Gardening by phone



If only it were that easy. Every spring, I listen—I can’t help it, unfortunately; the walls are too thin—as my next-door office neighbor begins her annual round of phone calls to various landscaping and yard service in the area. They start out calmly and somewhat optimistically. This, this, and this need to be fixed so the garden and yard will look right for the coming summer.

Then the tone gets a little more aggressive. Then it gets frantic. It almost seems as though the entire property were being done over each year. Shrubs are replaced. Turf is ripped up and replaced. Stonescaping is considered. The yard gets flooded. Trees come down. I have never been to this property, but in my mind it has become an apocalyptic cycle of constant destruction, rebirth, and destruction.

We were discussing this in Austin; indeed, Pam/Digging is a garden designer. I don’t want to generalize, therefore; I know there is a better world of garden design services out there. But—quite often—gardens I see that were completely done by a designer make me think “What did they do? What’s attractive/inviting/fun/interesting about this?” Often area gardens where outside contractors are continually used are always in a state of flux, and the owner is usually in a state of semi-unhappiness. Recently, four Buffalo gardens were featured in a magazine called (not very originally) Great Backyards, but still I was impressed to see it in Target, and other big chains. While many of the gardens featured had designers listed, the Buffalo ones had the owners listed as the designers. I think in Buffalo we have had to find our own way to deal with our tight, urban properties, because often what we hear from the professional community just doesn’t seem quite right. I know that happened to me twice when designers came: their suggestions involved major hardscaping changes/additions just for the sake of major hardscaping changes/additions. Yet, often I do feel I’d like some expert help.

Pam and Susan seem to have the right idea; they listen, they make suggestions, they guide, and they arrive at solutions that are largely carried out by the homeowner (or their helpers). I can hardly wait for some great garden coaches to come to Buffalo. When I listen to the anxious directives coming from the office next door, coaching makes more sense than ever.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Hey, eliz, thanks for the endorsement! I also got the impression from chatting with Pam that she’s part-coach. I do wish I could offer a full range of services, like she can, but ain’t gonna happen.

  2. Elizabeth,

    Hello…great rant! Clever illustration! I want a garden with soul and lately it seems that any soul is getting decorated out of them… Similar to the over decorated home.

    clay and limestone

  3. ” I don’t want to generalize,…”
    uh, you just did and was derogatory.

    You want to see some cool and creative gardens ?
    A trip out of that ‘semi-unhappiness’ Buffalo area might do some eye opening good.
    Come visit the S.F. Bay area – your socks will be blown off .

    Garden Coaches ?
    Providing that they are creative, professional and know what they are talking about, what makes them different from a garden designer who offers horticultural consultation ?

    I guess I just don’t get this new buzz word.

    What distinguishes a garden coach from a garden designer or a horticulturist , beside the new form of buzz word in ‘the horticultural industry ‘ ?

    I just met two people who have recently declared themselves ‘garden coaches’.
    I’ve been to their gardens and they couldn’t design themselves out of a paper bag nor identify the most simplistic pathological horticultural diseases nor were allowed to purchase plants in a wholesale nursery because they didn’t even have their business end of ‘their business’ figured out.

    If you’re going to ‘coach’ another would be gardener one would hope that there is a basic understanding of ornamental horticulture, some basic business practice if you are cha ching $ charging for this consulting visit , a bit of knowledge about soil science and a thing or two about site analysis.

    Not knowing a basic realm of horticulture and site analysis yet passing yourself off as a ‘garden coach’ only brings this emerging (? ) profession (?.. is it really ? ) down.

  4. You make some good points, Elizabeth. My take, from a designer’s point of view, is that someone who is continually hiring new designers or landscapers to redo her garden is someone who is not conveying what she wants, or maybe not even sure what she wants. She is looking for someone to come in and read her mind or heart, and when they don’t, she starts her round of calls all over again.

    She needs to think through what she wants out of her landscaping and then sit down with someone who will listen and flesh out those ideas before getting out the bulldozers and shovels.

    My design business is pretty small, and because I don’t offer installation or have a crew of my own, my clients tend to be either experienced gardeners or folks looking to save money by doing it themselves. I do a good bit of coaching with the latter group, and provide not only a list of plants with their plan but also care instructions. So often I see people delighted with their new landscaping but with no idea how to care for it. And as it steadily declines, they mistakenly berate their designer for the problem.

    Tender loving care that keeps a garden looking good is up to the homeowner (or a hired crew–good luck unless you have Christopher), and it would be great if more designers took the time to give their clients the information they need to keep that new garden looking good.

  5. Pam, I agree. I’m hired increasingly by people whose designer told them nothing about how to take care of their newly installed garden. So I’m hoping that more and more designers will hear about coaching and incorporate some of it into the services they provide.

