Our friendship began well after she had hired her contractors.)
The general contractor had assured her he “had a guy” who could handle all her landscaping needs and could take care of the hardscape, the planting and the drainage and irrigation. She had an architect, so the hardscape had all been designed up front – though little apparent thought had been given to the needs of existing trees or the appropriateness of the planting areas.
No one at any time ever mentioned that having a planting plan or involving a landscape designer or architect with plant expertise would be beneficial to the final product.
I kept my mouth shut and watched as new trees arrived and were installed along with acres of annuals. (I believe I’ve made my dislike for annuals known.) When the hardscape was finally finished and the contractors were gone, my friend asked me why her gardens looked so anemic, why it had all cost so much and – the killer question – “What’s gone wrong back there?”
After some discussions with the general contractor and the landscape contractor, I determined that there had been no real communication about the plantings, that nobody had been asked to design anything and that no thought had been given at all to integrating the planted areas with the rest of the property.
How could this have happened? Why? I mean, how difficult would it have been for the general contractor or landscape contractor to tell the homeowner at the beginning of the project that the services of a design professional would be needed? It’s an environment in which we all need to stand up and recognize that our prospective clients are being disappointed and even alienated by what’s happening – and that we need to speak up!
In this case, the homeowners had expressed a desire for a lush planting with lots of color and plants installed right up to new trees. The landscape contractor showed them pictures of trees and asked for preferences. They chose Oaks, but at no time did the landscape contractor explain to them that if they installed these trees, they would not be able to have the lush planting they wanted because you can’t plant so close to Oaks without encouraging Oak Root Fungus.
By the time I came in to help, the trees had been planted and there was no money left. In this case, I blame the contractor for the ineffective communication and for not seeking design assistance. He even said he would pay me to redesign the space, as the homeowners were quite upset – and getting even angrier because poor decisions about the placement of decking was killing or had killed a number of mature Pittosporums and Sycamores.
EDUCATION IS KEY
Of course, there’s a measure of enlightened self-interest among professionals in keeping consumers away from full information about what we do. If a hardscape specialist or a planting specialist gets the whole job, the opportunity to make good money increases through the diversity of the job. (This point could be stronger-refer back to my original paragraph on this.)
I’d counter that tendency with a simple assertion that we all benefit when the work is done as well as it can be and that a problem case of the sort described above could have been avoided with some effective communication and a willingness on the part of the contractors to educate the clients about the complex nature of landscape work.
It’s partly a matter of educating our client base – a point that’s been made over and over again in WaterShapes since its first issue. Consumers need to know who they’re hiring, what their expertise is, what their specialty is, and whether the efforts of other design professionals will be needed to produce top-quality results.
It’s also a matter of educating ourselves and seeing that collaborations among professionals have a greater chance of success than do projects in which a specialist in one area or another overreaches his or her capabilities while failing to let clients in on the secret.
So how can a consumer know what kind of plant knowledge a landscape architect has? Or if a landscape designer has what it takes to handle the job? As far as I can tell, it’s a bit like looking for a doctor: You get the one you want by asking the nurses and other health-care professionals who they’d prefer to see.
I tell my prospective clients and anyone else who’s thinking about a landscape project the following: If you’re looking for someone with great plant knowledge, seek out the advice of a good quality nursery or a good landscape contractor. The nursery will know whether the designer knows their plants, while the contractor will tell you if the designer knows what to do with those plants.
If that’s not enough – if, say, they need someone who is good with a particular style of planting – I suggest asking the nursery staff who’s buying those types of plants. This involves some research, but if the consumer finds the right professionals, their success will rise to the credit of everyone involved in the process.
Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine. She may be reached at [email protected]