Real Gardens

Do Landscapers Take Their Own Advice?

Genevieve Schmidt over at North Coast Gardening posted this question several weeks ago.  I'm a little late to the conversation, but here it is anyway, in case you didn't see it at the time:

Plants We'd Never Plant at Home, Part One:

I was gardening recently with one of my employees, and she groaned
in the middle of pruning a Mexican Feather Grass and said firmly, “I
will NEVER plant these things at my house. Never!”

It’s
not a bad plant – in fact, it’s fantastic – it has seasonal interest,
adds a sense of motion and  life to a garden, and only needs pruning
once a year – plus it’s drought-tolerant, deer-resistant, and takes
seacoast wind with no problem. All of us landscapers use it and love it.

The problem is that those horrible, sticky seed-heads cling to our
clothes and taunt our washing machines, so we end up with itchy grass
bits on the inside of our clothes for weeks! (I just pulled one out of
my bra a moment ago.)

It’s definitely on my list of great plants that I won’t put in my own garden.

It's an interesting question, isn't it? Are there plants that landscapers and garden designers use all the time, but would never use at home?  And if so, why?

The conversation continues in Part Two, here.

There are some good reasons, obviously. I would imagine that most garden professionals have actual gardens at home, but that many of the jobs they do would more properly be called "landscaping" rather than gardens.  ("landscaping" as opposed to "landscapes," a term that brings to mind an idyllic natural scene, not an assemblage of plants intended to cover the grounds in some aesthetic way.)

So of course you would rely upon the same workhorses for those landscaping jobs. You want something tough and durable that fills the space in a particular way.

And that makes sense when you're talking about, say, the courtyard at the dentist office. But what about gardens at people's homes? If a homeowner ends up with a yard full of plants that are dull or difficult to relate to in some way, are they ever going to have a meaningful relationship with their landscape?

Of course, not everyone wants to have a meaningful relationship with a landscape. I suppose there's nothing wrong with that. But it does seem curious to me. I know interior designers who are hired to choose art for their clients homes. I'm not any sort of art expert, but I couldn't imagine having a work of art hanging on my wall that I didn't have some sort of relationship to.  Our house is filled with a hodgepodge of photographs and paintings and prints, and I can explain why we have every single one of them. Where we bought it, why we bought it, who made it, and so on. It's hard to imagine, say, walking a visitor into the dining room and not being able to explain what that etching of a castle in Europe is doing on the wall, other than the fact that the designer chose it to match the rug.

As I read through the comments on Gen's blog, I see one consequence of not really knowing what's in your garden:

Maribeth: I don’t hate many plants but boy do I hate
shearing. In Texas they love to turn everything into a meatball or a
lollipop. Heaven forbid that you allow it to have a natural shape. And
clients look at you like you’re crazy when you tell them some plants
actually have flowers or scent that their lawn guy or husband has been
cutting off with those power shears any time a little leaf growth
occurs.

Anyway.  I thought it was a fascinating discussion, and it was great to see so many landscapers and designers weigh in. Check it out.

Posted by on February 11, 2010 at 5:21 am, in the category Real Gardens.
Comments are off for this post

21 Responses to “Do Landscapers Take Their Own Advice?”

  1. Liza says:

    I agree that Mexican Feather Grass has sticky seeds, but I’ve planted lots of them before and have successfully avoided getting them stuck on me. I love how they sway in the wind. They are extremely popular in New Mexico because they are drought tolerant.

    Generally speaking, if I pick out a plant for my clients, I would have no problem planting it at my own home. But it’s a good question, I look forward to hearing what other landscapers say.

  2. Jean says:

    That last part about the meatballs is so true. How would one know about flowers when they’re always sheared off? And more to the point, why do landscapers keep doing that? I blogged about that a couple weeks ago(http://tinyurl.com/yftnbx2). It drives me nuts.

    Landscapers usually have an arsenal of go-to plants but in their own gardens they can afford to be picky (and more adventuresome).

  3. Jean says:

    Sorry about that previous URL. It should be: http://tinyurl.com/yftnbx2

  4. donna says:

    I think there’s a difference between a landscape that needs to look good all the time for a client and a garden that an individual wants to enjoy. My yard wouldn’t win many contests, but I love the plants in it and appreciate their various forms and colors.

    What matters to an individual is not always how the overall picture looks. High-end landscapes for show are a different animal.