  6. Great design lasts throughout the seasons and looks great under snow too. Maybe this is why some of the designers suggest hardscaping or some sort of permanent structure to the garden. My landscape designs are plant-centric but always incorporate some kind of hardscaping because it will outlast even the most vital plant.

    Perhaps the homeowner that Elizabeth is listening to shops her designers by price and looks for a deal each Spring and gets her money’s worth. Another guess would be that this person does not understand the nature of certain plants and thinks they are dead when they are just coming out of dormancy and just wants to pull them out and start over. She sounds like a nightmare and I wouldn’t want to take on a client like her who is not committed to her own yard and much less a design professional.
    By the way, check out Susan’s Gardening Coach web site, I have a post on garden maintenance manuals that I offer to my clients after the new landscape and gardens are installed.

  7. I’ll be honest. At first, I didn’t really get this whole coaching thing. But after attending area garden shows and looking at all the landscaping trends, as well as spending time with great Buffalo gardeners I’m liking more and more the collaborative process that coaching implies. It seems you could arrive at a garden that expresses your personality and one that you can maintain.

    My poor colleague is taking a beating here, but I am really using her as a symbol of the traditional “do it all for me” client.

    As for snow–I couldn’t care less what my garden looks like with snow. I’m not spending time in it then–I have other occupations at that time. I’ve never been a proponent of the “winter interest” aspect.

  8. I am sure there are niches for garden designers, for professional gardeners, and for garden coaches. I’m certain some of them are marvellous and their work reflects their talents.

    However, those who need or wish to use their talents are a mystery to me. I know it’s appropriate to use a garden as living space. I simply don’t. I know it’s prudent to consider aesthetics. I don’t much. I suppose this is why I am NOT a landscape architect or garden coach or gardener, even though I’ve had much of the training, education and experience to do those things.

    I am an individual gardener with a very individualistic garden. I use the garden for exercise (me an’ my spade!). I use my garden to release stress (me an’ my spade…again). I use my garden to channel my creativity (me an’ my….). I use my garden as an excuse to get really grubby (me an’…).

    I think that overall, in spite of never having taken the time to come up with a plan, my garden is fairly pleasing to the eye. Well, it’s pleasing to the eye if you don’t mind a bit of mess around the edges. It’s pleasing to the eye if you admire Christopher Lloyd’s writing. It’s pleasing to the eye if you like variety. It’s pleasing to the eye if you enjoy being drawn from small vignette to small vignette.

    But it still isn’t a garden for entertaining, a garden where children can play, a place to dine al fresco, or even much of a place to meditate. It is, however, a splendid garden for three domestic cats who like to play Fierce Jungle Hunter Cat.

    Now where was I? Oh, yes: I don’t understand people who want their gardens to function as extensions of their homes, as rooms and backdrops. I don’t understand lawn. I don’t understand grill. I don’t understand patio furniture. But that doesn’t make any of it bad–I don’t suppose many people understand my need to try and grow every single different species and variety of plant I see (and a few I merely read about).

    I have no idea where I was going with this…

  9. Hi –
    Homeowners and business property managers, artists and vegetable growers all plant stuff. Personal taste, impulse and the press influence but do not determine their choices.

    Let everyone have whatever they can afford that their eye enjoys.

    Some people change their carpeting every year, some pull out all their plants. Both are good for the industry that does the work.

    Read, “Mrs. Whaley’s Charleston Garden” to discover that she had every plant ripped out of at least one bed every year.

    She could afford it, enjoyed an annual designing and redesigning process and her garden is still one of the most visited in the country.

    If people want to hire coaches they need to ask for references and visit completed projects just like a kitchen remodel. Common sense should prevail.

    My rant for this morning and I feel better now.

  10. There are unqualified or qualified and yet still crappy people in all professions.

    I see no reason, however, to create some kind of coaching v. design contest. I see room for both. I know many people who need design help (myself included, if I’m honest about it), and I know many people who need coaching (this is a weed, prune that shrub after it blooms, that won’t grow in the shade etc.)

  11. Jesus, should I ever chance to relocate to the “S.F. Bay area” I know which fly-off-the-handle, anti-sidewalk, have-an-aneurysm-why-don’t-you design company I’m NOT going to hire.

    Isn’t it poor policy for trolls to provide links to their businesses? Something about sh***ing where you work springs to mind.

  12. But the work was pretty eye-candy for people with bottomless pocketbooks (obviously not me). Free speech and all that, but a better tone and grammar would have made me take that comment more seriously.

  13. Michelle, I think that many designers aren’t as in touch with what happens to their gardens after they are planted as you are. You seem to have practical skills and a TON of architectural and plant knowledge, which is a rare combination, at least in my experience.

    In my smallish area, the pros I know who are doing design have either been to landscape architect school but never worked outdoors and don’t know plants all that well, or they are contractors who don’t find it profitable to come back and do consultations with homeowners seasonally.

