In the Garden: Garden Design: A Variety of Approaches


By Charles Kidder

Gardeners love to plant shop. What they like less is returning home with the new acquisitions and trying to figure out where they’ll fit in their garden. But would a good garden design have prevented this problem? Or do we, in fact, have a “problem?”

To the committed plant-nut, the answer to the second question might well be, “Maybe not.” But most homeowners appreciate more order in their landscape, so for them garden design is worth thinking about. But where do you start?

There are many good books on garden design, as well as DIY computer software, but for now I’ll assume that you’re looking for professional help. Perhaps you don’t have a lot of gardening experience, or maybe you’ve just built a new home and are a bit overwhelmed by all the open space. So, whom do you call?

Many people would say a landscape architect or a landscape designer, using the terms almost synonymously, although there’s a significant difference. The first earns a degree in Landscape Architecture; for example, a master’s degree requires either two or three years at U.Va., depending on the student’s undergraduate background. Like other architects, landscape architects concern themselves with space and the structures that define it, as well as how people interact with those spaces. They may work at quite large scales—think New York’s Central Park and its creator Frederick Law Olmsted—down to the individual residence. If you peruse the website of the U.Va. landscape architecture program, you’ll get a better idea of the faculty’s areas of expertise. You’ll see that plants are a topic that’s certainly covered, but often just as another way to define and cover space. Still, landscape architects are aware of the benefits that plants provide to people and the environment.

To get a better idea why someone might chose a landscape architect over other design professionals, I picked a local one totally at random. I chatted a bit with David Anhold, principal at Anhold Associates in Greenwood, and he confirmed my feeling that an LA would be more focused on the spaces and overall function of a site, whereas a designer might just be concentrating on the “decorative” aspects. In answer to a question, he also guessed that not too many folks with a quarter-acre suburban lot would call on the services of an LA, although it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility.

And what about a landscape designer, or a garden designer? These are unofficial terms that anyone could apply to themselves, although in some cases they may have done considerable study at the university level. Most often, this would be through a horticulture department, generally at a state land-grant institution like Virginia Tech, or perhaps at a community college. A horticulture major learns all about plants—their names and ornamental features, how to grow them, their diseases and pests, etc.—and possibly how to design with them. The emphasis is definitely on the plant, and depending on the student’s interest, design may be of secondary importance. Remember that although a landscape designer may have received considerable formal training, it’s not a requirement. Anyone with gardening experience and a good eye could call themselves a garden designer. And they might be very good at it.

Landscape architects and landscape designers are often independent business people, although in some cases they may be associated with a garden center. Garden centers sometimes offer “free” design services, but usually there’s a catch. They have to make a living, of course, so the design will use the plants they sell. To some degree, the cost of the design will be built into the price of the plants. Independent LAs and designers will be charging you only for the design; then they have more latitude to deal with various contractors and plant suppliers if you also want them involved in the implementation.

Just what type of design assistance you pick will ultimately depend on your particular situation: the size and complexity of your property, the size of your budget, your interest in plants and gardening, etc. It might be best to talk with someone from each profession/business to see how they can help you. Particularly with designers and LAs, you will want to see photographs of their work and check references. Ideally, you’ll want to visit an actual property they worked on, assuming you have the owner’s permission. If you are able to talk with the owners, you can also find out how easy it is to maintain the landscape, an aspect of design that’s too often overlooked.

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This past spring I was contacted by Sophie Laclef and Charlotte Thomas-Clarke from Girl Scout Troop 352. They wanted to undertake a project to beautify the Region Ten Community Services building on Crozet Avenue in order to receive their Girl Scout Bronze Award, the highest award that Junior Girl Scouts can receive. They were dealt a very tough hand: two long, very narrow planting “beds,” really more like sunken planters, and they needed some gardening advice. Thanks to their hard work, native flowers now grace the building. Kudos to Sophie and Charlotte!