Champions of the Environment

Landscape Designers
Professional Help for Your Garden

By: Carol Pilgrim and Karen Kelly

A Wide Range of Services

Information the Designer Needs

Finding the Right Designer

Using the VSLD

Whether you live in a townhouse or have 100 acres in the country, at some time you want to do some "exterior decorating". You look at gorgeous garden layouts in magazines, buy some how-to books on landscaping, and visit your local garden center. But somehow, the picture-perfect garden just never materializes. Instead, you keep replacing the same shrub over and over, or your yard looks like a crazy quilt of mismatched plantings.

It's never too late to admit that perhaps there is more to landscape design than you can learn from a how-to book. Developing out door living spaces to suit your lifestyle involves more than just planting your favorite bushes. No one would consider building a house one room at a time, without an overall plan. Imagine your landscape as a series of garden "rooms," each with its own distinct character and purpose. With the right plan, these outdoor spaces can be linked together to create a useful, comfortable garden "house." One way to achieve the effect you want with your garden is to contact a professional landscape designer.

A Wide Range of Services (Back to Top)

Landscape design services vary. Some designers only draw the garden plan. Homeowners can then install the work themselves or have contractors bid on the job. Other designers may offer landscape contracting services. They would be able to provide installation of the project in addition to the design. Retail garden centers may have designers in-house, but they may limit planting suggestions to available nursery stock, rather than choosing a custom solution.

A good landscape designer will take into account tastes, lifestyle, and amount of time you have to maintain a garden. Your input is invaluable to them. A professional can draw any number of suitable plans for a given property, but input from you allows your designer to narrow the options to those that will best fulfill your goals. Homeowners need to communicate any special needs such as future additional parking, play equipment, pets, a vegetable garden area, or walkways. A professional landscape designer will gather information from the homeowner, assess existing plantings and site conditions, and recommend a course of action.

The landscape design can range from a simple sketch on site, to a fully developed master plan. If you plan to contract the work out or complete the garden over a number of seasons, a master plan is the best way to go. This is a scale drawing that can be used by your contractors to help design and price their work. The biggest advantage of a master plan is that each phase is completed, it will relate to the other sections of the overall design. Once you have completed all the phases, you will have a cohesive whole.

Most designers charge an hourly fee for their design ideas. Unless you have an extensive knowledge of plant material and soils, and a good eye for design, this design fee will be the best investment of your landscaping project. Often it is less than the money a homeowner may spend correcting planting mistakes made without a professional advice. Homeowners can budget their site improvements by prioritizing sections to the plan, getting estimates on materials, and proceeding as time and money allow. It's true that landscaping is a "growing investment" that appreciates with time, but this applies to a well-planted and maintained landscape. A poorly designed garden with plants that outgrow their space due to poor choices or placement will not be an asset.

Finding the Right Designer (Back to Top)

Once you decide to hire a professional, finding one you can work with is important. Word of mouth is a reliable way to find out about designers. The owners of properties you admire may be flattered to tell you who does their work. If you like, you should be able to view a portfolio and photographs or get addresses of completed jobs. It is important to find a designer who will listen to you. After all, you have to live with the results!

Don't be tempted to get multiple designers to draw your project. There are many valid designs for the same space, and it is very difficult to compare them objectively. Rather, find a designer with whom you are comfortable and then convey as much information as possible to describe what you want to achieve. Find out how the designer charges, what services are available, and what sort of turnaround time is involved from initial call to final plan.

Information the Designer Needs (Back to Top)

Don't wait until the busiest part of spring or fall if you need your plan quickly for an important garden event. A thoughtful design takes time. Expect to provide a copy of your survey map if requested. This document includes valuable information about your property, easements, and adjacent uses.

Even if you do not know specific plant names, have a general idea of types of plants you like or dislike. If you have color preferences, need more shade or a windbreak, be sure to mention it. Occasionally, you may want plants included that simply are not suited to your situation, exposure, or existing soil conditions. A good designer will let you know whether your plant choices will perform in your area.

Few of us request "high-maintenance" landscapes, but there is no such thing as a "no maintenance" garden. Even low-maintenance plantings require some effort to keep weeds, insects, and diseases in check.

Using the VSLD  (Back to Top)

Virginia residents have a valuable statewide resource in the Virginia Society of Landscape Design (VSLD). The membership of this professional organization includes over 60 Certified Landscape Designers who have demonstrated competency in design, plant suitability, and graphic communication. Certified Designers must fulfill annual continuing education requirements in addition to having an educational background in Green Industry or design. This statewide group of professional designers is an excellent starting point if you want to find a designer for your yard and garden. For a listing of the VSLD Certified Designers in this area visit our web site at

Carol Pilgrim and Karen Kelly are associated with
Shipp & Wilson, Inc., Landscaping, in Glen Allen, VA.
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