Why Landscape Designers Don't Think About Plants

I still remember my first big landscape design assignment.  My professor told us we could create any design we wanted, no limits on budget or any other aspect of the project.  I felt excited and nervous, and when I sat down I immediately made a list of plants.

Big mistake.

As the project progressed, I realized that I was becoming a slave to those choices.  I was making design decisions based on 10 plants that I soon realized wouldn't work anyway.  I ended up scrapping the list and starting over, and in the process began to understand how landscape designers approach the design process. 

Don't Think About Plants

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the last thing I think about now are the plants I'm going to use!  My goal is to pick plants that fit the design, suit the landscape, and solve problems, as opposed to building the design around specific plants.  That means I pick plants as one of the final steps instead of one of the first steps.

You always want a plant to serve the larger goal of the design, you don't want to build you design around a plant.

Solve Problems and Set Priorities

What do I mean a larger goal?  A lot of people believe that the purpose of a landscape design is to look pretty, but as designer I see things differently.  To me, the purpose of a design is to improve the property.  Yes, it does this by being attractive, but a good design can also help overcome issues like deer, drought, drainage, insect attacks, weeds, and many other problems.

It is also very important to figure out what the property owner's priorities are (or else they'll be really unhappy and I'll be really unpaid!).  Do they want an easy to maintain landscape?  Do they want all season interest? Do they want flowers blooming throughout the spring, summer, and fall?

When creating a design plan for your own property, start by listing your priorities and your problems, and let these guide your choices.

Research, Research, Research

Once you know your problems and your priorities, it is research time! When I work on a design, I'm not just drawing, I'm reading.  I study plants, techniques, and materials that will help me create a design that a client loves. The research stage is where my design really starts to evolve and take shape.

A good place to start if you don't have a designer's collection of horticulture books? Your local library!

Make Double Duty Choices

I always strive for design choices that pull some sort of double (or triple) duty in the landscape.  For instance, a perennial that is beautiful and provides food or shelter for local wildlife.  Or, a tree that produces edibles, and also shades the home.

The key is to look at the plants you pick as tools, as a way to help solve some issues you may have or improve your quality of life.  The same rule applies to hardscaping structures and materials. 

Get Creative, Take Risks, and Break the Rules

Look, there are all sorts of rules when it comes to design and plants, and it's all too easy to become paralyzed by these rules!  I've talked to many a would-be gardener who gave up because the rules overwhelmed them.

One thing I love about horticulture is the ability to experiment and discover new ways to do things. While it's true you should have an informed understanding of how things work, don't let lack of knowledge stop you from trying.  Trying something is a great way to learn!

My only caution: don't invest a lot of money in your experiments!

Bonus Tip! Analyze and Take Action

After you create your design and make it a reality, keep track of how different elements perform.  Take pictures and make notes right after you install, 3 months later, 6 months later, a year later. . .you get the idea!

A landscape design isn't static. It will change and evolve on its own, and It is ok for you to step in and change things too! Remove what doesn't work and replicate what does, or try introducing something entirely new. 

What is one landscape design element (a plant, material, or technique) that you would recommend to someone else?  Let me know in the comments! And if you like what you see, please share, tweet, +1. . . you get the idea!

Linda Kelso2 Comments