Unusually Clever People

Guest Rant: So You Want to be a Garden Designer

Gardendesigner

Y'all please welcome Love Albrecht Howard, author of So You Want to Be a Garden Designer from Timber Press. There's a free book in it for you, so please do check that out at the end of her post.

For fifteen years now, I have worked as a professional garden designer.  Yes, this means I design “landscaping” with “plant materials.”  With all due respect to the Garden Rant gals, I appreciate being “bored with magazine-perfect gardens,” but I am obliged to admit that creating these oh-it-better-be-flawless gardens is how I make my living.  Ironically, the gritty truth behind these photo-worthy landscapes can be bizarre, indeed.

When I left the world of corporate marketing to become a dirt sister, you know, one with the soil in heart and soul, I had no idea that the clients would be as entertaining, clueless, sadistic, lovely, cheap, punishing, grateful, and endearing as they have turned out to be.  I learned it is one thing to have clients in the corporate world, but quite another to enter peoples home turf and work with them there.  It’s almost like the rules of proper etiquette stop at the drive entry.  Oh, certainly not for me, this is my business, after all.  But it seems like some homeowners have quite a different perspective.  I recognize that I, like anyone coming to their homes to do any kind of work, am categorically hired help.  But sometimes the treatment I receive, the things they say and do, is just, well, one for the books.  Or blog.  Ready for some dirt?

Early in my garden design career I was meeting with a new client who lived in an upscale townhouse.  The small but charming courtyard had been landscaped about 15 years before, and had been done well.  The mature plantings were quite lovely, the trees, shrubs and perennials chosen would provide staggered seasonal color, just like we strive for, and the gardens had been meticulously maintained over the years.  Why was I there?  The client wanted more color.  As we walked through the garden, I was commenting on this variety or that and how it must be pretty in the spring, blah blah small talk, and she turned to me and said, ‘Yes, but in two weeks it’s all over.  Can you make them all bloom all summer?’ 

Knowing what was there, I knew it wouldn’t be all over in two weeks, but I described the nature of a perennial . . . and I explained their blossoming boom and why it happens, reproduction, etc. . . . and why it’s lovely to have something different happening in the gardens all season long . . . and then I offered that we could add some late-summer blooming perennials, and also fill in the gardens with flowering annuals that would keep blooming all through the summer months.  She just looked at me.  And then reiterated, ‘Why can’t they bloom all summer?’  And I finally responded . . . “A garden is not wallpaper.  It is a living, breathing, every-changing thing that is a product of nature, not a vignette that one designs for a fireplace mantle or a table top.”

She never got it.

A client of mine, who was incredibly punishing, also was a plant nazi.  She only wanted ‘things with large flowers (think: lilies)’ and only in orange, red and purple.  No white.  No pink.  No yellow.  No green.  No blue.  And the plants absolutely could not touch each other, they were to be specimens in little, perfect rows.  Trouble was . . . this was for her front foundation, it faced due north, and there were two huge maples in front to boot.  Dark dark dark.  She’d also circled lots of plants she liked in a catalog she’d found.  Problem was they were all sun-loving tropicals that wouldn’t grow in Massachusetts, never mind in the shade at the front of her home.  We worked on and tweaked this foundation planting for years.  She never was completely satisfied (although I learned that this was her general nature), but years later when I ultimately resigned the account, she sent me one of the most lovely, complimentary notes I have ever received.  Go figure.

Do it yourself clients generally like to prune things.  “Oh, when you plant that I’ll just clip it up a few times a year.”  “I’ll keep that at a low hedge height.”  “Don’t these trees need shaping?”  When I design a garden, I match plant to place.  There should be virtually no pruning of woody plants necessary, except for the odd strange whip of growth.  I don’t much like pruned shrubs . . . the formal, clipped gardens at Versailles are stunning, but that’s not for the everyday home in the suburbs.  I entreat my clients to not clip, cube, tube, top, gumdrop or mullet any of their trees or shrubs.  If something has to be pruned for the health of the tree, I allow them to make a “. . . carefully considered, healthy cut just outside of the branch collar.  And if you don’t know what that means, back awaaaaaaaaaay from the pruning saw and hire a certified arborist.”  Most stop cutting.  But not all. *sigh*

One couple I worked with each had very different styles. She was rather laid back, and he was pure emotion. They’d argue intensely, then two minutes later kiss and hug. Delightful, but whew! One morning as my crew and I were working on the back screening planting, we cut through the invisible dog fence. Now, in many instances this is sort of unavoidable, and we always repair them within minutes.  We had even warned the clients that this would probably happen since we were putting in large trees right where the wires ran. So the fence alarm tripped, and the husband flew out of the house like a storm of wasps. He raced to the back where we were working, screaming and swearing. He refused to listen to my reassurances. When he spied the cut end of the dog fence wire, he grabbed it and started ripping the wire out of the ground—25 feet, 50 feet, almost 75 feet before he started getting into roots and the ripping became more difficult.

After yanking a few more times, he screamed in rage, threw the wire down in disgust, and stormed back into the house. We stood there dumbfounded. The wife, who was on the rear deck, had watched this entire tantrum with complete impassivity. As I approached her, getting ready to say, “Oh my gosh, I’m really sorry, we’ll fix it momentarily,” she cut me off with a wave of her hand, gestured dismissively towards the husband with her coffee cup, rolled her eyes, and said, “His mother was hot-blooded too.” With that, she winked and walked back into the house.

It’s not just clients that surprise me.  One time I was trying to negotiate a to-the-trade discount at a large garden center.  As I was quietly discussing the potential discount, I’d given the woman behind the counter my card, which stated my name, and then “Garden Design.”  So she finally asked, “So what do you do?” although, really, how can you misinterpret that?  Whatever.  I said, slowly, “I design and install gardens at people’s homes.”  Now remember, this is at a retail garden center, right?  She looked at me quizzically and replied, “People need that?”  “Well, yes,” said I, “and I’m glad they do, that’s why I have a job.” 

