Growing Concerns 458: When a landscape design disappoints, shopping for unusual plants, neighbors' spring greetings

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Successful Landscape Design Starts with Clear Goal Setting

Dear Janet,

We have just moved into our new house. In our deed it states we have to spend a certain amount on landscaping and this has to be completed within the next three months. I think they are mainly concerned with the front of the house to keep up the general appearance of the neighborhood but we want to address the whole garden and hard-scaping such as a terraced area, a driveway and wider front steps.

I have received one quote already and another is in the pipeline but I fear they are concentrating on spending all our money on the front landscape, with quite large trees and shrubs. Don't you think $600 for a sixteen foot Fagus sylvatica 'Dawyck Purple' sounds a lot? Equally important, why do I want to pay all this money to look the same as everyone else?

B.J., on the Internet

Dear B.J.,

Are the quotes associated with designs that you participated in developing?

The design process should start and end with you. Your expectations, tastes and budget are the basis of everything in a good design, from plant choices to layout and purchasing decisions. If the designs which are now being estimated don't address your basic needs, then the design process failed. You weren't fully a part. Perhaps you didn't realize how vital your input was during the first stages. It's also possible the designer misunderstood or lost track of your wishes.

If the quotes are for designs developed as "free estimates" without your input, hire a designer. Be a partner in the process from the start.

Don't accept a design you doubt, even if rejection means starting over. Show your landscape review committee what you're working on and ask for an extension.

When you start over, list what you want from the landscape. Use specific terms such as "provide privacy in the back yard, west side," "must have fragrant flowers," "want a unique look," "must be attractive even in winter, especially from bedrooms and coming up the driveway," "don't want to refinish any woodwork every year," etc.

Spell out your budget and patience level, too. You might write, "No more than $10,000 this year; if it costs more than that, must have plan to proceed in stages," or "must look respectable this year, full in five years but never overgrown."

Copy the list for the designer. As you work together, refer to it. Ask which plants and features are accomplishing your ends and check off each item as it's covered.

When it comes to price tags, by that near-final stage you should have developed a trust in the designer. If not, go shopping. A design should include the precise botanical name of each plant. The estimate should list that same name, as your quote obviously does for a narrow, purple-leaf beech, plus the planting-day height, width or trunk diameter. Given botanical name and size you can comparison shop. Be fair -- add delivery and planting charges to retail sticker prices.

It's not unusual to pay $600 for a tree, but go to your design objectives to be sure that tree and that size are right. It may be worth spending a disproportionate amount on one tree at a focal point. A bigger tree is worthwhile, too if you want and can afford an immediate finished look. On the other hand, bigger trees often take longer to adapt to a new site and resume growth. A smaller tree, planted at the same time, may regain its vigor and overtake a larger transplant in two to three years. So if you can wait, you can probably cut costs.

In general, if you phase in a landscape, complete the hardscape first -- walks, decks, pools, etc. Plantings can follow. One reason for this is to avoid construction damage to new plants. Another reason is to control costs. This year's $1,500 patio may jump to $2,000 next year. Plant prices tend to rise less dramatically but even if there is an increase, a smaller version can be substituted since it will grow to fit.

Our landscape relationships are long term affairs, so take time to plan a good fit. To identify and fine-tune your objectives, take a landscape design class or pick up a basic landscape design book at a library or bookstore. Talk to designers at garden centers or from the phone book to find one you're comfortable with. Ask neighbors for referrals and mingle with others working on their landscapes.


Short report:

Start calling around now for that special plant you're seeking. Garden center managers know what they have, what's coming in and are better able to spare a moment now than they will be in a week or two!



Green thumbs up to visiting the neighbor tonight with a reacquaintance gift. Catch up on the news, so on that first fine day when you both set out to work in your yards you won't spend hours talking over the fence!


Green thumbs down to delaying garden plans based on long-term weather predictions. Too dry we are yet every year is unusual in some way. If you wait for a "normal" year to garden or landscape, you'll never begin.




First published 4/6/02

This page sponsored by: Sandra Bauer


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