Planning a Makeover

A horticulture extension agent describes how to find a landscape designer.


How will you achieve the landscape of your dreams? Let the garden teach you what it knows, says horticulturist Paul McKenzie, and also know when to call on an expert.

How will you achieve the landscape of your dreams? Let the garden teach you what it knows, says horticulturist Paul McKenzie, and also know when to call on an expert.
By: Paul McKenzie

Before you undertake a big landscape design project, consider what you're asking for. It's easy to walk behind a lawnmower. It's much harder to get on your knees and pull weeds out of the flower bed, or haul endless loads of mulch in your wheelbarrow. Before you undertake a big landscape project, you'd best learn what it means to be a gardener.

And while the best gardening instruction — even a master gardener course — may give you lots of tips and ideas and inspiration, it won't teach you to garden. A flower bed will teach you how to garden. It will teach you about soil compaction and insects and fungi and tough perennial weeds with tubers and taproots. It will also teach you about color and texture and plant adaptation and tiny beautiful insects you'd never noticed before.

Decisions about your landscape should not be rushed. It may take a couple of cycles of the seasons to learn the nuances of the place you live. If you can't immediately point north from anywhere in your home or yard, you're not ready.

Is landscape design within the realm of the do-it-yourselfer? As someone who is both an avid do-it-yourselfer and trainer of master gardeners, I can only say that I would hesitate to take on more than the most basic design project. It's easy to draw shrub-shaped blobs on a sheet of graph paper. But a garden is not something that fits easily into grids and charts. Paper normally only captures two dimensions (width and depth). A good landscape design will also consider height, changes through the season and changes over the years.

Landscape design software may make the job easier, but don't expect it to make you an instant expert, even if you're a computer whiz. While a computer may be able to beat the world’s best chess player, for landscape design I'll put my money on a flesh-and-blood expert.

If you are seduced by the glamour of design software (and gardeners are easily seduced), consider this while shopping. The ideal software will be reasonably priced and allow you to do the following: import a photo of your house so you can see how the design connects to your home’s architecture; access a plant database with pictures and detailed descriptions; search the database by flower color, time of bloom, size, exposure, regional adaptation, shape and texture; view the landscape from any angle in three dimensions; and see how the landscape changes through the seasons and the years. When you find it, let me know.

When hiring a designer, inquire about their qualifications. Designers may have four-year degrees in landscape architecture, horticulture, landscape horticulture, or some other combination of education and experience. The acid test will be to visit some landscapes they've installed. Start with a recent installation. If it looks a bit sparse, you're on the right track. "Instant landscapes" offer immediate gratification and long-term pain. If plants aren't given room to grow they will become tall and leggy and need constant pruning. Besides, you'd be missing out on one of life's great joys, which is watching small plants become majestic ones.

Also take a gander at a landscape that's been in the ground for at least five years. First, it is proof they've been in business for a while. More importantly, it shows you how their landscapes age over time. You'll be able to tell if it was over-planted. If the same outfit will do the installation, check to see if the plants are healthy and thriving.

A good designer will have an extensive plant palette. Using the same two dozen plants over and over shows an appalling lack of creativity and a failure to keep up with current trends.

While I encourage you to consider hiring professional help, a beautiful garden should be paid for with more than just a checkbook. It should also be paid for with patience, sore muscles and a sunburned neck. The more involved you are with your garden and landscape, the more it will inspire and comfort you.

Once the work is done, it's really just begun. There will be weeds to pull, limbs to prune and insects to study. It will be more work than you imagined, and you’ll forever be left with more to do. Some plants will live and others will die. Those with the most beautiful landscapes have simply learned to plant two new ones for every plant lost. After all, Mother Nature isn't stingy. The oak tree produces a thousand acorns in the hope that one or two will grow into a towering tree. The gardeners that copy her will find the most success, and also the most joy.

Paul McKenzie is a horticulture extension agent in Durham, North Carolina and manages the Durham County Master Gardener Volunteer Program.

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