Online Landscape Design – The Pros & Cons

I’m one of those landscape designers who loves to design gardens of all kinds and as the author of several books on the subject of landscape design I am contacted by people from all over the world, from a range of economic levels. They come to me because they’ve seen my work and really want my help with their gardens. I’m not just flattered, I’m touched. But often they are not aware of what is involved in developing a landscape design plan – of how much goes into it, of how much it can cost and of the potential problems involved.

In the traditional approach, I travel to a client’s locale – which normally is anywhere throughout the United States and sometimes abroad, and either stay there, developing the design and then implementing, or I spend some time getting to know the clients and their property, take pictures and return to my studio to work on the drawings. I do a conceptual design plan and either bring that to them to discuss, or send it. Once that’s a go, I will usually then return to their property with a completed landscape design plan and see to its implementation.

But that gets to be expensive, and here are these other individuals who think highly enough of my work to reach out well beyond their locale (and sometimes beyond their means) to seek my help. Because of their attitude, their respect and valuation, these are people I really want to work with. That is why I started offering an online landscape design service – to be able to give them what they so ardently want, without them breaking their budget or me giving away the store.

I have found over the years that the process works well but it is not without its difficulties. Almost all my clients end up quite happy – the process is so designed as to pretty much ensure this is how it goes – , but not all have and with a few there have been some bumps along the way that could have been avoided. Here I would like to explain the difficulties and potential problem areas for those who might consider (and given the economic climate, more and more are considering) having a landscape design done through this online approach. Because this can, and should be an enjoyable process for all concerned.

The first thing, and perhaps the most important that clients should understand and designers should live up to is that any landscape design that is worth the term involves a creative and often time consuming process. No real designer pulls designs from his hat nor adapts some previous design to the new site. A design is, or should be, a response to the people it is for and the site it is to occupy. It will always involve practical considerations that must be addressed with the goal always to create, not only a space beautiful to see, but a pleasure in which to be.

A lot of work goes into this and good designers never hand over a garden design they don’t personally love. It is born of devotion and, hopefully, talent. If the concept design plan you receive doesn’t seem right for you, don’t fret. It can and will be redone. If the designer missed his mark on the first go – not a problem. New feedback will turn him in the right direction. This is, or can be, part of the process and is one of the potential values of doing a concept plan – to explore concepts.

Sometimes it has happened that after going through the design process and sending out a design I think is wonderful I get a negative response from the client. Or rather, in the case I’m referring to, from the client’s wife. It took me a while to understand the dynamics involved. Part was the fact that I had had no communication with her until she responded to the completed concept plan. I was designing in response to him. The other aspect was one of comprehension of what a design plan is.

Some people simply don’t understand that the most beautiful garden they’ve ever seen began with a piece of paper – a blueprint, just like the one they’re holding. Even though renderings are included the client is not able to make sense of the plan-view drawings and because I’m not there to fully explain each aspect, they simply don’t realize that all those lines on the paper have real meaning – taken together they represent a comprehensive design that if followed, will yield a beautiful garden and that is precisely what they hired me to create.

Another potential difficulty, and I bet you can guess what’s coming, is basic communication. Designers go a long way into understanding their clients beyond merely what’s said. The best designers read their clients well and give them more than they’d even hoped for, even with online design. But we’re not exactly mind readers and if you don’t tell me that you hate red or that your neighbor keeps a loud dog next to where I was planning a sitting area, I’m not liable to guess it.

This is why I ask my clients a lot of specific questions: How do you want to use the garden, at what times of day and year? What does your spouse like? Do you have pets? Kids? What about your neighbors? What art do you like? Do you want water in your garden? Do you like to barbeque and so on. Then I ask them to rant, ramble, say whatever comes to mind – it all tells me something about them and that goes into the hopper from which will eventually emerge a design plan that is right for them.

Plants and planting is another area of potential confusion. When most people think of a garden they think of plants and many clients expect a detailed plant list. I don’t ever do a detailed plant list, even for local clients, and in my view no landscape designer should. Here’s why.

To begin with, it’s a waste of time. The chances of any or even all the nurseries having all the plants you specify at any given time, unless you’re working with a very limited and typical selection, is nil. And if I planned this particular plant to go with those plants and they don’t have this plant, then the whole arrangement goes out the door. But more importantly, creating a detailed plant list in advance is a disservice to the design, the garden and the client. Combining plants is an art form not best practiced on paper.