  5. donna says:

    And I don’t like ornamental grasses, either. Too much of a pain to deal with for me.

  6. I adore nasella tenuissima , mexican feather grass but have learned from experience that it is very invasive in my particular climate.
    I have to weed-wack the cracks between the street asphalt and the concrete curb because the mexican feather grass grows in the cracks of the street.
    When I pull the grass out by hand I destroy small bits of the street because the root system adheres to the asphalt.

  7. john says:

    I’m not crazy about orniamental grasses – hired a landscaper and he used about 5 different kinds. they looked great all spring, summer and fall, then winter hit and they died back. You either cut all the dead out or wait for a windy day let the seeds (and dead leaves) spread throughout your neighborhood. Not a pretty sight.
    I once owned a house for about 2 years and planted various bushes so that something would be in bloom every month of the year. The fellow that bought the place was not a gardener and cut most of them down according to a neighbor.

  8. greg draiss says:

    Holier than thou if you ask me…like a carpenter saying “I would never build something like this at my house”

    Then don’t build it or plant it for anyone else then!

    The TROLL

  9. I don’t know if you can really compare choosing your own art with choosing your own plants. With a picture, if you like it and it’s in your price range, then you’re good to go – no special expertise needed. But with plants, you need to know their cultural preferences, ultimate size, maintenance requirements, invasive tendencies…in short, loading up your cart helter skelter at the nursery often leads to a lot of dead plants. Plus, with art you have the luxury of adding to your collection over time – in a new garden, most of us don’t want to wait a lifetime to go from tiny sprouts to a real garden.

    I have lots of clients who don’t have the ability to plan a garden from scratch, but that doesn’t mean the end result doesn’t reflect their personality. They describe what they like or show me photos or visit the nursery with me, and from there, I can create a regionally appropriate palette.

    FYI, I don’t include plants in a client’s garden that I wouldn’t plant in my own. In fact, I have the opposite problem. I often get so excited by a new combination for a client that I rip out some of my own plants to replicate in my own garden. I guess the solution is a bigger garden…

  10. Elizabeth Stump says:

    Berkeley Sedge. I regret planting it. I’ve been having to pull up seedling starts all over my front yard. It’s native, but it’s also very invasive!!!

  11. I have a nursery and there are plants that I won’t grow because I don’t like them. On the other hand there are plants that I grow that I like, but no one will buy them. I guess I should grow what the customer like regardless of my feelings for it.

  12. Genevieve says:

    Whoa! What a surprise to pull up with my margarita and see my posts featured on my favorite gardening site! Rock on…

    I think the distinctions I’d make here are that clients demand a great garden year-round. Some non-gardeners understand that plants need down-time, but really, that’s something we learn through the process of actually gardening.

    Folks who don’t enjoy gardening want things that look good all the time, which means that I put up with a few icky qualities in plants in exchange for year-round performance.

    The other thing is that most folks who hire out a garden design also hire out maintenance. So grass seeds in one’s delicates aren’t actually going to concern the garden’s owner.

    They’ll see the year-round movement and interest of Nassella, and I’ll do the hard labor of fishing seed heads out of my chest in a surreptitious manner. That’s what I get paid the big bucks for, right?

  13. I actually read this last night, started to comment and then stopped since my blood pressure started to rise…

    There are others who will disagree with me, but…You are right to point out that there is a difference between ‘landscaping’ and design–garden or not. Do designers use plants they don’t have in their own gardens or wouldn’t have in their own gardens…of course. Each situation is different–client wants and needs, site considerations, etc. A designer will take all of those factors into consideration…a landscaper won’t and that’s part of what’s wrong with our design discipline–there’s little separation between what ‘landscapers’ do and the act of designing a garden/landscape. On another related but disparate thought…landscape and garden design is not an offshoot of gardening anymore than interior design is an offshoot of furniture building or carpet weaving. We use plants to create something beautiful–it’s up to the client to let us know how much practicality they want in their design.

    Great design is great design no matter if it’s a garden or not.

  14. Susan says:

    I’ll take the opposite stand. There are things I do in my own garden that I would not do in a client’s garden.

    But that’s because I am there all the time, monitor it, and know how to make the appropriate changes.

    Here’s an example. Presently, I rent a home with a small garden area next to the front porch. I never made a plan or thought about long term. What I do is simply have fun with it! It’s mostly perennials. I buy what I want, add to it here and there, make changes on a whim, experiment, etc.

