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Planting Pains

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‘Early in the history of garden design – dating back to the earliest days of civilization in Sumeria, Egypt and China – plants took center stage in garden spaces.’ With that observation, Bruce Zaretsky opened his On the Level column in February 2009, then added: ‘Terraces and hanging gardens were built not for their innate ornamental qualities, but rather to display the plants they contained. Always, the prized plant was more important than its container.

‘This preeminence of plant displays has been the rule rather than the exception throughout history, even up to modern times. And the passion among gardeners for new and unusual plants has never waned: Open up just about any landscape magazine, and you’ll find pages dedicated to the newest hybrids or discovered plants, and this is so because our residential and commercial clients crave new and unusual plants.’ He continued:

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‘Based on what I’ve seen through the past 20 years or so, however, it seems that increasing numbers of landscape contractors are becoming more interested in pavers than in plants. Indeed, I see my colleagues putting significantly more effort into installing paver patios or pool decks than on the plantings that should complement them. Nowadays, in fact, it often seems that the plants are just an afterthought – a bit of greenery thrown in as a visual break without much (if any) consideration of how it all looks.’

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‘I serve in a landscape-consulting role with a local township in the Rochester, N.Y., area. I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve had to speak up about haphazard, inadequate planting plans, and what I’ve run into again and again is engineering firms that don’t even have a landscape designer on staff and instead just assign the “landscape design chores” to an associate engineer. The upshot of this is that I’ve actually reviewed plans that had trees specified for placement in the middle of the asphalt driveway – not in an island, mind you, but literally in the asphalt. This lack of consideration for proper planting design almost invariably leads to significant problems.’

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‘And the problem isn’t restricted to engineering firms: The repetition of these situations through the years has led me to conclude that too many designers get so caught up in the hardscape portions of their landscapes that they fail to consider the final planting design or the consequences that follow the plants they end up selecting.’

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‘So what do you call it when an “expert” picks the wrong plant and puts it in the wrong place? I’d call it stupidity, but there are some in the legal community who would call it negligence. . . . [I]f it’s not negligence, it must be intentional – and my suspicion has long been that some landscape contractors install these plants where they do as a means of selling maintenance contracts and keeping their employees busy.’

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‘Going back to the start of this column, why has attention to plants given way to a fascination with pavers and hardscape? Why do the engineers who do so much of the design work for our cities and towns relegate “landscape design” to second- or third-level staffers who have no real interest in plants? Why do the supposed “experts” in the landscape design and contracting fields so frequently select the wrong plants and put them in the wrong places? Stepping past self-interested (and perhaps negligent) contractors who want to generate an annuity with maintenance work, I trace all of these problems to a lack of education.’

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‘[T]he only way true experts can distance themselves from the field is through a constant process of education and steady production of planting plans at exceptional levels of sustainability, quality and beauty. The bottom line here,’ Bruce concluded, ‘is the same as it is with shoddy construction of hardscape and watershapes: The poor use of plants produces costs and aggravations that far exceed the time and energy spent in learning how to do things the right way.’

Does Bruce’s observation of the state of the planting art five years ago still apply today? How does your own firm approach planting plans? Have you seen progress in this area, or has the situation worsened? Please share your thoughts and comments below!

Bruce Zaretsky is president of Zaretsky and Associates, a landscape design/construction/consultation company in Rochester, N.Y. Nationally recognized for creative and inspiring residential landscapes, he also works with healthcare facilities, nursing homes and local municipalities in conceiving and installing healing and meditation gardens. You can reach him at [email protected]

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