Aug 27, 2011

Painting the Bridge

In case you've ever wondered: 

"Any Joe on the street can call himself a landscape designer. You don't need a degree. You don't need a license. That's a huge difference [compared to a Landscape Architect]." 
That's the wisdom of Dominic Zuccarelli, a 21-year-old landscape architecture major at Purdue University, as quoted by the Northwest Indiana Times

*  *  *  *  *

Bristle as I may at young Mr. Zuccarelli's assessment of my profession, I must admit (and actually have) that he's right. Which accounts for the volume of do-it-yourself advice out there… and the legions of disappointed do-it-yourself garden designers.

Another mess by some Joe on the street
Because as approachable as landscape design may be, it still is a process. To do it well one must digest lots of data and evaluate lots of variables. Getting to know yourself is a good, and necessary, first step; but at some point you also have to execute. And for most of us, a landscape renovation is a bigger undertaking than we can finish in a weekend. Oh, sure, it starts well enough: old plants are removed, new borders are marked out with a length of hose, deck boundaries are spray-painted on the ground.

Now, fast-forward a few weeks. Perhaps you've bought a carload of pretty flowers at the nursery, certain that would motivate you. But has your soil been amended? New irrigation lines installed? If you're anything like me, it's a good bet that length of hose remains unmoved, deck post holes undug. The new plants probably look about as bad as the old ones did. And worst of all, the rest of your life keeps churning along with endless distractions to keep you from completing this "simple" project.

I find landscaping can be a bit like the old myth about painting the Golden Gate Bridge: by the time you finish, it's time to start over. The "new" plants have outgrown their space or just plain died. You'd replace them, but you can't quite remember what you meant to do the first time around, and you really don't have the time or energy anyhow. So the too-big shrubs keep getting bigger, and the too-thirsty groundcover withers away, and your landscape never looks quite the way you imagined.

This is where the professional — whether landscape designer or landscape architect — comes in. Hiring a professional creates efficiency: they streamline your process, creating a logical roadmap from idea to execution. They also document the process, so you have a record of what should be done, where, and how. The documentation allows you to install your landscape in phases, starting and stopping the work as necessary and logical. It also allows other professionals — this time, the landscape contractor — to take on and complete your project in a timely manner, to a higher level of finish than most of us could dream of.

Yes, it all costs money. And it's anathema to the hardcore do-it-yourselfer, who would rather live with a half-finished (equals half-unfinished) yard than rely on someone else to uncover its potential. But frankly, I've got better things to do with my life than to keep painting that bridge. Don't you?


Susan said...

Yes, I would rather get things done too, if money allows, by a professional.

But I'll refer back to the origins of this post. What gets me, is that this student is making the assumption that because you have an education or a license that makes you good at what you do. Sure, you may know the basics, but how many out there create really beautiful landscape designs? And do they function correctly?

It's like any profession...there are only a handful of good ones and you have to search to find them...licensed, educated, or not.

And what about the "nots"? Some can have more of an artistic sense than those that have those credentials.

For the MOST part, a professional will be "better" than a homeowner due to education, experience, etc. But what's "better"? What is good art?

What makes a landscape good? Is it in the eye's of the homeowner? Many will argue if they are happy with the project, then it is OK.

But is it? And who's opinion is more important?

Ah well...I went off on a tangent, but enjoyed your post!

Dom Zuccarelli said...

My opinion in this article was not geared in any harmful way to a landscape designer.

I was simply trying to state that some landscape designers call themselves landscape architects, although they sometimes have no formal education.

Now this isn't to say they don't know as much and landscape architects...because they probably do. Most horticulture students I take classes with know way more about plants and soils than I ever will. And most of them will become landscape designers. I actually worked with a landscaping company last summer and my boss knew more about most common zone 5 plants than most LAs will know in their lives.

You create art. We create art. Who defines it?

So again, I am not bashing your profession, I respect it as much as mine (soon to be, I hope). As long as the landscape is practical, functional, and beautiful...I say go for it!

John said...

Susan and Dom, I love that both of you see landscape as art! This makes me incredibly hopeful for our profession(s).

Dom, I did not interpret your comment as disparaging. In fact, you are quite correct: the landscape "designer" is, in fact, usually less credentialed than the landscape "architect," and usually untrained in much more than garden design. (In fact, here in California, it's illegal for unlicensed professionals to use the title "landscape architect.") So you, by virtue of not (yet) being licensed, are in fact a landscape designer just as I am.

It's valuable to question what makes a landscape, or a landscape designer, "good." Responsiveness to the user's needs, certainly. But who is the user? I may be commissioned by a homeowner, but the garden I design for her will also be enjoyed by her guests, family, pets, passers-by, the local fauna, etc. If I design a high-water landscape in a xeric environment, my design also has much farther-reaching effects: the water my garden uses is now unavailable to anyone (or anyplace) else.

I don't profess to have the answers. But I believe that as long as we are all asking these questions of quality and appropriateness, the world will be a better place — no matter what we call ourselves.