Again, she’s looking at me, then the card, then at me, back and forth.  And she finally said (and you have to say this with an edgy Boston accent for full effect), “Oh, you go to someone’s house and you say ‘put the yellow flowahs ovah theyah, and put the red flowahs ovah thayah,’ right?”  I grinned and said, “I guess you can sum it up that way.”

Ah, the life of a garden designer!  Share your favorite tale of professional gardening (whether as the client, the professional, or an eavesdropper) and we'll send you a free copy of the book!  Alternatively, if you long to become a garden designer, make the most compelling case as to why you MUST have this book to help you follow your dreams.

Posted by on April 8, 2010 at 5:35 am, in the category Unusually Clever People.
Comments are off for this post

67 responses to “Guest Rant: So You Want to be a Garden Designer”

  1. susan harris says:

    OMG, your clients and mine must be related! Though as a coach I do get hired by some actual gardeners, or people who want to learn (best of all!) but the nature-haters (maybe nature-deniers?) are definitely out there. The “low maintenance” they ask for means NO maintenance, of course, like their interior furnishings. Love your analogy to interior furnishings.

    Another interior analogy I often use explains why garden design doesn’t start with annuals or perennials. I say it’s like furnishing your living room starting with the throw pillows. We’ve all read that a dozen times, but most homeowners haven’t.

  2. So, so true Love. A most enjoyable read. Thankfully the true oddballs and cranks are the minority of the client base. I’ll have to delve into my memory data base and try to come up with a good story.

    The general clueless example is when the client asks, What is wrong with my tree? Is it dying? No your tree is deciduous. Mark your calendar. Every year at this time it will shed its leaves. They would ask again the following year. Being in Maui they had a plausible excuse. Normal earth bound plant rules no longer applied.

  3. Gardenology says:

    Ah, the Human Comedy… usually much better then fiction.

    I’ll admit, I prune. Some plants I want in tree-form, others I just don’t want as big as they’d otherwise come, and I cut and chop away. Maybe if I had more space I’d do less pruning.

  4. Oh my gosh, this was HILARIOUS. I especially loved the woman gesturing at her husband’s back with the coffee cup, rolling her eyes, and saying that his mother was hot-blooded, too…Thanks for the read.

    Wish I had some good “industry” tales to share so I could snag the book, but not being in the biz, no luck. May just have to wander on “ovah” to Amazon and get it anyway.

  5. It’s like I wrote it myself.

    Standard protocol was to get contact numbers from the clients, including a fax number if they had it. One client gave us their fax number and when we had an additional service request he asked us to fax it to him. We did. The next thing we knew he was calling us screaming “How DARE you send me a fax at this number!!!” I guess it was his business fax and there was a potential for his employees to see it. He then fired us. Wow! Unbelievable.

    I had another client I was working with that told me they wanted a “natural” landscape with “natural lines.” They had a really awkward lot that backed up to a steep riparian zone. So I made them this beautiful flowing design with curvilinear walks and a spiral like patio. They saw it and the wife almost started crying. They hated it. They didn’t like curves, only straight, rigid lines. Who knew?

    Clients can be pretty entertaining, but for every bad, hostile, pain-in-the-butt client there were always 5 great ones.

  6. Tara Dillard says:

    I love the client phone calls/emails, “The garden center said there is no such plant, and you can’t put ‘X’ where you want to put it,the contractor I found says nothing you designed in the front yard will grow.”

    And the client believes them!!! Knowing I am a decades long garden design professional, with a degree, several books written, tv show, national awards.

    Hmm. Very happy their intuition has them call me.

    LOVED your post. And aren’t we LUCKY to do this for a living!!

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  7. Eileen says:

    I’m not a gardening professional and really haven’t had much experience working with one either, but I loved “getting to know” one of the pioneers of landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmstead, in the book, “The Devil in the White City”. What a character! As the landscape designer for the Chicago World’s Fair, he was a stickler for details and drove everyone around him batty….in an endearing sort of way.

    I’m sure there’s eccentricities on both sides–the clients and the designers. I suppose it’s what makes life interesting.

  8. Christopher C, my mom is one of those people! I had her plant some Berberis in her front yard and she keeps telling me she needs to replace them because they’re dead. I don’t know how many times I’ve told her they are deciduous, just give them some time to leaf out.

    Oh, and I also have to mention that landscape maintenance companies are the bane of my existence. We call them “Mow and Blow” and they have to ball and box everything! My biggest pet peeves are when they cut Phormiums and Dietes to the ground like they are deciduous grasses.

  9. Michelle says:

    I’m not a garden professional, but I do have a story. . .

    One of my neighbors has an immaculate lawn and perfectly sculpted bushes, not a twig out of place. Her landscaper told her that her shrubs were diseased with “something that was going around”. (The bushes had been browsed into lollipops by deer, and had lichen on the trunks.) The same landscaper told her that her healthy, beautiful crabapples in the center of the lawn a. needed to be pruned like fruit trees that were intended to be harvested, and b. were too big, so they needed to be replaced.

  10. Nell Jean says:

    I’ve never been a professional designer nor a client of one. Your book might save me hours of constructive staring before I see the obvious solutions for my garden, or be the impetus to call in Tara [she’s only 200 miles away] to point them out.

  11. I am a client of a professional landscape designer. I finally stopped messing around (and messing things up) and consulted a PROFESSIONAL. I found Janet on http://www.apld.org — I love the plan Janet made for me, and it keeps me from buying junk at the garden center.

  12. Genevieve says:

    Love, I just finished your book and it was awesome (got an advance copy, lucky me!). I’ve been a designer for many years, but I still got so much out of seeing how you approach different things.

    The most reassuring part of the book for me was when you said that you don’t take clients to the nursery to see what plants they like (with the exception of your Tree Safari!), because they inevitably fall in love with things that won’t work in their space, and you spend the whole time explaining to them why they can’t have this or that darling plant.

