(By the way, I had nothing whatsoever to do with this combination of 'St. Josephs Coat' rose, unspecified iris, and Cerastium tomentosum… I saw it last week in a Los Altos front yard, and it just makes me happy.)
I've written before about learning from the big guys, but sometimes we can learn from the little guys, too — particularly when they make mistakes that, although not big in an absolute sense, are relatively huge.
I met recently with a Palo Alto homebuilder of considerable repute, who had endured what he deemed a "terrible" experience with a garden designer who also is a licensed landscape contractor. Hoping to learn from her missteps, I pressed him on what had gone so wrong. It boiled down to essentially three sins:
One, she didn't take direction. "We would make changes to the plan," the builder said, "and the same things would show up in the next revision." To me, it sounded like a rookie mistake: confusing your own interests with the client's. I'm not saying the client's ideas are always right; but their interests are.
Two, the designer's ideas were weak. Perhaps she threw them together hastily, perhaps she went with her first thought instead of developing more concepts and challenging her own limits. Perhaps she wasn't paid enough to put adequate time toward concept development. I don't know. I wasn't there. But none of those is a good excuse for faulty logic or cookie-cutter designs.
Third, she overstepped her role. Assigned to develop a pathway, she reconfigured the front porch as well. (This upset the architect considerably.) Given a budget and scope of work by the builder, she "added value" with elements that were integral to the design yet unaffordable. As a contractor herself, the builder said, she should have been able to provide creative alternatives without losing sight of costs.
In fairness, I got only one side of the story. But it's a great cautionary tale regardless. Landscape designers are not fine artists, accountable only to ourselves; we are commercial artists, accountable to our clients (and often serving many clients with a single work). Our creativity is meaningless if we lose sight of its object. And while we're certainly entitled — obliged, even — to stand up for our ideas, we mustn't forget that we do not have to live with our own work.
Having a good idea isn't enough: we must have the right good idea.