Professional planners take the guesswork out of outdoor design. They can create layouts, supervise construction and manage the plantings.


February 23, 1997|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's nearly March. Your New Year's resolutions were pitched out weeks ago. But a vow you made last August, the one inspired by sweeps of lavender and gold- and red-flecked

grasses along roads, by clusters of Shasta daisies and china-blue salvia in friends' yards -- that vow remains.

You resolved to have more than sod and sidewalk on your little corner of the earth in 1997. You resolved to have a beautiful garden. And now is the perfect time to plan it. The problem is, you don't know an aspidistra from a hole in the ground.

One solution: Hire a garden planner. These pros can create outdoor spaces that act as a buffer, a bird sanctuary, a wildlife refuge and, perhaps most important, an oasis for humans. Part artist, part artisan, garden planners fall into three loose categories -- landscape architect, landscape designer and perennial-garden designer.

Landscape architects, members of the only formally defined category, hold a degree in the field and offer the most comprehensive services. They not only create perennial gardens gardens filled with shrubs and plants that come up year after year -- but also design and construct buildings and other "hardscape" projects, such as swimming pools and tennis courts, and oversee their construction.

Wolfgang Oehme is a world renowned landscape architect whose Towson firm, Oehme, Van Sweden and Associates, has done projects ranging from stone patios and small front gardens in townhouse developments to the New American Garden at the National Arboretum in Washington and the grounds of the Baltimore County Courthouse near Oehme's home in Towson.

Oehme recently finished a two-year reconstruction of Oprah Winfrey's 20-acre estate outside Chicago. That project involved moving the tennis courts and building a swimming pool and guest house, in addition to designing and installing the plantings.

The other two categories of garden planners -- landscape designers and perennial-garden designers -- are self-defined. Neither landscape designers nor perennial-garden designers have a college degree in the field, though many have both formal and informal training. The services each offers overlap. Both types of designers do garden design and installation. The difference between the two is usually one of degree.

Generally, a landscape designer will do more heavy work than a perennial-garden designer -- like deck building and small construction jobs like gazebos. Perennial-garden designers, in addition to handling plant material, will sometimes build stone patios or fish ponds for clients.

Making connections

Before contracting with any garden planner, ask what services are available. The best way to connect with the right planner is by word-of-mouth. If you see a garden you like, don't be afraid to ask who designed it. The work of area garden planners is evident everywhere -- in median strips, church grounds and parks, and around homes new and old.

"I never advertise. I get all my work through referrals," says landscape designer Robert Nelson Farmer, of Gristmill Landscaping in Jarrettsville.

Farmer's projects include indoor Japanese gardens, water features (ponds and waterfalls) and garden rooms (something like a greenhouse but comfortable enough for humans to relax in).

If friends and acquaintances can't refer you to a planner, check with nurseries or garden centers. They often sell plant material to garden planners, and can make recommendations. Some of these businesses offer landscaping services themselves.

In your initial meeting with a planner, talk with him or her about your dream garden. Ask to see a portfolio. The conversation and examination of the planner's work will tell you if the match is a good one.

"I also take customers to gardens to show them what I have done before, to see the possibilities," says Monika Burwell, owner of Earthly Pursuits Inc., a Baltimore County firm that designs and installs perennial gardens.

Burwell's experience includes a stint as a gardener for the

movies (she once converted an entire Baltimore City block from uninterrupted concrete to tree-lined, flower-boxed beauty for the movie "Meteor Man"). She has also designed herb gardens behind a Baltimore halfway house for recovering drug addicts, created the outdoor spaces for a multifamily housing renewal project, and transformed the cookie-cutter front yards in housing developments to beautiful, individualized entryways.

Wolfgang Oehme has an extensive portfolio not only in planted spaces around the state (and nation) but also in the form of books and illustrated articles. "Bold Romantic Gardens" (1991; now out of print but available through the library), "Gardening With Water" (Random House, 1995), and the recently published "Process Architecture: New World Landscapes" (Process Architecture Co. Ltd., 1996) offer a colorful overview of his and partner James Van Sweden's work.

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