    I thought that was just my bad luck to have that experience nearly every time! I had come to dread those nursery trips with involved clients because they rarely understand that we need to stick to the shade section or stay away from the floofy-perennials-that-need-more-care-than-no-maintenance section.

    Thanks for the encouragement to use other techniques to help clients view plants and see what they’re attracted to.

    Anyway, I don’t have many funny stories myself, at least not that I could print without fear of lawsuit!

    But your story about Miss Dark Shady House with the circled plant catalog of giant blooms for tropical sunshine so resonated with me. Some folks catch on quite easily to the fact that plants are alive and have specific care needs, other people, not so much!

    Still – can’t imagine being in a different field. Majority of my clients are very, very dear to me, my employees and colleagues are generally wonderful people, and I get to geek out about plants all day! I think gardeners and people who appreciate their beauty must be some of the nicest people in the world.

  13. Lochlanina says:

    So funny… My story is not nearly as funny as some of your stories, but I’ll share anyway.
    I do most of my own landscaping but hardscape is a bit different. I know where it should go and what it should look like but I’m not keen on playing with 70 lb cement blocks all day. So when I needed to have my front walk replaced I called in a professional landscaping service. I drew up a detailed plan — to scale on graph paper — showing the curve of the new retaining wall, the diagonal herringbone pavers, and indicating the area to be filled with garden soil for an expanded garden bed. The estimate was reasonable, I hired the guy, work began… The day they started laying the pavers he calls me out to ask where I want the banding to go.
    “Banding?” I say.
    He patiently explains that because of the curve the pattern on the walkway will need to be broken because you can’t lay straight pavers on the curve.
    I think my mouth fell open.
    “But I didn’t want straight pavers. Didn’t you see on the diagram I gave you? I indicated diagonal herring bone.”
    He looked at me. “I thought that was just lines.”
    Give me credit, I did not laugh in his face but I could not resist stating the obvious. “Yeah, diagonal lines. … Like for diagonal pavers?”
    “Oh.” He scratched and settled his cap back on his head. “Well that’s gonna cost extra.”

  14. Kirsten says:

    I’ve been reading GardenRant almost since it started but have never had anything relevant to say until now. I’ve been a garden designer for almost 20 years and this post mirrors my experiences with clients exactly! Especially the ‘why can’t I have a constantly blooming plant that gets put in at the perfect size and never grows and doesn’t need to be watered and never gets diseases and doesn’t care how much light it gets’? I’m always tempted to say ‘you can – if you don’t have a problem with plastic’! I once had an interview with the boyfriend of a client (she’d raved about me to him and he decided to see about having someone design his yard too) who told me that, although he could be an extremely talented garden designer if he really wanted to, he just didn’t have the time to mess around with it. I quoted him a price I thought would make it worth me having to justify to him every design decision I made and I never heard from him again (it was an astronomical amount). His (now ex-)girlfriend, one of the loveliest clients I’ve ever had, continues to stay in touch, updating me on her garden’s progress, and thanking me for my direction and advice. It’s true – for every problematic client, there are many more that make what I do worth it.

  15. Angela Davis says:

    Loved you stories. I’ve occasionally helped my friends pick out plants and give general garden design advise. Two close friends of ours wanted low maintenance plants for the front of their house. One wanted flowers but the other was deathly afraid of bees so didn’t want any flowers. I helped them pick out a couple flowering shrubs with a short blooming season and really acted as a mediator.

    Now that I’ve heard of your book, I’ll have to check it out. I’m transitioning careers (laid off), we already own a landscape business and I’m a gardener that loves to design/change/remodel my garden. I’m not certain I’ll become a landscape designer but it is a dream of mine.

  16. katie says:

    Have a friend who is a garden designer and she loves to share stories about her clients. My all time favorite was about a woman in So. California who found and hauled home a LARGE wooden chainsaw carving of a bear for her garden. My friend worked all day with her crew to get this monster placed and stabilized in the landscape. A few weeks later, she gets a panicked call from the owner, “It’s raining all over my bear! Come quickly and move it indoors!” Wouldn’t the concept of ‘garden sculpture’ imply weather-hardy?

  17. shira says:

    Well at least I’m not feeling alone anymore….

    My best/worst client had

    1. 2 hours max of sun (but she said “its really sunny)
    2. deer browsing (what do you mean i’ll have to periodically spray repellants if I want Hydrangeas)
    3.well water (I don’t ever want to have to water because the well might run dry)
    4. wanted no maintenance

    I had to bite my tongue and not suggest plastic plants! The client was disappointed when the plant palate was so limited due to her “conditions”. Ultimately she paid for design, but I told her my schedule was too full to do the install. I can only imagine what she would have come up with then!!

  18. This was a fabulous read,thank you! I currently have your book on hold at the local Library, and I’m not the only one since it’s on the wait list. I toy with the idea of entering your profession but when I read stories like yours I wonder if I would be able to keep my chin up in the face of such, well, stupidity! I can’t wait to read more…

  19. RB says:

    I had a friend of the family ask me to do their front yard for them. Everyone warned me that it is impossible for her to ever make up her mind. In the 12 years she had owned her house she had painted the exterior 10 times!

    So we went over the plants, let her think about them for a few weeks. When she gave me the ok I purchased them and brought them over. I placed them (still in pots) where they would go and again let her think about it a couple of weeks. She finally said she was fine with their placement so I put them in the ground, hooked up her irrigation, etc. She said she loved it and was really excited. The following week I went back to her house to take photos and to my surprise (although I was warned) everything had been moved! Over the week she had gone around looking at other people’s yards, decided she wanted something different and hired someone to come in and completely redo it. At least she paid me.

  20. Lisa, Ontario says:

    I am the garden “expert” in my circle of friends and co-workers. If they have a problem or want advice on what to plant they come to me. So my one co-worker doesn’t like nature (but owns a camping trailer with air conditioning and tv) he completely concreted over his entire back yard around the pool and hot tub with the tv. Now he would like to install some planters with vines in them to hide the wood fence. He wants them to keep their leaves in the winter, actually never shed them (that’s messy), not to actually cling to the fence, never go out of bounds (on the other side of the fence), rarely need pruning, and give some nice colour interest. I also know that he would not welcome birds or bees or any insects that may be attracted to said plant. Of course the first word out of my mouth was “plastic”. That is still an option.

