Friday, August 17, 2012

Know your Landscape Consultant

     Fifteen years ago, a friend of mine very proudly showed me her newly planted yard.  "Isn't it great?" she asked.  I looked around at the swath of Edward Goucher Glossy Abelia (a thinly evergreen shrub with small white flowers that attract masses of bees), the Southern Magnolia (not a dwarf hybrid variety, I might add - think 90' tall and 40' in spread at maturity) planted three feet from her front wall, the large area planted in Blue Rug Juniper, apparently as a ground cover, and all of the other assorted odd ball plants.  I didn't want to hurt her feelings, but it looked terrible.  But then beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and to someone who had just spent several thousand dollars on this mess it was gorgeous.  There was no real design.  Nothing really related to anything else and most of it denied the presence of a house being there at all. What was worse, it was going to be massively overgrown for her site in a couple of years.  There was no permanence in it.
     "This was done by a landscape designer," she proudly proclaimed.  "If you want, I'll give you her name and number.  She didn't even charge anything - the plan was free.  All I had to do was buy the plants from her company and have them install them."  I didn't have the heart to tell her that she had undoubtedly been massively ripped off.  That 3 gal sized Edward Goucher Glossy Abelia was currently going for $4.50 a pot wholesale and installed by a reputable contractor would have cost her $30 each because there was a glut on the market (she paid $75 each installed and she had a dozen of them - tell me she didn't pay for the plan) and that most of the other stuff was a combination of plants that were very inexpensive and for the most part reduced that year because they had been overproduced by the nurseries.  Her landscape designer had unloaded a ton of wholesale overage stock on her.  This is not to say that she couldn't have gotten a good design using inexpensive stock - even exactly what she had planted in her yard.  She just needed someone who knew the plant material and how to use it.  A bit of design knowledge and ability would have helped as well. 
     Needless to say, last year she hired someone to rip it all out.  Why?  Because she couldn't see out of any of her front windows, her foundation was being cracked and the place looked like you needed to enter it with a machete - except of course for the large area of ground cover that had died and come back to life in the form of healthy crabgrass.  Once again she has had it all replanted - by another landscape designer.  I give it ten years.  Fortunately for her, some of it has died already.
     Few people understand the designations floating around out there concerning their site and it's design.  Even fewer know what it takes to be trained and what the various trades offer.
     A landscape designer is usually very informally trained by someone with whom they work.  They might have started out just being interested in gardening and gone to work with a landscaper or someone doing grounds maintenance.  Or perhaps they started out working with a retail nursery - most of which buy their plants already grown out and ready to sell.  There is no formal training and no licensure.  A landscape designer does not even need to know how to read to do their job.  They simply place plants on a site - sometimes on a drawing and then a site and sometimes the drawing is not even provided.  Some are quite good at what they do and have a great sense of design and feel for the plant material, but that is not necessary for them to call themselves a landscape designer.
     A master gardener is another designation thrown around a good deal.  People like to think that they are getting superior assistance and advice if they are getting it from a master gardener.  They are getting a more trained person in a master gardener than in a landscape designer.  Most come into the avocation with an interest in gardening.  The program is actually a Cooperative Extension Agency program and usually requires 40 contact hours of training - that's right, the equivalent of one normal work week.  In exchange for the training, the gardener agrees to volunteer their gardening expertise and services to the program.
     A Landscape Architect is a licensed professional who at the minimum holds a degree in Landscape Architecture, has completed a period of internship and has passed a rigorous licensure exam.  While they do provide planting plans, they are also involved in site planning and design development for parks, campuses, churches, housing developments, commercial and office developments.  They deal with the land in terms of how it is shaped (called grading), where and with what force the rain water flows over a site (called storm water or drainage design), how soil is contained on the site during construction (called erosion control), how the elements such as the buildings, driveways, parking and walks are located on the site (called staking), and how the site elements are to be constructed.  They have a good deal of training in design and in the related fields of horticulture, geology, micro climatology, earth science, environmental psychology, geography, ecology, architecture, industrial design and fine art.
     Anyone can call themselves a landscape designer and in many cases their help is all you need.  Unfortunately, if the designer goofs, there is no recourse because they are not licensed.  You get to tear it out and do it over at your own expense - like my poor friend who will be doing that again shortly.  It is illegal to call yourself a landscape architect without a license and that license guarantees that the professional you hired is actually trained and regulated.  So, when you are in the market for a design professional, make sure you get the expertise you need for the job required. 

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