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Straight Talk

10-year logoBy Bruce Zaretsky

Bruce Zaretsky opened his very first On the Level column back in August 2007 with a question: ‘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,’ he wrote. ‘And my best guess is that there are lots of watershapers and landscape professionals who buy into that model as well.’ He continued:


‘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.’


‘[I]t’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 been half or even just a quarter of what it was? Could I still create something worthwhile?” ’


‘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.’


‘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 see value as being 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.’


‘If you’re reading this . . . 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 satisfactions 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,’ he concluded, ‘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.’

Is the balance Bruce defined in his debut column still part of the watershaping picture, or has the economic climate of the past five years forced watershapers to think along more mercenary lines? Please share your thoughts by clicking here.


Bruce Zaretsky is president of Zaretsky and Associates, a landscape design/construction/consultation company in Rochester, N.Y. You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .



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