    He was also the one a few years back in a previous house who wanted a front garden like his neighbours, that bloomed all summer. So I went to have a look at the neighbours garden, lovely. I told him about all the shrubs, that he would need, to which he said, “oh no, I don’t want any shrubs, just flowers”. I told him to go have another look at the garden, it was small, but had lovely bones of many shrubs, so that the flowers would pop. UGH.

  21. John says:

    Just so you know how universal these problems are – I spent 18 years working as a zookeeper and I can pretty much top any story you come up with.

  22. nancy@lushlifelandscapes says:

    I’ve read your book and it’s terrific, funny and full of information, wish I had had it before I became a landscape designer, client nightmares notwithstanding. Isn’t it funny how you can tell the very first instant you hear their voice on the phone whether it will be a good fit or not? Thanks for the stories.

  23. Brandon says:

    What a great post – I’m a web designer, and whether you’re pushing pixels or pushing peonies, dealing with the client is always the most exciting, frustrating and memorable part of the job. You can advise all you want, but ultimately – it’s the customer, and they are always right … as long as you ensure you get your hourly rate! Please send me a copy of the book!

  24. Pam/Digging says:

    What a funny and true post. Working with people who want a real connection with the outdoors is one of my favorite parts of design work. But clients who request “no maintenance” plants and basically ask for graveled-over back yards do make me shake my head sometimes.

    And accepting a job from a client who absolutely cannot be pleased or who has a bad vibe with his/her spouse is, I’ve learned the hard way, a job you really don’t want, no matter how well it pays.

    Luckily, the good outweighs the bad, and the rewards of working with a variety of interesting and engaging clients makes up for the occasional bad apple.

    I look forward to reading your book.

  25. Pam/Digging says:

    BTW, no need to put me in the running for the book. I already have a copy.

  26. This old story is appropriate to the client topic at hand. Seems it came up before here.

    http://tropicalembellishments.blogspot.com/2006/03/puddles.html

  27. angelchrome says:

    You are more patient folks than I because surely I’d have told someone off at some point. Some people just need a reality check.

  28. Laura Bell says:

    Alas, I’m not a professional garden designer, but I have dabbled enough as an amateur (both my current & former residences, the neighbors when they’ll let me) to know that I want to go into the biz. I love these stories, and though they make me think twice, I am still thinking about it. Have no design tales to tell, so I’ll have to purchase the book outright.

  29. Rene says:

    People come in to my garden and fall in love with all of my succulents. I have them covering mounds as drifts of color. Inevitably, I will offer them some cuttings. I love to share my plants with people who will love them. Then there is always the moment when they ask, “So, this will be fine in my living room, right?” No matter how patiently I try to explain that these plants need air, light and water, people want to grow them in a dark room. I’m still hopeful though!

  30. tina says:

    I had a client who absolutely could not understand why her ‘hydrangea’ did not bloom last year. It was such a pretty purple she said. I looked at the shrub and realized it was a lilac. Oops! She needed lots of help and it was fun but I get a chuckle from this mistaken identity each time.

    Enjoyed your client’s stories. Especially the townhouse garden.

  31. Daryl says:

    There used to be an old TV show called “This is Your Life”. Your post made me feel like I was in it.

    Clients can be so strange sometimes -like the one who had dozens of trees cut down and trucked in hundreds of cubic yards to level her backyard, then proudly showed me the couple of Trilliums she had dug up before the bulldozers arrived. Or the one who wanted the Het Loo Palace gardens on a 45 degree slope.

    Besides wholesale trashing of the natural landscape that breaks my heart, what makes me want to cry is stopping by the site a few years later to find that the perfect cultivar that I sweated over was planted with something totally inappropriate – just because the garden center said it was “just as good”.

    Still, I’ve had some wonderful clients over the years. For them I am truly grateful.

  32. Michelle D says:

    I’m entering my 28th year in the biz and have some wonderful stories of the bad, the good and the very very ugly.
    Just a day ago I had someone who isn’t even a signed client yet ( and probably won’t be) request my license number so that they could start purchasing their pots and garden furniture wholesale. …. sure, as soon as pigs fly out of my butt.

    One of the funniest moments was when a woman was in my office and their little snot nosed kid started playing with my electric eraser. The mother freaked out , thinking that it was a dildo and screamed to the kid ” Don’t touch that thing, you don’t know where’s it been !”.
    Yeah, right, like us landscape duhsigners all hang our dildo’s off of a hook on our drafting boards .. ..in our offices. ( eyes rolling )

    And then you have the interior duhsigners asking us to plant flowers to match the sofa or the wall paper.
    Or the high end trophy wife giving you her nail polish collection so you can match the shrubberies to her pointy paws.

    I could write a book as thick as War and Peace , but reliving it might make me rethink the career that I chose.
    Though I do get a good laugh sometimes when using my electric eraser.

  33. lisab says:

    I actually had a client that was such a micro manager she went to the nursery and picked out all of the plants herself. When we finished arranging and planting said plants she turned to me and said she thought there was too much green!!! If she would have let me do my job it wouldn’t have been, Oh never mind, it wouldn’t have been right anyway. I went back and planted some purple palace coral bells. The next spring she was “somewhat” delighted. If it’s not right the first time, just keep trying.

  34. Aunt Ida says:

    A few years ago, I retired from the accounting profession and took landscape design classes. It didn’t take long to find out that both professions have the good, bad and clueless clients!

    Here in Boise (zone 6/7, 12″ precip/year), people not only want no maintenance, they don’t want to water anything, either. Even xeric plants need a little water to keep them looking good all summer when it’s this dry.

