Searching for Perfection
Although we think of them together as activities in the world of exterior design, watershaping and landscaping have some significant distinctions.
The watershapers who design and build pools, spas, fountains and waterfeatures, for instance, fully intend them to be structurally static and unchanging (a firm hope, anyway, especially in earthquake country) once they are completed. By contrast, the landscape professionals who design and install the gardens, trees and plants that may surround a watershape work with dynamic, constantly changing materials.
What this means is that perfection is a much more elusive quality for landscape professionals by comparison to watershapers. Indeed, for us on the green side, achieving the kind of perfection one often perceives in a brilliant pool, fountain or water sculpture is nearly impossible – unless, that is, we can teach our clients that perfection is something that is constantly evolving right before their eyes.
STATIC VS. DYNAMIC
Since time immemorial, our shelters and other “permanent” structures have remained in place unless destroyed by nature, dismantled by people or obliterated by war. Even a strong, secure house may be shattered by storm or flood, as recent history has demonstrated. During its useful lifetime, however, that structure was static and unchanging save for repainting, repairs or renovations. It wouldn’t change on a daily basis unless something made it do so.
Plant material is, by comparison, completely dynamic. Its shapes, structures, sizes and other defining characteristics (short of DNA) are constantly shifting, so much so that it might be said, every second of every day, that a plant is always changing in some way. It grows in size, it falls prey to plant diseases, its sheds its leaves in the fall – and every individual plant is different.
Where great architects can build homes described as perfect and they will generally stay that way, creating a landscape that can be called perfect is a different proposition. Hardscape elements will remain in place, of course, and won’t grow or shrink. And if they’re not perfect, they can be modified as needed to attain that goal by adding height to a wall, expanding a deck or changing the course of a walkway.
When designing a planting plan, however, we engage in a more abstract process. Most designers and landscape architects of any standing are able to visualize what a planting design will look like when initially installed and when fully mature. Some of us are able to describe this to our clients, even to the point of setting milestones and enabling them to track progress toward maturity.
No matter how hard you try or how much you educate or inform your clients about the process, however, you inevitably will encounter clients whose notions of evolving perfection will never coincide with yours. With such a hard case, you won’t even be able to establish a means by which you can even understand what they mean when they talk about what they want – in other words, their idea of perfection.
I’m sure most of you have had the experience of butting heads with such a client. I’ve known my share, and I want to use one of them to explore the distinction between the senses of perfection with which watershapers and landscape professionals work every day.
A CASE STUDY
I recently had a client with whom I had communicated for about three years off and on before she finally hired me to design her garden. I’m a patient person, and I don’t have a problem with those who need to get “comfortable” with me and my work before committing to the design process.
Her house was a traditional, Spanish-style structure with a veranda in back opening out onto a grand lawn surrounded by mature shade trees. We talked at length about the need to thin out those trees before garden installation began – and then regularly during the first few years after planting.
I explained to her that pruning back the trees would help the plants get established and would offer her a better view of her new garden – and more light by which to see the plants. For some reason, I also began to feel a need to point out certain risks and address issues that might affect the planting as I began to see the challenge of addressing her ideal view of perfection.
In addition to the garden, she’d asked me to design a pond and some kind of waterfeature all set within a meadow consisting of plants that would attract birds and butterflies. I suggested placing one of these elements on the far side of the lawn – the better to draw visitors out into the garden, I said, perhaps with a path terminating at a bench where people could sit and take in the entire setting.
With these concepts in mind, we went about researching specific plants through books and nursery visits. I developed a preliminary hardscape and planting plan that included everything her heart seemed to desire. At our next meeting, however, she vetoed all the hardscape elements for reasons too various to mention.
Limiting our discussion strictly to plants, we confirmed that she still liked the plant palette and made a few adjustments – mostly to add a few plants she’d discovered and to eliminate a few with which she clearly wasn’t thrilled.
