As a landscape designer, the most common request I hear from my clients is for “low maintenance” (although I sometimes think that actually means NO maintenance!). Most homeowners want to enjoy their home and yard without being a slave to its upkeep. An additional factor that makes this request even more challenging is that due to high land values, the average residential lot is quite small. These factors combined with our weather extremes, disease and pest concerns, the continued introduction of highly invasive ornamental plants into the environment require the creative landscape designer to be able to juggle many competencies at once.
In the landscape design class I teach, I remind students that plants are not static and will go through their own individual maturation patterns that need to be taken into account when considering their ornamental use in the landscape. If, for example, the window lines of a home are within twelve inches or less of the ground, very few ‘woody’ plants will fit that space without ultimately overgrowing and causing undue pruning. Heavy shearing to control plant growth is generally a clear sign of a misplaced planting. Forcing plants through pruning to “fit” into a space not only causes unnecessary maintenance but also ruins the natural form of the plant itself.
Another common error in landscape plantings is over-planting. Simply put, a properly designed landscape should appear to be somewhat thin after installation with reasonable spacing between plant groups. Homeowners who have struggled with an overgrown, outdated landscape frequently go through an adjustment period after we remove the excessive growth and then re-introduce a proper planting. The angst usually dissipates after we point out that good landscape arrangements allow for plant development and maturation without the constant ‘whacking’ for control that the previous overgrowth required. It is still important for the designer to ‘hold the hand’ of the homeowner as this transition period occurs. It is also helpful to point out that the properly planted landscape should only require the amount of care time-wise that it takes to consume two martinis.
One of the truly helpful trends in the horticulture industry has been the introduction of many more interesting plant types. Thirty years ago when I started my career in the landscaping field, the plant pallet revolved around Japanese hollies and junipers. Many new and improved plant types have largely supplanted these duller choices.
Another debate that has arisen in the last few years is the native versus exotic plant types. Many espouse the use of native plant materials over exotics using the rationale that they are hardier. My experience has been the opposite with many plant types. The primary reason is that, if the native plants are allowed to dry out during the establishment phase, they are rather unforgiving and usually die. In all fairness, many plants are not “drought tolerant” until they have gotten rooted out and are well established. If someone does not have the means or time to take care of these more temperamental plants, I do not include them in the design. Having said all this, I have found that native plant materials tend to be much more disease and insect resistant than many of the non-natives. Like everything else, moderation is the key—blending native and exotic plant material seems appropriate in most landscapes.
Lastly, one of the very fun things about landscape design is that there are usually at least two or three very good ways to ‘skin the cat’ aesthetically. I do not try to impose my view of the plant world on someone who doesn’t care for that plant. The plant palette is broad enough that if one plant is not favored by the client, there at least two or three other good choices available. The critical factor here, of course, is to spend enough time with the client on the front end of any design work to find out what their preferences are and exactly how they intend to use their landscape. Many people in these times find their homes are a haven from the turmoil of the world. Their landscapes are frequently outdoor rooms that represent an extension of the interior home environment and provide a place for both enjoyment and relief from the pressures of everyday living. Thus, good landscape development brings this enjoyment by blending the client’s needs and wishes with plant choices that will ultimately fit their location.
Guest Author- Doug Davis, Smith-Gilbert Gardens, Kennesaw, GA