    It’s just my fun garden. Don’t think this would fly with a client!

    Susan

  15. Hap says:

    I agree with Michelle D, Nasella tenuissima is a noxious invasive weed in northern California, even if it looks great and survives our lack of water all summer. But it self seeds like a wildfire. It was planted in the commercial landscape in Berkeley’s 4th Street shopping district a few years ago and it has colonized up and down the nearby railroad tracks at least a mile each direction, even surviving the railroad’s chemical warfare… its wind born seeds even sprouts at the nursery, even though we do not sell it but stick with it’s more polite California native relatives….

    My own garden is a series of experiments and a mix of “parent-stock” plants. So things that succeed do eventually end up in production at the nursery and then at peoples homes. But there are things about my garden that I would never suggest to a customer. After all it is a place to trial, experiment and see how things adapt, so it is an active a chaotic sort of garden… not something most people would want to live with.

  16. Genevieve says:

    Susan S, you should totally write a post about that – the things we do in our own gardens that we don’t do for clients!

    I coddle along tender plants through rough winters, select varieties that I haven’t yet tested extensively, replant annual and bulb displays…

    Most people I design for repeat the same desires – low-maintenance, lots of flowers, pretty year-round, nothing that will die. The reality is I’m usually hired by people who don’t like to garden, to create a garden they won’t have to fiddle with too much and will be fun to hang out in.

    And I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it does dictate which plants go in.

    My beloved variegated Tibouchina that I have to cover and gets butt-ugly when the frost hits – would my clients like that plant? Yes, until they had to replace it or fiddle with covering it. Same with my Acidanthera bulbs that I replant every couple years in my own garden.

    Most people feel that once they have “landscaped”, they are done with planting stuff, or else the landscaper did a bad job.

    Susan M, that’s an awesome point that in our home gardens, we constantly fiddle and add to it, and rip out old combos and put new ones in that we’ve just gotten inspired by. That’s harder to do for clients unless, as Susan (Miss R) points out, you find through your communication that they actually LIKE to garden and want to be a part of the process. But that’s not always the case.

  17. Michelle D. – I’m so glad to hear you don’t plant Mexican Feather Grass either. I’m constantly warning people about this one, and am amazed that there’s not an ‘invasive alert’ on this grass. I planted one 6 years ago and enjoyed it’s incredible beauty until some dogs destroyed it. I’ve since then been pulling out a gazillion seedlings EVERYWHERE…and she’s absolutely right about them preferring cracks in the street! They’re BRUTAL THUGS. Every year I find at least 20 seedlings growing (sometimes in the middle of another plant’s crown, making it impossible to remove without damaging the host plant). Ugh.

  18. saatuk@gmail.com says:

    Interesting premise, but it seems to indicate _choice_.

    I’m a gardener not a landscaper , but what grows at my house is the plants that are leftover in the greenhouse after I’ve planted all of my customer’s gardens. And they’re only in my gardens thanks to a friend who comes and plants them for me, because I have neither the time nor energy to do it myself – and they don’t get maintained, either.

    Still the nicest gardens in the neighbourhood, though.

  19. sara says:

    I love how Salvia leucantha looks in other people’s yards, but I learned eons ago to never ever plant it in my own. I think it took me a couple years to completely eradicate it after being gifted with a 4-inch pot on summer.

  20. Mary S. says:

    This fall, we ripped out about a dozen barberry that a landscaper recommended back when we did not know any better. Never so happy to see a plant leave the yard. I’ve visited this landscaper’s garden, and there are no barberries anywhere in sight, though he puts them in lots of new landscapes.

  21. Kmac says:

    I manage a garden center in the high desert of central Oregon (z.4-5), where there is a lot of high dollar grass seed production for lawns & golf courses…(ugh).
    Anyway, the last thing we need is a bunch of feisty grass seed farmers breathing down our necks in an uproar over escaped Mexican Feather Grass polluting their high-dollar grass seed fields. (Hey, their poor wives really think they’re living it up when they buy a Karl Foerster, after I assure them it won’t re-seed.) The stuff seems to reproduce faster than the sweet bunch of cottontail wabbits that inhabit our nursery. We ripped it out all of the offending grass in our demo garden beds after we noticed it attempting to take over. A very naughty & persistent grass indeed!

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