Long story short: The resulting planting plan identified specific locations of all plants of five-gallons and larger sizes and noted bordered locations for all plants one gallon and smaller. As I’ve discussed before, I use this dividing line of container size because locating every small plant can make a plan unreadable. (I’ve also concluded that depicting “wild” on a plan is virtually impossible.)
To compensate for not visually representing all plants on the plan, I made extensive notations to be sure it was clear (or so I thought) that the “wild” look of the garden would evolve over time as the plants grew and that dashed lines on the plan were used to delineate groupings of plants and to set general rather than specific locations. I made it clear, I thought, that during installation borderlines would be blended and woven together so that no distinctions would be discernable later on.
TWISTS AND TURNS
Believing I had addressed all my client’s issues to utter perfection (that deadly word!), I left her with the plan and went about getting bids for installation.
Before any of that could happen, the client started calling with questions and changes. It wasn’t completely clear to her, for example, which plants would attract butterflies. I headed that one off by sending her a plant list that identified which plants were bird and butterfly attractors and even noted on a copy of the final plan where I would place a butterfly house.
That seemed to take care of things, so I continued gathering the bids.
A couple of weeks later, she called me and informed me that she was certain I didn’t understand what she wanted in her garden. It wasn’t clear from the plan what the plants would look like and it all seemed too structured to her. A couple of exhaustive phone calls and a pile of renderings later, it finally dawned on me that no matter what I did to explain or support the design and how I intended to install it, she would probably never be satisfied.
I now started to add up all the time I’d spent talking with her in the years before the project started, all the time in the give and take since she’d hired me, all the time spent basically defending my design and revisions of that design to someone who simply couldn’t visualize things well enough to explain herself and her own ideas to achieve the sort of perfection she was after.
But on I went: I pride myself in being a pretty good listener, and, one more time, I repeated back to her all her wants, needs and desires as she had expressed them to me.
Our final phone conversation showed me that she was completely convinced that nothing I would do on the day I installed the planting had a prayer of leaving her satisfied. As I explained to her, landscaping is a bit of a leap of faith. Homeowners need to interview designers and be comfortable during the working process and have a sense that everything’s proceeding according to their desires. There also needs to be a way for them to express concerns or, in extreme cases, pull the plug.
By this point I was more than a bit exasperated as I explained again that no planting looks like what you’ve envisioned the minute installation is complete. It’s nature, after all. It’s dynamic, constantly changing.
Not good enough: She wanted something that was the perfect embodiment of what she had in mind, and unfortunately I was unable to match that vision with my one-dimensional plan. Case closed – except that after the terminal conversation, I recalled I was the second designer to have been run through this wringer by her – something that probably should have been a sign to me from the start.
In 16 years of practice, I have, of course, had clients with whom things just didn’t work out. That happens in all businesses, and if there’s a lesson to be learned in a case like the one described above, it’s that it is critical to establish compatibility with clients early in the process. In that sense, we’re all psychologists of a sort, taking what’s going on in clients’ minds and translating it onto paper and ultimately into a three-dimensional creation.
But plants are not the perfect artistic medium, and there’s the distinct possibility that even if the process goes well and the garden is installed, some of your clients will be less than completely satisfied. That fact, however, doesn’t relieve any of us of the need to strive to create designs that reach toward our own versions of perfection as well as those of our clients.
For me, talking about these factors and coming to an understanding about the nature of plants and their tentative, dynamic relationship with perfection is something I now do with all of my clients. They need to understand that a garden is not like a building. It can’t be drawn on paper the way a building can. Even the best rendering captures only a single moment in time, not a dynamic reality.
The way I look at it now, I guide my clients toward an understanding that everything in a garden is actually perfect exactly the way it is at any specific moment. It will change daily, and that’s part of the unique quality that makes plants and landscaping such a challenging yet rewarding art.
Perfection can be dynamic if we allow ourselves to accept that landscaping is not an exact science and requires nurturing and constant care and attention as it changes – sort of like people.
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].