Nov 4, 2010

Circles and Dots

Recently I delivered the installation plans — hardscape layout, planting plan, lighting plan, the whole set — for a very nice project. This is always a bittersweet occasion: while it's an exciting beginning of the "real" landscaping work, it's also the beginning of the end of my control over the design. From here on, my client will be working more closely with a landscape contractor than with me to define the details of construction, finalize choices for materials and plants, and probably "value-engineer" some changes to the design to make the project more affordable.

Of course, none of this is unexpected, and I am always available during installation to consult on the design's evolution and retain the integrity of its concept. But, even as I rely on experienced contractors who will make my design even better in its execution, I also understand they may lead the homeowner in directions I hadn't anticipated or intended.

Circles and Dots
Out of all the elements of a landscape plan, the plant selections are the most likely to change after the final design drawings have been submitted. Although I usually provide a preview of each specimen and its characteristics before I finalize the plan, often this is the first time the owner has seen all the plants in combination. Sometimes there's too much drama (this conversation usually begins with, "Wowww…"). Sometimes there are too many plants, sometimes too few (as in, "You sure they'll fill in?"). Sometimes, something else has caught their eye since the time they approved the preliminary plant list ("I really liked the Monkey Puzzle Tree I saw at the arboretum, so…").

I'm also keenly aware that most home owners aren't versed in reading planting plans. And despite having sat with my client to review the plans at length, they are after all a roadmap and not a narrative. Once I've left them in someone else's hands, it doesn't take long for all the circles and dots to blur, and the rationale of my excruciatingly considered choices and combinations becomes less apparent.

Aptly-named Miscanthus 'Morning Light'
Furthermore, even though I've checked to be sure all the plants I'm specifying are available at nursery, inevitably by the time planting comes around something has gone out of stock and a substitute will need to be found. I try to ensure the contractor knows to consult with me before any changes are made, but sometimes it's not until I come over to fine-tune the planting layout that I realize that the drama of a backlit Miscanthus has been lost to a common Agapanthus, or a sedge that relishes "wet feet" has been replaced by a lavender that resents it.

In these cases I can plead my case to the owner — you don't know what you're missing! — that plant will never thrive there! — but more often than not, they were fully aware of the change. I've had single plants and entire gardens ripped out and replaced, sometimes days after installation, sometimes months. The reasons vary, but it's always "nothing personal," the owners just wanted to try something different, or their gardener sold them on a different vision, or their tenant wanted lawn on which their dog might conduct business.

It's their home, not mine, and ultimately all I really want is for the home owner to be happy with their landscape. If the changes fail, I know they'll call me back. And even if the garden does get installed precisely per plan, I know that nature will have her way with it and in a few years we'll all share our amazement at how that Miscanthus has grown so much bigger than any of us expected. This is just how landscaping goes, and I've come to not only live with the unpredictability but also learn from it. The circles and dots may be drawn with a pen — but the ink is never permanent.


rebecca sweet said...

Beautifully said! We all know that changes DO end up happening (for a multitude of reasons) and our best intentions somehow get lost in translation. You're absolutely right - the plan is just a roadmap...

KatePresents said...

This post is positively landscape designer therapy. I know it happens to us all and that we all have to swing with the punches a bit, but I love hearing it spelled out so clearly.


Chookie said...

Maybe I'm too harsh, but if there is lavender where sedge was planned, the contractor is incompetent, or diddling the client.
Well, most of the time. I did read of a person who loved plane-trees, couldn't find them locally, and had some freighted in from a wholesaler. They were enquiring as to why the trees didn't seem to thrive. The plane-tree enthusiast lived in Far North Queensland, at least three thousand kilometres north of the nursery!

John said...

Chookie, yes, incompetent would be the right word. Beats me why a contractor (or gardener, or homeowner) would second-guess the designer in any case, but I'm not above the smug satisfaction of a tactful "I told you so" when it fails.

Anonymous said...

Well said - nice post - I can relate to a lot of the situations with clients. Often, I'm on site during installation so can avoid some of the pitfalls. What has amazed me, though, is not the changes clients make, as much as the changes I've seen made after a home I've done a design for has been sold to a new owner. I've seen new owners make some really crazy landscaping decisions. I'll bet you have too.