With a busy schedule, it’s too easy to use the same tools repeatedly in project designs.
Yes, you can mitigate the repetition to a certain extent by using those tools differently each time, but the fact remains that many of us tend to design over and over again with the same plants, hardscape materials and structural approaches because it’s what we know and trust.
But let’s face it: Most clients don’t want exactly what someone else has; instead, they want one element from this garden and a special plant from that one.
From a design perspective, selecting new plants every time is a risky prospect, but nothing ventured, nothing gained: If you don’t take those risks and try new things, you’ll really end up in a rut. You may stay busy and keep pleasing your clients, but your own level of satisfaction will eventually diminish and you’ll find that clients simply won’t be as enthusiastic about what you’ve created because they sense that your spark is gone.
For all these reasons, I’d propose that we need to continuously elevate our performance and profession by constantly creating new and exciting landscapes. We must consciously step beyond what we currently know – the “tried and true” – and focus on generating designs that use new plants and hardscape materials in ways that keep the creative spark burning.
One easy step in the right direction isn’t all that risky and simply involves speaking with (and listening to) other landscape designers and architects.
Whenever I meet or get together with other landscape professionals, it seems that at least part of the conversation centers on our favorite plants. Everyone has their special selections, and while it can be humbling to speak with someone who rattles off the names of ten plants you’ve never heard of (let alone seen), I console myself with the thought that he or she probably has much the same reaction when I run through my own list.
I enjoy these discussions immensely: All at once they can make you feel completely incompetent and yet, if you’re smart, will motivate you to learn more.
Given my competitive nature, I leave these conversations with a strong desire to see photographs of these new plants, find them in the nursery or see them planted in someone’s garden. Then I decide if I’m as excited about the plant as the person who told me about it. Thinking things through, I’ll then decide whether or not I can fit the plant into one of my designs – or decide it has so much potential that I want to create something special around this new specimen.
In other words, I’m constantly trying, as someone who likes change and variety, to make sure my palette of favorite plants is constantly growing and evolving. The thought of letting this process get tedious and dull offends me – as I’m sure it does most professional designers.
Bottom line: You can’t operate successfully in a vacuum.
OPENING THE LINES
Many of you are like me: We have well-established lines of communication with colleagues. What I’d like to suggest here is that there’s more to be done to expand the scope of your contact base:
[ ] Go to meetings and conferences. As I stated in last month’s column, there’s a wealth of relevant information out there from a variety of sources. I strongly recommend finding conferences, meetings or workshops featuring landscape professionals at the top of their field. Learning from them and seeing how they function may spark new ideas for your business and keep you competitive. I’d also take a look at events that aren’t directly about landscape design (as was the case with the Aqua Show I discussed last month). I find that absorbing outsiders’ views of what I do is challenging as well as engaging and informative.
[ ] Read magazines, journals and newsletters. In many fields, professionals need to read to stay current on research and development to maintain licensing or accreditation. I’m not aware of any such requirements in the landscape professions, but I still find that reading Garden Design, Landscape Architecture and “The Designer” (the newsletter of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers) are vital to keeping up with current thinking. WaterShapes, of course, is a prime example of the value of looking beyond our immediate field to expand our knowledge. Whether you ever design or build watershapes, its coverage lets you in on developments that may affect your work as a landscape professional. At the same time, it may inspire a new design style that incorporates water (or plants and water) in a different way or unique manner.
[ ] Hit the books. I’m addicted to looking around in the gardening sections of bookstores. If I’m feeling stale, a fresh look at some of these volumes often inspires me to think differently about a design. New layouts, new plants, new containers and new accessories often trigger my thought processes and rally me around a new design concept. Look at it this way: Books are the authors’ way of communicating their ideas to you, and if they’ve been published, chances are better than good that they have something interesting to say.
[ ] Work the Web. When I spot a plant in a nursery or garden guide or even identify a general need, I always check things out on the Internet. If a design calls for grasses, for example, I’ll run a Google search on specific types of grasses and read everything I can. That information prepares me to have informed conversations with local nurseries and has led to the addition of many gems to my planting plans.
[ ] Turn on the television. I didn’t feel like a pioneer at the time, but “The Surprise Gardener” was among the first of what has become a legion of garden-makeover shows. Some are too much focused on entertainment to be very helpful, but I find those produced by the British Broadcasting Company to be particularly innovative and informative – and well worth recording for future reference. Again, a single, small idea from a show can blossom into a whole new niche for your company.
[ ] Set aside competitive fears. There’s huge value in getting to know other professionals in your area. Indeed, the exchange of ideas among landscape professionals can be the most valuable tool you have at your disposal. The best place to meet others is at conferences and seminars, where a dash of open-mindedness and the ability to listen can lead to great things. And even if you feel the competition is too tight or rancorous and you can’t bring yourself to step across the lines of rivalry, that’s no reason you can’t hook up with contractors and ask them what those other designers are doing.
In addition to a near-continuous dialogue with other professionals in the industry, I also place high value on staying current with what’s happening in the nursery trade. I find that meandering among the rows at nurseries is among the easiest ways to gain inspiration – but there’s more to it than a bit of exercise.
[ ] Carry a digital camera at all times. You never know when you’re going to see something unfamiliar in an unexpected setting, and a small digital camera lets you take a quick snapshot that can then be taken to your nursery for identification and information. Once you have a botanical name, you can also research the plant on the web or in your garden guides.
[ ] Visit arboretums and botanical gardens. Most of these facilities have easily accessible plant plaques so that you can conduct a self-guided tour, take notes and, later on, review new or unfamiliar selections in plant guides or on the Internet. I recommend taking these excursions during different times of the year so you can track a plant through all its seasonal forms. Something you like in the spring may look ghastly in the summer or fall. Pomegranates, for example, have beautiful flowers and foliage in the spring and early summer but look quite dead during the late fall and winter.
[ ] Keep your eyes open. Take walks and hikes, go on garden tours, talk to others and just look around to see how different plant combinations are put together in front yards and public spaces. Watching for new installations is a great way to review a particular designer’s style and favorites. To be sure, you may not like everything you see, but something as simple as seeing two plants side by side that you never thought of pairing before may launch a whole set of great ideas.
[ ] Get nosy. Ask your nursery what other professionals are buying or asking for – or wander through the “hold” areas, which will tell you what everyone else is ordering. And of course, if I don’t know what something is, I ask lots of questions. As a rule, the more you know, the more the nursery believes you will order. This translates to more sales for them, so they will most likely be very informative. (If they’re not, you might want to find another nursery.)
[ ] Shop around. For lots of reasons, not all nurseries carry the same plants, so it pays to ask where someone acquired what is to you an unfamiliar plant they’ve just mentioned. That can save lots of time, as retail nurseries carry a totally different stock from wholesale nurseries – and each wholesale nursery carries something different from the next one. If you’re on your own, expect to stop at several sources before you’ll find what you want.
[ ] Play detective. I’ve found Plant Information Online (plantinfo.umn.edu) from the Andersen Horticultural Library in Minnesota to be a great resource if you can’t find what you want anywhere else. There’s an annual subscription fee, but it gives you access to information on thousands of plants and their growers. Through the growers, it’s generally possible to find local wholesalers and retailers in your area. (By the way, I found out about this service through Garden Design.)
There’s a saying that there are no original thoughts and that all new ideas are built on old ones. If that’s true, what we need to do most as landscape designers and watershapers is to look around and be inspired by what we see created by other landscape professionals, garden lovers, hobbyists and Mother Nature.
Open up: You never know how it may change your life!
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]