It's really exciting to hire a professional garden designer to help plan a new or remodeled landscape for your home. Sure, it's fun to do as much of the design as you can yourself, but we all hit impasses -- our minds stall out as we try to come up with inspiring ideas.
So, the next question becomes, "How do I go about finding a really good landscape designer?" And that's where we'll pick up this discussion. Hopefully these guidelines give you direction.
Talk to friends whose landscapes you admire and ask them to share the names of the people they've used. Ask your favorite independent retail nursery. In fact, they may have a designer on staff, or at least will know some of the better ones who work in your area. If the nursery has a wholesale division, it's selling to people who do the designs and installations. Those are landscape contractors, and in many cases, they also do the creative designing.
Drive around town to see how others have handled situations similar to your own. Take photos of gardens you like, as well as plants that catch your eye. Don't be timid about knocking on doors or leaving a note asking for a referral.
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There are different degrees of training and licensure in the art of landscape design. Consider your needs and the people available. Talk to those people, and ask many questions.
Landscape architects are college-degreed people with superior knowledge of the physics of nature. That can be important if you're installing a tall retaining wall or building a bridge. Landscape architects are true gardening artists. They offer the ultimate in creativity. However, most of them work in firms that primarily do large, commercial work. Home landscapes usually don't show up on their radar. Most landscape architects have probably graduated from the architectural college within a university, not in the ag college (horticulture). With that in mind, you'll find a few landscape architects who are more knowledgeable about design principles than actual plants.
Landscape designers aren't necessarily college-trained, but odds are that they know a great deal about planning fine gardens. Some are independent, while others work for retail nurseries. Look for years of service and membership in professional organizations like the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association. While these men and women may not have formal educations in architectural design, many of them have acquired superior skills in planning fine gardens. And they also usually have outstanding working knowledge of the plants they're using.
Interview several people before you decide. Landscape design is, after all, an art, and there's no one style that's right or wrong. You'll find a difference in personality, both of the designer and of the gardens that he or she draws up. You are about to become friends with this person. Make sure that you're comfortable. And while it's normal to talk price of the design up front, don't get hung up on small differences in costs. It's difficult to put a monetary value on creativity.
Ask for referrals and references -- people for whom the designers have done work in recent years. Call those people. More importantly, drive by those landscapes to see how things look. Ideally, it won't be a brand new planting, nor should it be very many years old. Too many things can happen to a garden in that length of time -- things over which the designer has no control.
Have a good idea of what you expect from your new landscape. Make a list of your needs and share that with the candidates. While they obviously won't do a formal plan until they've been hired, most will at least discuss their ideas in general terms. They will probably be willing to do a quick and rough sketch so you can get a feeling for whether you and they are a good match.
Perhaps the most critical tip I can offer is that you really want to turn your designer loose on the job. Don't encumber him or her with too many restrictions. When creativity flows is when the exciting ideas come forth, and that's precisely why we called this meeting. You will be thrilled with the results of your combined efforts.
Fall is a great time to work with landscape architects or designers. They're not as busy now as they will be come spring. Plus, plants set out in October and November will have the best chance of establishing themselves and surviving the next summer.
Those are your considerations. It's your turn to put them into action.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts Texas Gardening noon-1 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m.-noon Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.