Guest Post by 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.”