Jun 21, 2007


I'm often asked what my style of design is. It's a bit of a pat answer to say "your style," but it's not far off.

After all, no landscape designer worth their soil is so inflexible they can't work with more than one kind of client or architecture. And a really good designer will be part researcher, part psychologist and part psychic as well, so that we know our client really well -- so well that we can deliver unique ideas and solutions that may be unexpected but are never unwelcome.

So how can you know whether a given landscape designer is a good fit for your property?
1. Don't pick an "English country" designer just because you have a Tudor-style home. Even if there were designers who specialized exclusively in one genre like this, you'd probably get the same palette of plants and cookie-cutter look as their last customer. (The notable exception may be designers such as Indig Design who specialize in native plant communities... not an aesthetic style as much as an ecological one.)

2. Unless you give very clear-cut and detailed direction, don't put too much stock in the designer who, on first sight, knows "exactly how" they would design your garden. Intuition and vision are wonderful, and certainly first impressions last. But anyone who weds themselves to a single idea without doing a bit of reconaissance on your property and developing alternative designs is missing the details that will make your garden truly yours over the long term.

(2b. If you do have very clear-cut and detailed direction, you may want to simply hire a contractor and skip the design phase. You'll have more money to allocate to construction, and you'll be able to move forward with your project faster.)

3. Don't pick the designer with the biggest ad in the phone book or at the top of the search engine ads. That's only an indicator of how much advertising they need to do; it tells you nothing about the process or quality of their work.

4. Do retain the designer that your friends, neighbors, or trusted associates are raving about. Even if their home looks nothing like yours, the raves probably are for how the designer handled the project -- process, fees, attention to detail, communication -- as much as for the finished look. Websites like Yelp can be helpful here as well.

5. Do retain the designer who asks about and understands your budget -- and agrees to work with you anyway. If you have $100,000 - $250,000 to spend on your landscaping, you'll want to make sure you interview designers who are accustomed to budgets (or properties) that size. On the other hand, if you have 1/10 that amount to spend, you'll want to talk with the designer who knows how to make $25,000 look like a million bucks.

6. Do retain the designer who "feels right" to you, regardless of budget or style. You'll be working closely with this person on myriad details, and s/he will need to interpret your wishes, dislikes and personality. If their references check out, if they have creative and practical ideas to offer while respecting your own, if they know their stuff and can communicate it clearly in pictures and/or words, and most importantly if you feel comfortable talking and exchanging ideas with them, that designer will probably be a joy to work with... and your new garden will be a joy to live in.

Jun 14, 2007

Mid-Trend Collision

Just as the new Ballard Designs catalog arrives touting "Outdoor Living: Living without Walls (TM)", June Fletcher at the Wall Street Journal writes about the anti-trend, Giving Up on the Outdoors. "Outdoor rooms," she writes, "one of the decade's most visible symbols of excess, have been a bonanza for manufacturers of everything from $3,700 waterproof pool tables to $130 patio umbrellas that emit a cooling mist. ... But some homeowners say they're falling out of love with their expensively furnished backyards, which require hours of upkeep and costly repair. Others are abandoning the rooms altogether."

Ms. Fletcher's story drips with anecdotes of fire ants, squirrels, pollen and pigeons conspiring to deprive us of our quality of backyard life. High-end retailers such as Smith & Hawken and Restoration Hardware are slashing prices to move inventories, and pest-control and electronics-repair companies are raking in the profits as rats move into outdoor kitchens and plasma TVs bake in the sun.

It all sounds so dramatic, doesn't it?! But really, I don't have a lot of sympathy for anyone who needs to watch TV outside, or for the guy who "has to take out his blower or power washer every day to clean off his new brick fireplace, gazebo and patio set" (italics mine). I mean, hasn't he ever heard of "weathering"? Or "patina"? Or, for that matter, "dust"? These things are a fact of outdoor life, and it's just folly to design any kind of outdoor feature that can't stand up to the elements. Frontgate offers a selection of outdoor wall art; if you want a view of red tulips, why not just plant the real thing?

I don't mean to sound grouchy about all of this. Certainly, homeowners have been oversold on the concept of "outdoor rooms" -- there is, truly, only so much living one can do outdoors. But there also is no such thing as a maintenance-free yard, no matter how expensively you appoint it. Every space, indoors or out, requires some investment of effort to look, feel and function its best. I ask my clients up front how much time they have each week to spend maintaining their garden -- and "0 hours" is a perfectly acceptable answer. At some point, self-knowledge and common sense are the best accessories of all.

Jun 4, 2007

Reviewing the California Ave. Farmers' Market

As I mentioned last time, I'm thrilled there's a new farmers' market outside my office, complementing the Saturday market in downtown Palo Alto. And while the latter is definitely a "home-grown" affair, the Calif. Ave. market is quite the production, feeling more like a street fair than a gathering of growers. There's live music, handicrafts, that sweet-salty crack we know as kettle corn, chocolates, bakers, and vendors of just about every meal known to mankind.

Oh, yeah, and there's fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish, too. Frankly, I wanted to give this market 4 stars on Yelp just because it feels less like a true local-organic-food confab than a slick marketing gimmick. But I've bumped it back up to 5 stars because it's promised to be here year-round (the downtown market is dormant in winter), the hours are long enough to actually get breakfast OR lunch, and frankly the quality of the fresh fish and fresh oysters left my mouth watering.

Because it's only been open once so far, we'll have to see whether the vendor lineup changes, or the ratio of farmers to entertainment increases, but for now I'm just damn happy they're here. Definitely check it out if you're looking for a relaxed, sumptuous way to spend a Sunday morning.