    We have many nurseries here that have knowledgeable staff – some even look to hire Master Gardeners. But the guy who opened the nursery selling only palm trees stayed in business until the first hard winter. There are still a few palms around – frozen in time!

    I have your book on hold at the library, but would love to have it on my shelves for reference.

  35. Dave says:

    One of my fav clients ever was a sweet little old lady for whom I planted some clematis. I stopped by to check in, and right in front of her husband and friends she said “Oh David, I have to thank you for the chlamydia you gave me!” As we all burst out laughing, she said “Oh dear- that’s not the right name, is it?”

  36. Aha! another corporate marketing refugee like me, imagining that there would be something pleasant and soulful about working with people to help them steward their little plot of Earth. Welllllll…

    Give me an hour OUTSIDE a house with a couple, and I will know more about that relationship than I ever wanted to know. No need to peek inside. Problem is, I am not a therapist and if I was, I would: a. work on a 50 minute hour and
    b. make more per hour (or per 50 minutes) than I make now. :)

    As one of my landscape contractors is fond of saying: “Never be surprised when people behave like humans.”

  37. WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU CAN’T ACCEPT MY DATA? DO YOU KNOW HOW LONG I JUST SPENT WRITING A RESPONSE SO I CAN GET THAT BOOK:? THE WORST STORY EVER, NO CUSS WORDS INVOLVED? I AM GOING TO BED, GARDENRANT, AND FORGET YOU DISSED ME LIKE THIS! DANG!

  38. Red says:

    I’m still laughing at those marvelous stories and can’t wait to read your book. The lady who circled the tropical plant photos for her Massachusetts garden is my favorite. I’ve worked in the industry for years and have learned that sometimes a customer’s lack of plant knowledge can teach us to see from a new perspective. Sort of. My story:
    One day the wife of a local builder pulled into the wholesale tree and shrub nursery where I worked. This was her first visit to the nursery and judging by her clothes she had not counted on the dirt parking lot and muddy walkways. I asked her what I could help her find. She said “I need some air-conditioner plants.”

    “Hmmm, I’m not sure what you mean” I replied unwittingly.

    “A-I-R C-0-N-D-I-T-I-O-N-E-R P-L-A-N-T-S!” She yelled back at me. I expected her to follow with “You stupid moron!” Still stumped, I offered to take her for a spin around the nursery to see if she might spot these mysterious plants, but she refused to get into my golf cart because it was too filthy. Next she asked if there was anyone there who knew anything about plants. I told her I was supposed to be that person. Then I took off in my filthy cart (muttering some pretty awful things under my breath) and returned loaded with several different types of shrubs, pulled up next to her Cadillac and asked if any of them looked familiar.
    “Noooo, those aren’t right. How can you not know what I’m talking about? I need those plants that you put in front of air conditioner units to hide them from view.” I thought back to the last Parade of Homes tour I had been on and got a hunch. I pulled back up with several variegated red-twig dogwoods in the cart, and bulls-eye! She pulled out her checkbook and gave me a delivery address.
    That woman treated me like crap but at least I got a plant I.D. lesson out of the encounter.

  39. Green w/ NV says:

    I love the clients who don’t flinch about spending thousands ripping out 30 y/o rhodies, ilex and ivy – but don’t want to spend a few bucks to amend the soil before they install the next garden!! They ask, “but do I really need it??” No plant guarantees on that installation….

  40. Barbara says:

    I’ve just started working with clients and it’s been quite an education. My next job is for a client who wants a tropical look. No problem there, but the only color that I’m allowed is purple. Should be interesting!

  41. Stephanie T says:

    Sounds like I need this book and actually excited that something like this exists. School does not prepare you for clients. My worst client was a horribly angry person 95% of the time. She treated me like one of her many personal assistants, which was bad. I still wanted to do the job well despite her actions. She was incredibly indecisive and forgetful, not a good combination for me or anybody working for her. She would scream and yell over something she forgot she had requested prior. She would demand things that would not work even after many long meetings of explaining why it wouldn’t work. For example, most of her plants were diseased or dead because the garden was way overgrown and shady. She demanded that they be reused and transplanted. Providing staging and shade for the plants during construction alone was enough of a cost to say get rid of them (and I really try to reuse everything under normal circumstances). What a challenge I accepted! Incorporating at least 40 dead plants into a new lovely design! The design had made it to construction with most of it’s integrity intact, mine…I don’t know. Then the transplants went in. Next to the new green plants, they looked even worse. She screamed and yelled at me, the crew, everyone on how we could give her dead plants! After frantically procuring new plants and installing them, the garden looked as it originally should have. Lovely. The client then tells me she shouldn’t have to tell me how to do my job. She had to tell me to remove the dead plants to get the garden that she wanted! Wow. That is all I could say every time I left a meeting with her. I am still glad it is a gorgeous garden even if she doesn’t deserve it. Hopefully, the personal assistants get a minute of peace out there.

  42. Mary S says:

    I would like to be a garden designer! I like to be outside and I love plants-flower, foliage and form. So many plants and so many garden possibilities and not enough room in just my garden alone. Plus, I am a recovered plant pruner.

  43. kateo potato says:

    I am not a designer, but I was subcontracted for a summer to work for an inn, in a pinch, when their illegal migrant workers got deported. I was the only member of my company’s crew that was willing to deal with the client, so I had to go by myself three days a week to do a job that the boss had estimated would take TWO people three days per week to maintain.

    The property had extensive formal gardens (was used for high dollar weddings), the picture-perfect magazine type, with tons of roses, peonys, and other high maintenance perennials, plus annuals. The client’s strict job requirements for me… no deadheads on the plants, no petals or fallen leaves in the BUCKWHEAT hull mulch (very thin, light, and expensive), keep all plantings individualized, pruned to perfection, obviously no weeds, put new gardens here and here…

    Acres and acres to do in half the man hours because the client with the multi-million dollar property was dirt cheap. The client was nasty, managed to bring me to tears once (I was 19 at the time) by telling me what an awful job I was doing and how stupid and incompetent I was because there were A FEW two inch tall weeds in TWO of the beds I hadn’t gotten to yet that week when I was first starting.

