Getting the Most from a Landscape Design Consultation

by Sally Muspratt

The most effective landscape design consultations take place when the client and the designer have the same agenda. Both want to use the initial visit to get as far as possible down the road to the best design. Whether the client is redesigning his present yard or has just moved to a new location, the client who prepares carefully for the visit is likely to get much more from the designer than one who comes to the meeting expecting answers to questions that have not been asked.

When I set up meetings with clients, I give them homework. First, I ask them to answer landscape architect Julie Messervy’s important question: what childhood landscape is most important to them? Memories of places where we were happy when we were little can help us make good choices for our adult gardens. Even the smallest gardens can have special places-secluded seats, tiny meadows or woodland walks.

Second, what gardens do they find most attractive today? I ask them to collect pictures from magazines like Fine Gardening and Horticulture and Better Homes and Gardens. And I ask them to give me an address in their neighborhood of a garden they admire. Often we drive by this place and discuss it together. Some go on garden tours or attend lectures at the Mass Horticultural Society or the Arnold Arboretum to get further ideas about what they might like.

The next issue is function. How will they use their property? Do they want a welcoming entrance garden? Is the garden’s chief value to them its appearance from the road or from a key window? A play space for children? A site for flower or vegetable gardening? A place to hang out the wash, or to read quietly, or to entertain friends? How many friends? How often? Should there be space for an outdoor grill? A compost pile?

Do they see maintaining the garden as boring work to be contracted out, or as a major family leisure activity? When clients have a clear idea about what they want and what changes they would like to see, an experienced designer can often help them find solutions they like even better than those they have considered.

The final issue, budget, is less important than many people think. A good designer will work within any budget the client suggests. Interestingly, the best gardens need not be expensive; unlike a building, which begins to deteriorate as soon as it is finished, plants in a well designed garden get large and more valuable every year. Since trees, shrubs and perennials are priced by size, a person who is willing to wait for his garden to achieve maturity can afford almost any plant he wishes. On the other hand, clients who want instant effect can use seeds and six paks to install inexpensive annual gardens which create 5′ tall lush, colorful borders in a few months.

While a garden can be installed in phases that fit any budget, clients should have an idea of what they are prepared to spend in the first year and how much of a financial commitment they are willing to make in future years so the designer can help them plan the best sequence of work. The most expensive part is hardscape -walls and paving. These can be sketched out with mulch until the owner is ready to pay for brick or bluestone.

Homeowners who are not afraid to formulate dreams about their ideal gardens and who make accurate lists of ways they want to use their property are ideal clients for a landscape designer, who can help them realize a sound and beautiful plan. They usually spend less and are happier with their results than those who buy plants every year at garden centers without knowing whether they will look right, perform the hoped-for function, or indeed survive in the horticultural conditions of their own gardens.