Planting is the last phase of an often complex construction before finalizing irrigation, if that is to be, and lighting. You’ve worked with the property, seen to the installation of all the elements; the patio or walls, perhaps a water garden, arbors, pathways, private areas and so on. You have lived out the design, come to understand the space – to feel its new nature and character and it has changed greatly from what it was. Now is the time to choose plants and at the nursery is the place to do it.

It is almost inevitable, both in the design process and in building the structural landscape that plant ideas will come to mind – a weeping cherry would be perfect here, a variegated dogwood over in that corner – but the main selection should be done at the nursery, choosing what looks good and will enhance the emotional/psychological expression of the garden. If you are not comfortable to take this on yourself, this is where you hire a local plants person who can then consult with the designer to achieve the desired effect.

A view to how the plants will be combined should be kept in mind while choosing plants and you should always be sure you have some really great combinations, seasonal interest and so on. But work out, or have the plants person determine, the majority of your plant groupings on the site. Since I’m not there to help I’m happy to make plant suggestions appropriate to the locale, and to advise on the practical suitability of a specific plant and I can and do provide principles of how to combine plants. If you want a really living, vibrant garden, allow plant selection to be part of the creative process and in response to the actual garden as it has been built. If, as the client you want to take this on yourself, the nursery people will help you with cultivation requirements.

And finally we come to money. Some people will never understand why they should pay into the thousands of dollars for a piece of paper when they could be buying a lot of plants with that money. Some people will never have a beautiful garden, and will spend thousands of dollars rediscovering that over and over. I don’t know how many people have come to me after spending vast quantities of dollars and are still not happy with their garden.

The design is everything. Without it – without some well conceived plan you will never have a beautiful landscape and because you have not spent decades developing and refining the ability to see in your mind what does not yet exist in space, within the realm of space and form, texture and line and the world of outdoor living, you need someone who has. You need a professional and you need to know up front what that will cost and how payment is to be scheduled and you need to be fully willing, desirous even, of meeting it.

By the same value, if you are given a price for a design, that should be the price. Should the process take twice the time estimated and goes through several iterations, well then, it takes twice the time but the given price should never be altered unless there are specific, new requests – what most industries call ‘change orders’.

Online landscape design eliminates the cost of site visits and therein lies the savings. It also eliminates the face-to-face interaction, and therein lies the potential difficulties. As most landscape architects and top level designers charge significant sums for their services, the savings can be considerable. And so long as both parties understand and respect one another and the process, it can be a rewarding arrangement for all concerned and give rise to a beautiful garden.

If you’re thinking of using an online design service, or a professional landscape designer in any capacity here are a few considerations to address.

o See his or her work. Look at their portfolios so that you are sure she can design in a style suitable to your aesthetics. If she has designed in response to the sites and the clients, each design will be different from the others but some of them must please you.

o Think about how you want to use the space, what you want your landscape to do for you and be sure you communicate this.

o Think about things you and anyone else involved like – styles, colors, textures, forms, moods or themes and communicate this. Cut out pictures from magazines and send them.

o Budget – Let the designer know what you are willing to spend on installing the landscape. There is no point in designing a hundred thousand dollar landscape when you budget limits it to ten thousand.

o Payment – It is standard to have a deposit before work begins (the greatest part of the work is done in creating the conceptual plan), a payment when the concept plan is accepted and a final payment when all the designer’s work is done.

o Know what you’re getting. For example, construction drawings are not usually included in the design process, primarily because until the design is done no one knows how involved they will need to be, or even if they will be necessary. But they can be included, so be clear on this.

o Schedule – You have a right to have an idea how long the process will take – not an exact date – but a time frame.

o Trust – Two people who have never met and probably never will meet are entering into a business agreement that is also quite personal and you must trust one another. If you don’t trust a particular designer, find someone else.

o Attitude – Designing a landscape is not easy and trusting and helping a stranger to do it isn’t either. Both parties should at all times be gracious and treat one another with dignity and respect. A little gratitude, on both sides, goes a long way too, in helping maintain a positive relationship.

Working together through the online landscape design process you can arrive at a beautiful garden within a budget you set and you, and the designer, can enjoy the journey.