    The client loved to have me plant petunias under a permanent tent (deep shade) and impatiens (not new guineas) in bright sun. And proceeded to act like a know-it-all DIY-er when it came to gardening.

    The client had me prune some suckers and low branches off a birch tree (without an arbor’s license) and then had me strip all the leaves off BY HAND (for two hours) so the wood could be used in fireplaces. Totally not in the job description. Totally a waste of time because THEY WOULD HAVE FALLEN OFF IN DAYS!

    Many more stories from that summer…

    But my job was to smile and say “yes ma’am” to the client. I loved the work and the company I worked for, I just hated being a subcontractor!

  44. Chris M. says:

    Well, it did me much good to read of your experiences; sort of made me feel better about my own problems.
    I work as a gardener, and I have a client who recently told me we would have to cut back my hours because she could not pay me to do whatever needed to be done to maintain the garden, and that I would have to work when she could work with me so she could learn to do what I do (this should have been a warning of what was to come – I have been working for 20 years to learn what I do!).
    Right away that was a problem because now I had to work on her day off, not when I had time.

    But I said o.k. let’s try it.

    When I worked in the garden today, only one hour as I promised, she got mad at me because I hadn’t told her I was coming, which of course I forgot, but the clean-up I had explained how to do wasn’t done so the border was already messy as we’ve have had three days of summer heat and I knew the grasses had to be cut now! But did she care? No, she was upset because I hadn’t told her I was coming today!

    I need the book because I have work to do in my own garden, and now will probably have plenty of time to do it, and I will need all the help I can get.

  45. missy says:

    i would love love love to have your book–i purchased a property many months back that has *never* been touched and is in desperate need of some love/Love.

    i worked with a professional garden designer at my previous house in new mexico. she was wonderfully intuitive about the plants that would and would not work in our completely sunny (i.e. new mexico sun every moment the sun was up) yet almost completely dry area…and she managed to give me a yard that looked gorgeous without pruning, feeding, ridiculous amounts of watering, etc. she totally helped make our space complete.

  46. Hoover says:

    Perhaps we were problem clients, but our LA was no Fredrick Law Olmstead. She didn’t seem to know anything at all about any plants beyond standard privit/rapheolepis/agapanthus.

    She wanted to plant shrubs along the street that had a mature size of 8-10′, and have us keep them trimmed down to 1′. I told her that didn’t make sense, why not plant something that stayed 1′, and she was offended.

    She had no clue about paying attention to the surrounding views: the gateways exactly frame things like the neighbor’s ugly roof, or another neighbor’s teenage son’s bedroom window. How about screening out stuff like that, not framing them?

    She wanted to plant azaleas in full sun because I didn’t want privit/rapheolepis/agapanthus I asked, aren’t azaleas for shade? and she said if you water them a lot every day they are fine. I said won’t that take a lot of water? (our climate is semi-arid). It went on and on. The fountain is a maintenance nightmare because she didn’t consider maintenance for one second.

    She was the builder’s LA and came highly recommended. The builder did a great job on the house so we trusted his recommendation, but he didn’t have high standards for landscape.

    Maybe it was a blessing in disguise. I’ve learned so much fixing or trying to fix all the problems.

  47. As we began the final walk through of the completed installation (8 months of work that included custom arbors, sculpture, hose holders, etc.) the smiling client turned to me and said, “Will I ever have to water any of these plants?”

  48. Great dialogue from clients and de-zine-ahs, garden coaches, horticulturalists, and gardeners. When I ran a garden center for over a dozen years, the first prerequisite for hiring was “Must like Plants AND People.” When contact with The Human Condition is required, it is absolutely necessary to like, be entertained by, and fascinated by, people. (After all that’s the part that makes us want to share stories and buy this book, no?)

    And, to recognize that the clients’ needs change over time, sometimes radically.

    Apologies on behalf of all of us who ply our trade to the client (Hoover) above who had a problem with an LA who disregarded the most pressing issue of #sustainability: #LANDSCAPE #MAINTENANCE.

    You may have been better off working with a landscape designer or a design/install/maintain firm who has real #’hands-in-dirt’ experience that helps guide the design programme at the outset. While I have great respect for LA’s and the education, testing, practice hoops they must jump through to get registered (I researched and rejected that path, consciously, twice), real-world experience with a garden over time is not part of the requirement to become an LA.

    In fact in my state, to become registered, an LA must work for a period for an LA, architecture, surveying or planning firm, but get no credit for time served with (lowly) ‘trades’ such as landscape design, design/build, arboristry, forestry, horticulturalist, grounds management firms. Thus: LA’s must get hired onto large scale (commercial, usually) projects early in their careers. In the boom times for development, this means working with what my mother would call the ‘more money than sense’ crowd…mostly – as the LA who taught my Master Gardener class in GA said – “to grade parking lots so they drain”.

    Intimacy with a site over time (even if just different times of day, not just times of year), rather than time on the drawing board or computer, is what helps a designer NOTICE and screen out the offending ‘off-premises’ issues. This has unfortunately become seen as a luxury by clients and firms alike, rather than a necessity.

  49. This is such a great post, especially as my season is starting here along the Jersey Shore. All of the stories shared made me smile and realize that all of us in the profession see all kinds.

    My quick stories are:

    The client who called me on a Friday night saying I had to come over and plant more flowers because she was having a party…yep, the hired help, on my hands and knees planting impatiens while the guests looked on from the porch above commenting on what I was doing and how I was doing it like I wasn’t even there!

    Another story, just the other day, delivering a square foot garden to my client with the 3×3 box strapped to the back of my Honda Accord..hopefully this season I can upgrade to a truck! The picture is priceless..whatever it takes, right?

