The Do’s and Don’ts When Seeking Design Help

Some backstory is in order here

I have spent a lot of years in retail nurseries, big box Home Improvement stores and as a business owner helping people design gardens and landscaping. All manner of people have come to me seeking various levels of help and guidance. Nervous new homeowners, people disgusted with what they currently have at their house, amateur gardening “masters” who want me to buy off on their ideas,  the list goes on.

There are tons of reasons why someone seeks out help with landscape and garden design. Many of us will go it alone when it comes to decorating the inside of the house. But that line stops at the front door. For many people. the great outdoors is a mystery best left to those cargo-short, floppy hat wearing individuals at your local nursery. Strutting around, pruners holstered on their hip like some strange modern version of a cowboy, or cowgirl (I never wore the floppy hat..).  Chances are, since you are reading this, that you have sought out design help, or are contemplating doing so. So what I intend to do is give you some advice that can make this visit seem less humbling, much more productive for all involved, and help you realize your vision.

Do Your Homework

I can’t stress this enough. I am not saying go out and become a Master Gardener before you embark on this process, but do some homework. New homeowners especially need to realize that time is on your side, and not rush the process. It’s not like a couch that you can just return. Once stuff is in the ground, you own it. But where to start?

Start by learning about your area. Walk around your neighborhood and other neighborhoods. Different neighborhoods were generally built up at different times, so the landscaping preferences of the designers will be obvious. In my neighborhood, almost everyone has Honey Locust trees, and some type of evergreen foundation planting. Not so across town where the houses are packed in tighter and thick privacy hedges are in style. Chances are good that somewhere in your area is a public garden, park, or arboreum. Here you can find typical specimen trees for your area, see plant combinations and start to get a feel for what you like and don’t like.

There are a ton of other good resources: such as the library; the garden section at a bookstore; the internet, or even just wandering around your local garden center. After all, questions are free. Check social media as well for local garden groups. Many will tell you where to go to see good stuff and some do periodic garden tours or walks. What you want to do is fill your head up with potential ideas. Take and save pictures of things you like, especially if you don’t know what they are. It will pay dividends later on.

Try and Be Unique

Your house is a reflection of your personality. The outside is no different. If you want to have what everyone else in the neighborhood has, there is nothing wrong with that. What has been done up and down your street has been proven to work, and is always a safe choice.  If that is what you want, there is no point in seeing a designer. Just go out, buy what your neighbors have, plant it like they did, and celebrate your victory. This is the first question you have to answer. Do I want something unique? I bet you want something unique.

Next, consider the outside of your house, just as you would the inside. By that I mean, don’t just see it as one giant area, but rather different sections that should be considered separately in terms of function. Just like rooms in a house have different purposes. The professor who taught our initial Landscape Design Class hammered that into us. I will use my house as an example. I have a big front yard. It’s the showpiece. Large expanse of grass, ornamental plants, not a lot happens there except lawn mowing and raking. My southern side yard is the vegetable garden area. Fenced in area with a compost area, raised beds and an area where stuff is stored. It has a character all it’s own.

The backyard is more functional and built for socializing, with the deck and lower patio area. A large grassy area for dogs and humans to run around. The beginnings of a rose garden along the garage. And a big saucer Magnolia with a 20 foot tall cedar hedge ensure a little privacy.  Each area has it’s own distinct character because each area has it’s own purpose. So consider what your needs are and use that as a starting point. This does not mean that your property has to have 3 or more distinctly different themes. You can still have one contiguous theme even though you have a play area, a Japanese garden and a traditional cottage garden around your front porch. Once you know what each area will be used for it helps a lot with plant selection, placement of hardscapes such as walkways, patios, decks and arbors and you will end up with areas that are built for use. You bought the land along with the house, might as well get some mileage out of it.

Now You Are Ready

Why did I ask you to go through all that? Simple. A designer is not a mind-reader. Don’t expect that because they have education and experience, that telepathy is included.  They will have a ton of questions. If they don’t, be wary. If you walk in the door with at least a working knowledge of what you like or don’t like  in terms of colors, textures, what the purpose of each area is, and maybe even a few plants that you saw and really liked, you will be far ahead and more likely to get something you really love with a lot less hassle.

Bring pictures of your house or the area in question. It helps a designer to know what parts of the house or property you like and those you want out of sight, out of mind.  You might have a huge bay window in the front you want to frame, or maybe that spigot around the front corner you wish to conceal.  You will also know by now if you prefer evergreens to deciduous shrubs.

Those initial likes and dislikes, goals and purposes you give to the designer are what they use to give you a preliminary drawing. The more you can articulate, the better off you will be. The designer is going to begin with the end in mind. It’s what we do. We are putting together a puzzle with all the pieces you are giving us. But it’s a puzzle with multiple possible outcomes. Some other relevant things to consider that you need to communicate are; how much work you are willing to put into this when it comes to maintenance; do you have kids, if so what ages; any outdoor pets? And last, for all you northern folk, anywhere you intend to shovel, blow or plow snow, and any walkways that you salt regularly, speak up! You don’t want to wait until the following spring to discover all the grass and expensive perennials along your front walk are dead from salt. Or in the teeth of winter you discover that all that snow along the garage could be easily blown aside, if only those huge shrubs weren’t planted there. Begin with the end in mind.

Be On The Same Page And Stick To The Plan

This part applies to all you couples. This whole learning process needs to happen together. You don’t want to find yourself having an argument in public in front of a complete stranger, because you want that country cottage looking she-shed, but your partner wants a water garden in the same spot. Discuss everything beforehand this way you are both aligned. The whole process of learning and planning needs to be a group activity. Otherwise you like it, he hates it and that’s a recipe for disaster.

A savvy and opportunistic designer, especially if commissions are involved, is still a salesperson. Their job is to sell you a lot of material. Stick to the plan when you go in. Don’t let them sell you stuff you aren’t crazy about.  You will have no way of knowing if the designer is really that in love with Dwarf Korean Lilac and wants to share that love with you, or the nursery manager accidentally over-ordered and they are trying to unload it. Stick to what you like, be aligned, and don’t go rogue on each other.  Don’t be afraid to say “NO” if you don’t like a recommendation.

So there are my tips to help you succeed. This is not the “be all and end all” list by any stretch of the imagination. But I have seen all of it happen. These tips can hopefully help you get exactly what you want and have a green space that you want to spend time in; one that people stop to look at when they walk by. I want you to go in there and make the designer sell you your own idea, tempered with their professional knowledge of design and plant materials. And I want everyone involved in the process to come away happy.

Not too much to wish for.

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