As soon as I see them pull out the cell phone, I’m on my guard. Sometimes that angst ebbs when it is just a plant they’d like identified or a photo of something they think I would appreciate, but too often, far too often, it is a picture of their house. They want to be told what to plant. I try to hold down my hackles with what looks like an innocent rubbing of my neck.
First of all, I would never dream of pulling my sleeve back and asking a doctor I just met to look at a lesion is on my skin and tell me what I need to do about it. It is just plain disrespectful…so why do my years in school have no worth? In the years since school, I have shelled out sums I dare not add up for plants, books, travel, symposia, and I have walked miles of garden tours. Why is there this assumption that “help with the yard” is to be had for the asking?
Some assume I should design their landscapes because I am a government employee, but part of my job description is to support landscape industry professionals and it would undermine those livelihoods if I were to to give away free what they are paid to do. I tried to explain this to a huffy man who insisted that as a taxpayer he was entitled to my design services. I also explained that if I were to help him personally, I would also have to help every Tennessean personally, so the answer has to be no….and no, doing a makeover on your yard as a teaching example for others makes not one whit of difference in my decision, nor does an offer of lunch or dinner.
However, the expectation of free advice isn’t the crux of my complaint. It’s that I can’t imagine why this person thinks it’s that simple. It is the equivalent of standing in line at the grocery and asking an interior designer what furniture I should buy, though they know nothing of my lifestyle, tastes, functional needs, size or orientation of the room or its windows and doors. I’m bewildered that this person thinks coming up with the right plant or plants should be quick and easy (and free).
I take a deep breath and keep my tone deceptively polite. My first question is about their design intentions – a question that I know will summon a baffled look. I explain that plants are chosen to fulfill desired roles to meet your lifestyle needs, just as you would choose the right materials for certain rooms to serve the ways you intend to use that room. I ask them how these plants will help reach those goals. Their eyes are getting a certain glaze, and I fully confess that this satisfies that petty part of me that wants to drive home the message that landscape design is much more complex than they ever dreamed.
For some of these unfortunate neophytes, it is often a spot along the foundation, and this blind belief that houses require foundation plantings galvanizes me into a fervent sermon on the evils of this assumption. Most walls on most houses shouldn’t have one. Most foundation plantings are life sentences to endless maintenance. Many if not most foundation plantings are nonsensical and irrelevant to a well-designed landscape.
They’ve stopped listening by now and are irritated that I am asking them to reconsider long-held assumptions they hold about what constitutes a “nice yard”. They are beginning to sense they have become a target, a victim of my decades of suffering while people show me photos and give me tedious explanations about what plant had been there, its origins in time and family history, and the long and sorry details of its eventual unsuitability and demise. Yes, it is time for payback and I’m going for a full nelson. I pepper them with questions about the house’s architectural style and what plants currently exist in other parts of the landscape, and how they need to be considered in the composition, and about the view from the relevant windows and the distant backgrounds to those views. When I finally let them have a word, the exasperated cry of uncle is “I just want something that will grow there and look pretty!”
I know they do. I know they want a plant that gets to the perfect size quickly and then stops growing, blooms their favorite color all summer and has handsome evergreen foliage all winter. It should be found down the street, be easy to spell and not cost much. I keep these bitter thoughts to myself but they add fresh fuel.
So somewhere about this point, I appear to soften, and ask the litany of necessary questions about sun, shade, soil and drainage before making a few suggestions. Actually I am seizing this as another opportunity to illustrate that even knowing which questions to ask requires much experience and knowledge. I gather steam, thrashing them with Latin names and regaling them with a few horror stories that reveal why common names are not reliable, and lead to unfortunate and costly mistakes. I admonish them sternly to find the specified plants and not allow substitutions. I lecture them on the importance of supporting local mom and pop garden centers, and the state of the horticultural industry if we let box stores dominate. By the time we part ways, they wish they had never asked and I hope I made them wish they had never asked. We are both exhausted.
I’m getting older. Time and energy are growing ever more precious, so I’ve been trying to convince myself to give them all the same answer. No lectures about design, no questions about light and soil, just smile and say daylilies. Plant daylilies. After all, the world doesn’t have enough daylilies.