    And lastly, after 3 days of unseasonably hot weather, the number of people in the last week who asked me if it is OK to plant their tomatoes, because they saw them at the big box stores..telling me they wouldn’t be there if they couldn’t plant them, right? (PS we are in Zone 7, frost free May 15th)

    I am still learning the best ways to run my business and differentiate myself from the many, many other landscapers in our area. I count on hearing how other people have been successful, which is why this blog is so great. Going into my second season (yay!) and looking forward to reading your book, thank you for sharing here!

  50. MiSchelle says:

    For years I worked in the accounting field and fantasized about escaping the flourescent lighting for a job in plantdom. When we relocated to a different part of the country I made the leap to what I thought would be a stress-free job as a live-nursery specialist at a big-box store. I know – how naive of me!

    This may be surprising to some of you (not!) but many people who shop at the big box garden centers have no clue about gardening, or maybe anything else. I had a client point to a bench of plants and ask “how much are those pink flowers?” Those are impatiens, they like shade, and they are xx per six pack. “How many plants are in a six pack?” REALLY?!! Uh, six. “How much are the white ones?” Those are white impatiens and they are xx per six pack as well. All of our annuals are xx per six pack. “What about the purple ones?” If it’s in a six-pack it’s xx. “So even if its not an impatient its still xx?” AGH!
    I had to escape before I committed hari-kari right among the petunias.

    Now I sit in my flourescent office weekdays and freelance in my spare time as a garden consultant where I’m able to pick and choose clients. All my work is by word of mouth, and I like it that way. I’m a little nervous to try this full-time (what if I fail?), but with the encouragement of your book, Love, I think I could at least give it a try.

  51. Deb Wezensky says:

    I love gardens that look a bit “messy” kind of like impressionist paintings that evolve depending on the time of day, month and season. There’s a certain beauty to the miracle of being a partner in creating beauty in partnership with Mother Nature. But – I realize more and more that not everyone sees the world like this! Ahhhh-when you do find like-minded folks – how lovely it is to share insights, tips, challenges and beautiful successes.

    I no longer have perennial beds, so my creativity is in containers. And it is amazing how plants and soil call to me beckoning to again be a steward of a bit of land. So, I’m volunteering with an urban garden initiative that works with kids.

    To each his or her own. And, of course, laughing about the absurdities in life surely helps everything become more interesting and fun.

    Great blog – love the examples of your clients. Isn’t working with people “colorful” We can never cease to be amazed and entertained AND challenged.

  52. Peter Hoh says:

    The book sounds like a fun read.

    I’ve been dipping my toe in this work, doing a few jobs for family, friends, and neighbors. Biggest downside? I’m neglecting my own garden.

    If only I could figure out how to explain to people that lawn is not low-maintenance.

  53. I was the client and have a story about my designer. A couple of years ago I asked a designer who had done some work for me before to help me with some plantings on the edge of my yard. I had some pretty specific requirements – needed to be evergreen, good in shade, and deer resistant. I also wanted to use a native plant if at all possible. Using natives as much as possible was very important to me, and she knew it. She suggested a viburnum. “Sounds great. Let’s do it.”

    A couple years later I discovered that the particular viburnum she planted in my yard is not a native – at least not of this continent. I am not sure if she realized this or not. But if she didn’t she should have, so she was either ignorant or purposely deceiving me. In either case, I won’t be hiring her again.

  54. Jerry Stanczak says:

    Always good to run across a kindred spirit. Although I always try to keep in mind that helping someone is our highest vocation, one can’t help but be amused at how hard some people work against their best interest. If everyone would take the time to just glean a basic bit of plant information maybe we wouldn’t have to deal with people who want those bushy things that have flowers year round without any messy stuff, and none of those birds and bees flying about. And of course, they won’t need any water will they? And they won’t die will they? And on and on and on.

  55. Jackie says:

    I’m a garden designer eavesdropper. Actually, I’m a neighbor of someone who hired a garden designer. When these neighbors moved in, the front garden they inherited was basically a weed patch. They hired a designer who created a nice, natural design with (relatively) low maintainance plants. The neighbor was happy…so was the neighborhood. But as time went by, we began to notice the lack of care for the plants. Eventually, the weeds began to take over…even though the designer had installed weedblock. (We have some incredibly tough weeds!) Homeowners need to realize that there is no garden that is maintainance-free!

  56. SJ says:

    I have been doing this for over 18 years – In general most of my business is maintenance for all the mixed borders I’ve designed and inherited from designers.

    One of my more unusual tasks is cemetary plots because I’ll do anything for money. Yes, that’s right garden design for the deceeased. I take it pretty seriously as I want the relatives to be happy when they visit their loved ones. Catholic cemetaries are the worst as they have height and maintenance restrictions on everything because the mower decks have to be able to pass over the tops. One lady likes to have silks instead of real flowers so I try to come up with a new design every year for her son. This year we’re going to try to a create an image of a violin using the silks. And over the years (while doing the installations and the maintenance) it’s amazing how you get to meet and chat at length with many of the relatives of all the other nearby occupants many of them quite nice and charming. Although, sometimes they get a little ornery about people stealing stuff and at times need someone to lend an ear.

  57. Susanna Membrino says:

    Working part-time in a nursery and part-time as a garden designer for the past couple of years, I have been amused, irritated, and truly delighted by my clients. They do come in all types and one marvels at their attitudes towards nature. Fear of bees, allergies, fear of trees falling on the house, insecurity in the presence of people who know something they don’t know about plants all contribute to clients’ problems with the outside world. I feel it is my job to calm the fears, keep things amusing, and gently introduce them to the wonderful world outdoors.

    In the nursery all day I am forced to think on my feet, coming up with design ideas from iphone photographs of the front yard. My first question is usually, “what kind of sun do you get?” Hot afternoon vs. dappled early morning sun, etc. One client answered earnestly, “I get northern sun.”

  58. Mary says:

    I volunteered to design the backyard garden of my elderly neighbor. I wanted to keep the process casual, so instead of a list of plants and a site map, I strolled around the yard with her, chatting about soil amendments, plant selections, succession of color, blah, blah, blah.

