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Straight Talk



Does the size of a project or its budget correlate with its creativity or quality?

I know many of us have clients who think that way, believing the more money they spend, the better product they’re going to get – and my best guess is that there are lots of watershapers and landscape professionals who buy into that model as well.

We all come to this view honestly; because all through our lives we’re bombarded by cultural messages suggesting that bigger/grander/more is always better: From reality shows on television that embrace all things affluent to images in books and magazines where the most celebrated properties are always owned by the very rich, we have been told incessantly that art and beauty go naturally with wealth and power.

As we stare at the 30,000-square-foot homes, the collections of vintage cars, the extensive wine cellars, the exquisite finishes and the pools shaped like violins, as professionals we often think: “How can I land some of these people as clients?” We dream about that big job that will put us on the map, make our mark on the watershaping or landscaping world, bring us recognition and referrals to other projects that ultimately will attain for us own big home, great car, nice wine – and, of course, a pool shaped like a dollar sign.

It’s an extremely seductive vision, and my suspicion (despite the fact it’s wrong-headed) is that it’s a driving force behind much of what we do.


I’ll admit to the fact that, for a long time, I bought into that intoxicating but misguiding belief system. As I’ve grown as a professional landscape designer and watershaper, however, and have worked on projects across a range of sizes, styles and price tags, my thinking has evolved to a point where I see that all projects can be made, in their own ways, to deliver tremendous value to clients.

In other words, I can now honestly say that bigger is not necessarily better, not necessarily more creative, not necessarily more valuable (depending on how we define the word). A bigger budget gives you access to a wider variety of options, but the value of the project still boils down to quality design and installation, no matter the wherewithal of the client or the extent of the budget.

In fact, it’s gotten to a point where, when I see a project of the sort celebrated in design-awards programs or featured in consumer magazines, I look things over and ask myself, “What could I have done had the budget for the project had been half or even just a quarter of what it was? Could I still create something worthwhile?”

In a sense, that pair of questions stand at the heart of the conversation we’re going to have in this column, which will, as clearly as it can, focus on what it is in watershaping and landscape work that defines its value. Right off the top, I’d argue that it’s more about creativity, artistry, reliable engineering and quality construction than it is about project scope and/or the wealth of a client.

In conversations with colleagues at conferences and trade shows and during visits to botanical gardens, museums and even social gatherings, I’ve observed that 90 percent of us – me definitely included – do not mix with the clientele whose properties we see on television and in magazines. While we may strive to that level – and certainly should – we’re left in the real world with clients who are decidedly not spending the money that those highlighted projects entail. The simple fact is that most people lack that kind of disposable income. Or, if they do, they apparently have other priorities in mind.

So where does that leave us? Do we all migrate to areas where we see this work happening? Do we go to work for companies that are doing these projects? Those are possibilities, I guess, but that’s not what I want – and this is where we come to the column you’re now reading and the thought behind its heading: We’re going to speak “On the Level” here, meaning, among other things, on the practical, functional level where most of us operate in the workaday world.


I’m excited by the opportunity to converse with you. It’s profoundly liberating to recognize that, in working at a high level of creativity and quality, we are not constrained by the scale, complexity or budget of a project. Instead, what we do is governed by the values we ourselves bring to the work and the ingenuity we use to implement those values.

It’s a practical matter, really, because any project, no matter how big or small, requires us to pay attention to the design, its details and our clients. We don’t need a big budget to perform on that score and design creatively. In fact, I would say that it’s more challenging (and hence more stimulating) to attack a design based on a smaller budget than it is to work with a big one. Indeed, I find myself much more engaged in designing tiny courtyards than I am by larger sites, simply because those confined settings force me to inject value in ways that go beyond dollar signs.

To be sure, big projects have their inherent challenges and virtues when it comes to design and implementation. But so do smaller ones, because everything is amplified, every inch counts and every plant or appearance of water is noticed. And you can’t gloss over a problem area while focusing on a more favored view: When everything is so close at hand, the nuances of every view come into sharp (even relentless) focus.

None of this is to say that big, expensive projects aren’t wonderful, but what makes them so is our capacity to elevate our game and pay the same degree of attention to details no matter the scope of work. To my way of thinking, those who think value is limited to and defined by the so-called “high-end” market are missing the boat. To me, the trick is to draw ideas, practices and procedures from the upper-level projects and apply them in more modest ones.

I’d also argue that when you work at a high level across the board, then you’ll be prepared to apply that sort of elevated approach to the big-budget, grand-scale jobs when and if they come your way.

All of this may seem too philosophical, but I’d say it’s actually quite down to earth and practical: How do we incorporate everything a client wants and stay within a budget? How do we keep the client focused? How do we keep control of the project and its subcontractors with respect to scheduling and work flow? How do we handle mid-project change orders or unexpected challenges? How do we make design visions become reality and do it consistently, project after project?

When you break it all down to the components of what quality watershaping and landscape work are all about, we can reliably conclude that none of this is easy!


If you’re reading this column, you’ve chosen a tough way to make your living. Odds are you didn’t choose this profession because of the money, at least not at first. You chose it because you love the challenges and the satisfaction that flow from building something from nothing. Or you might love interacting with clients, the design process, digging in the dirt and/or the final cleanup of the site. You may simply be showing off your artistic prowess.

Beyond that sort of initial (and enduring) idealism, however, ours is a business defined by brutal practicality. To be successful, we must have both the left and right sides of our brains working full tilt and in complete harmony as we strive for a blend of creative and financial success. To hit the mark, the creative side of our work must be informed by the practical – and vice versa.

In future issues, much of what I have to write will be focused on these crossroads of idealism and ground-level reality. We’ll converse about what it takes to do more than make a living in this crazy profession and how to live well as a result of our efforts; how to dictate the schedule based on your decisions rather than vice versa; how to charge for your time; and how to get back to the days when you truly enjoyed the work – that is, before it became a “business.”

We’ll also engage in dialogues about design, from process and presentation to implementation. We’ll touch on ways to create really cool, human-scale projects without bankrupting our clients or ourselves. We’ll talk about the people who work with and for us and how we keep them motivated and involved; we’ll also discuss the people who hire us and define ways to make the good ones happy and the bad ones go away.

We’ll get high-minded, too, looking at our responsibility to the environment, the need to recycle and reuse products and ways to use resources including fuel and energy more wisely. And we’ll explore projects, taking some from start to finish, getting inside the heads of the clients as well as the designers. We’ll talk about good times and bad, all of it with an eye to finding ways for all of us to enjoy and be proud of what we do.

Ultimately, we’re going talk about you and me and the ways we make our ways in the world – straight up, honest and always “On the Level.”

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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