By design: watching your vision grow

December 24, 2006|By Marty Ross | Marty Ross,Universal Press Syndicate

Successful garden design represents collaboration between people and nature. Professional garden designers specialize in managing that collaboration, and working with a great designer allows you to skip the fumbling and the mistakes and start enjoying a beautiful garden.

Landscape designers make it their job to interpret and realize your vision for your garden. In the hands of a good designer, a front walk isn't just a runway into the house, but a pleasant journey home. A patio becomes a refuge from the busy world, and well-chosen trees, shrubs and flowers turn an unremarkable lot into the prettiest place on the block.

Working with a garden designer calls for candor. You don't have to tell your designer your life story, but to help him or her come up with a plan you'll love, you have to open up a little. Some designers give potential clients questionnaires to break the ice and to introduce garden-design concepts. Others take a less-formal approach.

"I prefer a casual interview," says Kathy Duncan, a designer with Custom Gardens ( in Yorktown, Va. "When you have a form, not all the questions will pertain to everybody."

Duncan usually spends an hour or so with new clients talking about their property and the various uses they make of it. Many clients are not used to articulating their garden ideas and tastes, and she has to coax the information she needs out of them.

She's like a detective, listening for clues that let her know whether clients might like formal hedges or prefer designs inspired more by nature's randomness, and whether they will prefer flashy colors or respond well to a more subtle palette.

During an interview, a garden designer will study your property, figuring out the path of the sun and the play of the light and looking at the relationships among the house, garage and neighboring houses. While designers listen to your ideas and questions, they naturally line up the views from various angles. They study the architecture of your house and how to relate it to the garden.

"If they invite me inside, I can learn a lot," Duncan says. She'll notice whether you have antiques, or if your style is overstuffed or retro. Even the pillows on the sofa and the pictures on the walls are telling details.

"The colors a client uses inside, I'm going to want to reflect that outside," Duncan says.

Most garden designers take pictures or make a few sketches during their visit to a site. They'll look at the garden from the street, from the porch or deck and from the windows of the house.

They'll want to know whether you have children or pets, whether you entertain outside and, if you do, what kind of parties you have and how many guests you might entertain at once. An intimate patio with a spot for a bistro table for two simply won't work if you have football parties for the whole neighborhood every Sunday from September until the Super Bowl.

After meeting with a designer, you can expect to receive a garden plan with an estimate of the time it will take to install a new garden and the cost. Duncan makes her landscape plans on a computer using her snapshots and ProLandscape, a program that lets clients see their garden as she has interpreted it.

"I don't do a lot of drawing of circles on paper," she says. "I also try to give the owners some choices, but not too much. If I give them too many, they're overwhelmed and we're back to square one."

Often a designer will divide a garden into sections so the plans can be carried out in several phases. You can decide to start in the front yard, work on the whole backyard or just do a patio sitting area first.

Working on a garden over several seasons gives the designer a chance to hear the client's reaction, make adjustments and thus personalize the plans, Duncan says. It also makes a big project more manageable and spreads out the cost.

Duncan grows the plants she recommends in her own garden so she can tell clients how they perform.

"It makes it more real for people," she says.

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