    When I was finished she turned to me and asked,, “Do you know what you’re doing, or do you just think you do? ”

    I think the answer to both questions is yes.

  59. Ah…the hand that feeds me.

  60. Vicki Graham says:

    In my former life I was a corporate drone, employed in accounts payable. It could be a thankless drudge job, even in not-so-flush times the bills need to get paid!

    My gardens gave me solace, and a creative outlet. When I had the opportunity to change careers, I jumped to it.

    I now work part-time at a small family-owned greenhouse. I have past experience in design/install, and have been encouraged to supplement my hours in the greenhouse with more of these jobs. The neighborhood clientele is older, wealthier than some of the surrounding areas.

    The reason I could use your book is to get a clearer picture of what sort of services to offer as a “standard” package. I will be competing for jobs with other employees, so the hourly rate is already fairly established. I could use some professional advice!

    Thanks and Happy Gardening!

  61. Laura says:

    What a wonderful blog post, and I especially loved all of the comments. As a landscape designer and contractor, it rang true on many accounts. I especially loved the term ‘mullet’ for a way of pruning. I have seen boxed and balled, but not yet the mulleted shrub.

  62. Trillium Art says:

    I loved your article! Being a designer for the last 17 years I can relate! I’ve had a client who brought me their pool towels so I could match the colour, gardens that have to be all white against a pale grey house or a moonlight garden on the edge of cliff so that the client’s partiers wouldn’t fall down. The client who couldn’t understand you couldn’t install a 1/2 acre landscape herself in one weekend. Or the boys from the city who wanted to garden in the country and didn’t even own a shovel! Thank you for the chuckles! I’m so looking forward to you book!!! Thank you!

  63. Amy Greenan says:

    I would love to learn more about your trade! Since buying our first house three years ago this summer, I’ve become quite obsessed with gardening and have been tweaking my plots since, and developing my style and tastes. As an artist and graphic designer who is trying, bit by bit, to free herself of a 9 to 5 cube job, one of my fantasies is to become a garden designer — but I don’t really know the first thing about how to do that. To say that I would be really grateful for a copy of your book is an understatement. It could be life-changing, indeed!

  64. sara says:

    I do not think I could make it as a professional garden designer. One of my uncles works at a nursery and knows his trade inside and out, but the people who frequent the place are there because they saw Martha Stewart do something, or P. Allan Smith plant something, or they saw a Really Bad Idea exemplified on Victory Garden and want the same thing in their patio even though it’s the wrong climate, wrong time of year, and wrong planting zone.

  65. Esperanza Escondido says:

    Karmic Retribution for H. Tardiva’s Slaughter

    H. Tardiva may never forgive me. When I was tall enough to climb the Hydrangea tree I amputated both branches just to see if they would sprout. Rounder than I was wide, those branches didn’t come back.

    Karma is a bitch.

    Growing things possess me. I witness the flowers seed. I cherish the diminutive daisy weed that greens up in the winter, blooms in March and blows away brown two weeks after. The Sun and I know how awesome this flower is.

    I would never know this flower except for the last three years I have pulled this single wire stem flower with its single wire stem root out of each juncture of brick that courses the length of this oversized Cape. And someone pays me for it. A miniscule weed which looks like a haze over the walk is my occupation. How did the weed and I meet?

    Someone’s roses need pruning. My aunt suggests I prune the roses because of the lovely blossoms she gets every year since pruning hers. I pruned them once. “Cut off the dead stuff, open the interior, cut back to first bud.” I am a bonsai enthusiast, you sure you want me to prune your roses? Bonsai: the Buddhist art of torturing a plant into expressing its inherent nature. If it doesn’t live, it wasn’t meant to…

    I get the look of concern when the owner sees the roses.

    Yet, she invites me to assess the garden…

    The Rhodes aren’t doing well because there is no mulch and the irrigation is on during the hottest part of every day. They probably want some fertilizer, too… which is going to turn the Pink hydrangea down slope Blue. She doesn’t like Blue. She likes Pink. I’ll see what I can do…

    And summons me the following Spring: The bulbs are a little much.

    What do 500 tulips bulbs reap in 500 square feet?…A flagrantly obscene Vernal Welcome. I harvest a bouquet for the Rose Bowl.

    A third Spring, I am sacrificing daisies, beheading roses and harvesting tulips…with helpers, from under several years’ of rumpled sketches scattered amongst the browning discards of previous design professionals. Someone is a patient masochist. And yet,

    Consults and installations are blossoming word of mouth.

    Whether or not it’s true, someone thinks I can do this. Real designers, educated garden people voice their concerns; they know what I don’t know. But, I know. Patience pays. When those crocus start pushing the phone rings…

    This hasn’t died, yet; I guess it’s not meant to…Not until I atone for the Hydrangea Tree. If you want to kick into the Karma hat, it’s passing and the book is just the thing.

    Peace.
    Esperanza Escondido

  66. naomi says:

    I’m soon to be leaving a career in politics and just started my first class towards my new career as a garden designer. Politicians and garden customers have quite a bit in common, which is quite entertaining and simultaneously frightening–they are both always right! Would love to have a copy of this book to help me on my way.

  67. I have to add my two cents from my designer days:
    The cute gay couple who rejected Japanese Umbrella Pine because it looked “too plastic, like it’s from the 1960’s.”

    The overbearing Stockbroker type who demanded to buy a climbing lilac,and when I told him no such plant existed, said “I know they do, I saw one climbing up an old brick house.” He was still skeptical when I discerned that he saw a wisteria, so I didn’t bother to tell him that it probably wouldn’t bloom for several years and not to plant it next to a wooden structure.

    And the design client who took a piece of rhododendron branch to his local nursery, after I told him that it died from being overwatered, and they said it had been underwatered. “Did you bother to tell them that there was a sprinkler head in the middle of the shrub?” I asked.

    I have more, but that will do for now

  • Follow Garden Rant

    Follow Me on Pinterest RSS