Designing a landscape is a lot like designing a kitchen or closet, right? We want to make the most of function & aesthetics. But take into account weather, seasonal changes, living plants, wildlife, and a whole gamut of other potential influences, and it can be enough to make your head spin.
Cue the landscape designer- a person trained in horticulture who can dream up beautiful and highly functional outdoor spaces to meet your needs, while also selecting materials that will thrive in the given conditions. Whether you need help designing a foundation planting, a stormwater basin, or a corporate campus, you can find a landscape designer who can show you how to avoid mistakes and maximize the return on your investment.
Do I want a landscape designer or landscape architect?
The scope of your project will help determine whether a landscape designer or landscape architect (LA) is needed. Large sites, requiring grading plans or large structures usually warrant an LA. Landscape Architects are licensed and registered with the state.
Landscape designers tend to focus more on the medium to small projects, including hardscapes and outdoor kitchens, with a strong emphasis on the plant material supporting the space.
As in many professions, there are overlaps. Many LAs design residential properties and many landscape designers support large-scale projects.
Selecting a Landscape Designer
The design relationship
Make sure you feel comfortable working with your landscape designer and trust his or her decisions, and remember, he or she must be equally as comfortable with you.
Your designer should listen to your goals, not just tell you his or her visions for the property. At the same time, be willing to listen to the designer’s opinions and expertise. Your specific ideas may not be realistic due to site conditions, but creative design should be able to help you reach your goals in the end.
We once had a client that wanted fragrance and year round color in a small garden area. She also wanted low plants that would not block her view. The location of this garden was in deep shade, the soil was wet, and there was heavy deer pressure. Her expectations were largely unrealistic. The point is that letting go of some of your pre-conceived restrictions may allow your designer to create lovely space that will function for the long-term, resulting in a project that was more than you imagined.
Education, training, and leadership
Ask if your designer is active in their profession- sharing ideas and continuing to be inspired by others. LA’s are required to take Continuing Education credits to maintain their licenses, but designers should also continue with coursework.
Some excellent designers are self-taught, while others have degrees or formal training in design or horticulture. You should be comfortable with the level of training and experience your designer has received.
Ask to see examples of your designer’s work. Look at portfolios as broad brush strokes of the designer’s abilities. Because influences of a landscape design are heavily determined by site conditions, client preferences, and maintenance levels, what looks fantastic in one image, won’t necessarily work on your site. Also remember, very talented designers may not have an extensive portfolio if they have only been in the industry for a few years. It takes several years for new projects to look established and to get quality photos of these sites.
You should bring your landscape designer onto your project as early as possible, especially if you’re undergoing major construction. Working with a landscape designer along with your architect or builder allows you to make better decisions along the way. These professionals may be excellent at what they do, but they do not have the training to make the decisions that affect the landscape for the most successful end product. Landscape designers can help you protect important trees and soils which may be damaged during construction. Your designer may also help you determine the best locations for walkways, patios, garages or pools, and ensure that beds are wide enough to contain standard plants. There are many considerations that will have lasting impacts on your landscape which are best made at the beginning of construction projects.
Initial Meeting- Determine Goals
You and your designer will discuss and establish your desired goals and preferred style. Share your vision of your site, and your likes and dislikes. Be prepared to walk around and answer questions about history of the site, water movement, and anything else that may come into consideration for the design.
Your designer can make the most of his or her time if you have existing base maps or plats of the property. Today, electronic copies are often preferred, but any scaled drawing is better than nothing. If you do not have a map of your property, your designer can take measurements and generate a base map, but this will generally increase costs.
After your designer walks the property with you, he or she will go back around the property to further evaluate and take pictures of the site. He or she may also ask to come into your home and take pictures of the landscape from windows or seats you use regularly.
Preliminary or Conceptual Design
The initial drawing your landscape designer puts together will include general information noted during the evaluation and loose conceptual ideas. Some specific plants may be listed if they serve a specific purpose, but otherwise, it is common to see areas loosely designated such as “mixed screen” or “cutting garden” at this phase of your design. At this point the designer wants to ensure that you are comfortable with the direction of the design to date, make adjustments, and ask/answer any questions regarding the preliminary design.
This plan is typically a complete planting plan of your site, including a plant schedule (names, size, condition of plants), and notes regarding the site or instructions to the installation team.
This design is typically presented in person with an explanation of the intent and how the design meets the pre-determined goals. Often the designer will walk the site with you and the final design and help you envision the plan.
Determine Phases for Installation
After the design is complete, it is time to implement the design. Depending on your budget, site conditions, and season, you may not be able to install all of the design at one time.
Your designer can help you determine the best ways to proceed in phases. Sometimes this will depend upon personal priorities, while other projects may be scheduled based on logistics of construction. You may want the front of the house planted first, or perhaps the outdoor kitchen needs to be installed before any plants. However the phase-work is scheduled, make sure there will be enough resources available to maintain the new planting during the critical establishment phase.
Costs and Time
Costs and time can vary greatly among landscape designers, which is why it is so important to determine up front that your landscape designer can meet your needs. Danilo Maffei, of Maffei Landscape Design, LLC, helps outline costs as they relate to landscape designers:
Free: At some design-build firms, your landscape design may be included in the cost of the landscape installation. In these cases, you are not permitted to “shop around” on price, nor can you then install the project yourself.
Hourly: Rates may range from $25-$150+ per hour: The price ranges are often related to experience or deliverables. A rough hand sketch of your landscape design or an entry-level designer may command the lower end of that range. A full-service landscape company may not depend entirely on design income, so those rates are likely to be in the middle range. A principal or senior designer of a firm may charge the upper end of that range.
Time: Although it varies among teams and sites you can typically expect to spend time on a design in the following ways:
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Also, consider time from contacting your designer to receiving the final project. Maffei cautions that many clients are unaware of how long the process itself takes. It may be six months or more from beginning of design to installation.
What happens next?
So you have this awesome plan in your hands and you’re ready to see it come to life. It’s time to select a contractor for the installation and develop a maintenance plan. Your landscape designer may be able to help you with both of these important tasks.
If your landscape designer is from a design/build firm, this is often done in-house. He or she can get you pricing estimates based on the agreed upon design. The advantage to this approach is that there will be strong communication between the designer and the installation crew, maintaining the initial intent of the design.
If your landscape designer comes from a design-only firm, he or she may still be able to recommend contractors they’ve used in the past with successful results. Some designers may also serve as Project Managers for an additional fee. According to Maffei, who provides this service, the fee for project management may be an hourly rate or may be a percentage of the cost of installation (5-10%).
This is often the most overlooked part of a landscape installation. Between design and installation of your landscape, you will spend thousands, if not, tens of thousands of dollars. And because a landscape is living and ever changing, maintenance is critical to the success of your new landscape.
Because your landscape designer should have thought about how your landscape is going to develop over the next 5-20+ years, he or she is an excellent source for your landscape management plan. In a simple residential foundation planting, a verbal plan may suffice; however, in a residential master plan or a commercial or municipal plan where outside parties will be managing the landscape, it is important to have a well-written plan that addresses regular, on-going maintenance as well as how to respond to more serious issues.
Maintenance plans are generally written at an hourly rate.
A landscape design is well worth the investment to ensure the maximum function and aesthetic of the site. What may cost a few hundred dollars in planning may save thousands by simply ensuring the correct materials are selected. Continue working with your designer for years after the installation to ensure that as issues arise, they will be handled to maintain the intent of the design. So start gathering ideas, researching designers, and have some fun!