WORKING WITH PROFESSIONALS
If you are contemplating extensive changes to your yard, you probably should consider consulting a professional designer. This is especially true if your project involves the installation of expensive, permanent architectural features such as terraces, a swimming pool or pond, outbuildings, and stone or concrete walks, or if it involves substantial changes to the topography of your property, changes that will affect the drainage of storm water.
Broadly speaking, professional garden designers fall into two categories, and the type you employ should reflect the nature of your project:
* Landscape architects must be licensed in most states, which means that they must demonstrate a mastery of the techniques of design and construction. Look for the letters “ASLA” on the business card–membership in the American Society of Landscape Architects is limited to those who have completed an ASLA-approved degree program at an accredited university, have passed a professional board examination, and have three years professional experience. The nature of their education makes landscape architects experts on the structural elements of the garden and engineering issues such as grading and drainage. Their knowledge of plant needs and possibilities may be limited.
* Landscape, or garden, designer, in contrast, is a title anyone can assume legally. For a qualified professional, be sure that the person you hire has been certified by the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD), since that guarantees competency not only in the principles of design but also construction. Landscape designers bring varying experiences and training to bear on garden-making, but most that I have encountered were drawn to their profession by a love of plants and planting. As a result, designers seem often to create gardens of more horticultural interest.
Discovering what species are native to your area makes the task of selecting plants that will flourish on your site much easier. Knowing that your lot was originally prairie, for example, suggests that ornamental grasses would be a smart choice.
You’ll find on-line information about the plants native to each region at the Web site of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (www.wildflower.org). Botanical gardens, horticultural society libraries, and the office of the Cooperative Extension Service are other inexpensive or free local resources that can help you with the selection of regionally adapted flora.
Amateurs create the most interesting gardens, but you cannot beat professional landscape maintenance services for efficiency. Above all, they can tell at a glance the bottlenecks that eat up time and energy. That’s why it’s a smart investment to buy an hour’s time from some such professional to look at the plan of a new garden before you plant. If what you are planning is a makeover of an existing landscape, walk around it with the pro to identify existing time-wasters that should be eliminated. Typical bottlenecks include:
* narrow peninsulas and comers of turf that are hard to mow or require hand-trimming. Replace these with ground cover or mulch.
* weed-infested ground covers, which indicate the use of plants that are poorly adapted to their situation–sun-loving ground-cover perennials, for example, stuck in a shady spot. Replace with a better-adapted species or with a durable, decorative mulch.
* trees and shrubs that outgrow the spot in which they are planted and therefore require constant trimming. Replace these with plants whose mature size fits the location.
* hedges or geometrically trimmed shrubs that need regular barbering. Such features can substitute for expensive architectural features (walls, statuary, etc.), lending the garden a dignified formality, but to avoid a maintenance nightmare they should be used sparingly.
We Americans are a notoriously impatient bunch, and when we build a new garden we commonly favor a crash program. We’d do better, in my opinion, to follow the example of our plants. They start small, as seeds, cuttings, grafts, or divisions. Then they extend themselves gradually, which allows them to adapt to circumstances and work around obstacles, instead of running into them. The net result is something much better rooted into the landscape, and achieved at far less cost.
TRY IT OUT WITH ANNUALS
Once you’ve developed a planting plan, try it out with annuals before you commit yourself to more permanent (and expensive) shrubs and perennials. A band of sunflowers could suggest a future hedge or fence; morning glories could stand in for the wisteria or climbing roses you hope to have some day. You may find that the reality is less appealing than what you imagined it would be, or that some details of the plan simply don’t work. If so, don’t worry–the annuals were coming out in the fall, anyway.
BUILD FIRST WITH BAMBOO
Garden structures can be mocked up with bamboo poles lashed together with twine. You may find that the arbor you planned to shade the deck makes that space feel claustrophobic, or that the proposed fence actually follows an inconvenient route. In either case, it’s simple to alter, move, or remove your skeleton structures.
Above all, though, imitate the plants and start small. Confine your planting the first year to a single, modest bed of flowers, or a group of shrubs, or a vine-shrouded arbor. Finish this well and enjoy it. Then build on this success with more projects as you are able. The most common mistake of beginning gardeners is to over-commit, to till up a huge area and then watch with discouragement as it returns to weeds. A small success is a far better beginning than a spectacular (and expensive) failure.