Garden Designers Roundtable: Reality Check! Designers Save Money


This post is a bit of a rant because I find that so many people don’t really get it. Landscape renovations and installations are as big a construction project as any bathroom, kitchen or home addition. Few would attempt those without a having a detailed plan or hiring qualified contractors, yet many people with a shovel and a free weekend believe that they can build their landscapes themselves. Worse yet are those who profess to be professionals and do not have the training or skills to mitigate even the most basic of landscape related problems. (The tortured River Birch below was installed by a ‘professional’ at my local Dunkin’ Donuts)

Huh? Might be the most stupid planting mistake I have ever seen

Because I am a landscape designer this may seem like a self serving post, but it’s really not. I earn a fairly good portion of my fees because clients hire me to correct problems with their already built landscapes and gardens. Either they built it themselves or someone else just did a shoddy job via lack of experience or professionalism. Problems range from easy fixes like appropriate plant choices to major issues with stonework and drainage.

Working with a designer isn’t really out of range financially for most people. It’s not only for the well-heeled and financially overblown. The fact is that designers save their clients money at every step of the way in essence earning their own keep. In my design practice I save my clients money by helping them to avoid costly mistakes before they are made, by passing on at least part of the professional discount I receive on furniture, accessories and plants and offering choices that are ‘to the trade’ only that fit their specific budget.

Even a DIY weekend warrior can save money with as simple paid consultation with a designer before that shovel goes into the ground. The emphasis here is on paid. A free consultation won’t yield in much unless a signature is put on the dotted line for the totality of the work and then that consultation’s value will be hidden in some other cost. (No one works for free.) A paid consultation can be as little as $75 and as much as several hundred. A professional designer will listen to their clients and be able to assess problems and talk about possible solutions, a professional designer will be able to steer a client to choices that will serve their lifestyle and budget, and a professional designer will often offer ideas for building a project in stages with a plan for one, five or even ten years as their client’s budget allows. A designer will also insure that the outside is unified, works with the architectural style of the house and isn’t over or under built for the neighborhood. A professional designer will make sure they communicate any town or housing authority regulations that will impact a project. They will have a roster of artisans and contractors who can do the job at a high level of quality if that’s what their client’s choose. Most importantly, a professional designer will consider the ramifications of what is proposed to be built on a property’s resale value therefore protecting what is most people’s biggest investment–their home.

Don’t make this, the most common mistake in any of the building trades. Hire a designer before starting a landscape project…even if it’s just for an hour’s consultation and save headaches and money.

To hear what other professional landscape designers have to say about reality…

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : Easy Bay, CA

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

30 thoughts on “Garden Designers Roundtable: Reality Check! Designers Save Money

  1. Damn straight, SC! You are so very, very right. And you know what? A good tree planted correctly lasts a lot longer and gives as much in terms of quality of life as any home improvement–some might argue more. As for that river birch S&M… What they do in private is their own business, but in public, and at a Dunkin’ Donuts?! I am scandalized.

  2. I’ve been looking for a reason to post that naughty birch bondage for a long, long time!

  3. Right on, Susan! I especially appreciate your rant against the “free” consultation. I find the very idea insulting. There are plenty of free resources out there that are full of general information and inspiration, but when it comes time to focus on individual needs for a specific site it’s time to invest in a pro. Thanks!

  4. Agree with all you said. I would expect no other. We are always finding we should have been brought in earlier. Actually its before they’ve done the house and in some cases before they have even bought it!

  5. So true, Susan. A big chunk of my business is helping people fix the mess they’ve been left with. Thought of this post when I read David Cristiani’s “….designed by someone who has dismissed my expertise as “my opinion” more than I can count…”

  6. Susan: excellent post; we will use this when we receive calls from prospective clients who are put off by our request for initial consult fee to come to their home. Keep on writing and saving those bound birch.

  7. I had to come back and add: For the cost of all the plants I’ve fallen in love with, and subsequently killed, over my gardening life, I could have purchased professional guidance many times over. We grow too late smart.

  8. Poor birch! Tree planting and staking has got to be one of the most incorrectly done things in the garden. Good advice about hiring a designer to get you on track before plunging ahead with the shovel.

  9. I agree completely! The cost of undoing even one installation error is usually more than the entire design fee. With tighter budgets meaning more homeowners are installing their gardens in phases, it’s even more important to work from a master plan. By the way, I’m confused by the picture of the birch. Are the chains to keep it from falling over? It almost looks like an avant-garde art installation.

  10. Tortured with chains to the stakes. I hope “Goth” is in the company’s name!!! Well-done on the need to hire a real designer to do a real design, and the benefit over the cost. I once had someone who owns a nursery (who doesn’t know @#$* about design) tell me that I “am overhead”. Should have decked him, and not taken the client he referred to.

  11. David–Goth is kind. This is not the only tortured tree on the property. They all have plastic chains, stakes and cinched in stupidity. As for overhead, I probably would have turned on my heel after giving a withering look that I inherited from my mother. Call it stinkeye.

  12. The birch is simply cinched in and tortured! The stakes and chains are to keep it from blowing out of the ground.

  13. Thanks, Pam. If more people would ‘get on track’ before they start we’d have beautiful landscapes everywhere!

  14. Helen–It’s never too late to grow smart. I really appreciate your comment since you are the ultimate DIY gardener!

  15. I never thought until just now that I might make more money fixing problems that predicting them! Maybe I should keep these ideas to myself (just kidding!)

  16. Ideally we’re brought on at the beginning…when planning and budgets are being set. The projects I work on like this are always the ones that are the most successful.

  17. Jocelyn–It just burns me that people seem to think I can work for free…they don’t.

  18. I think that river birch might just be into kinky bondage games! I don’t think I have ever seen one quite that trussed up before.

  19. Even my best friend who is a landscape designer tells me I’m “too difficult” to work with because I won’t do exactly what she wants me to do. The professionals I’ve paid for designs won’t make the changes I ask for. The builders I’ve worked with have screwed us over and forgotten basics as simple as proper drainage.

    Thanks, I’ll do it myself.

  20. Donna–What I also should have said is that the best of professional landscape designers view the process as a collaboration with their clients–they listen and they offer solutions- if the client doesn’t want that solution then another has to be found or it’s the wrong partnership. No client is too difficult. After all, it’s your garden.

  21. Excellent points, Susan. I love your emphasis on it being a paid consult. People often get free designs around here in my area, but they really aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. I’ve reviewed a number of them for my city and you can tell which ones are free because they don’t specify much, are poorly-planned, have obvious trouble spots, and have plants that are far too big at mature size for the beds they are meant to be planted in. No professional works for free. You pay for it somewhere, and that goes double with a free consult or plan. 🙂

  22. Please tell me that you’ve spoken to Dunkin Donuts and have had that poor tree released. I’m going to lose sleep worrying about how much it must be suffering.

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