    I know some designers do offer consultation, but often it is in order to make a hard sell on an actual set of plans. Not always, but often enough. I think homeowners like to know that they really and truly are free to pick the brain of someone who has more experience gardening than they do.

    Yes, that experience varies a lot, and people should ask for references and to see past work when hiring anyone. The fact that some coaches do better work than others isn’t a reason to denigrate an entire profession, however new it is.

    I really do think coaches fill a niche which most designers and installers and even maintenance folk are not filling. After all, with traditional design consultation, it’s rare for the client to feel comfortable asking the designer to give up their broader design tips and tricks so the homeowners can work on designing their garden themselves. It’s even rarer for the designer to get completely dirty transplanting and pruning with the client. And what contractor that you know of is going to detail how to prepare the garden beds for planting so the clients can do it themselves? Most businesses simply aren’t structured to make that profitable.

    I think there is room for all of us in the green industry, and I truly believe that the more ordinary people get into gardening, the better it is for everyone in the industry. Imagine what the world would look like if everyone was as keen on gardening as they seem to be on football! We’d have fewer mushroom-shaped conifers in the world, fewer of those horrible barren weedy lawns with nothing else happening to rest the eye on, the nurseries (even the specialty ones) would be stocked with fresh plants all the time because the traffic would allow it (and more plants moving out is better for the wholesalers we shop at, too), and the imagination of the people would be caught by gardening in a way that is rare now. Surely that could only help the really good professionals such as yourself? Nobody is going to conceive of and embark on a huge glorious project like you work on without professional help.

    Nor are they going to always be able to maintain and install all of the new projects they want to do on their own – people do have to work and raise kids and such – we will always be needed.

  14. This rant has stuck with me for a week so I’m finally commenting. The woman on the phone reminds me of some of the more frantic customers I see in the garden center where I work. Some people don’t appear to understand that plants are not furniture used to decorate a room. You can’t order what you want, exactly when you want it, as if it came from a factory. You wouldn’t believe how many people are unable to grasp this simple concept. They want year round green & year round bloom & year round whateveritis they want as if they are above dealing with the inevitable cycles of life. Plants are just another possession for these people, another “thing” to impress their neighbors and friends. Contrast this attitude with that of a gardener who revels in the very physical and spiritual relationship between human, soil, plant, animal, sunlight and weather. It’s the process of being in the garden that teaches the gardener what to do. I garden by the seat of my pants with vague plans and ideas that change all the time. The thing that keeps me from being that frantic telephone gardener is that by being in a deep relationship with my spot of earth, I see the process as important or maybe More Important than the end product. I generally don’t get ideas for what I want to do in my garden till I’m out there digging, pruning, weeding, planting. That’s when I slow down enough to see what might need tweaking, what colors I might like to look at this year, where I might like to have some more shade. No frantic phone calls needed.

    As far as gardens in the Bay Area “knocking your socks off”…. I’ve been on many garden tours in the Bay Area and, yes, there are many creative, inspriational gardens here. No doubt, there are gardens like this all over the country cos I’ve seen some of them. The thing that’s different here is that many people are blessed with a not too hot/not too cold microclimate that allows them to grow almost anything! Hats off to the Buffalo gardeners who garden, with no outside help, in a difficult climate. And speaking of outside help, as much as I can appreciate a professionally designed garden on an intellectual level, nothing speaks to my heart more than the intensely personal garden of a a passionate do-it-yourself-er. One good thing about gardening in the Bay Area is that we got over the lawn thing many years ago, due to the drought of ’77. Once people got over the “lava rock instead of lawn” disaster, the creative use of the front yard period began. It’s so much fun to walk thru the neighborhood where I live because of this lively attitude. Vegetable gardens, cottage gardens, mediterranean gardens, fruit trees, flowers, succulents, ornamental grasses, you name it, it’s in somebody’s front garden inspiring and tempting me.

  15. “Coaching” has its limits. If using a “coach” will inspire more people to get involved with their garden and landscape, than it a good thing. Remember, I said, “INVOLVED”. If it only creates a situation of buying plants/trees/shrubs that may or may not be siuted for a specific area (just because they sell it, doesn’t make it suited for the area) or have a fungus or pests or…..and putting them in beds neatly arranged by colors, without regard for their impact on the environment, then it may do more harm than good. Sometimes, issues that involve infestations or problem pests or problem plants, do make the 6pm news, but most of the time, this information is put out by the local University Extention office, discussed at plant/tree clinics and makes its way via gardener to gardener. In this way, people who change their landscape annually without regard to the impact it has on our environment, may be the cause of the spread of disease, pests, etc. If they are not savvy enough to plan with or without help and then maintain their landscape, chances are excellent that they have NO knowledge of diseases, etc. They probably care not where the diseased wood chips end up from the trees they planted that…”just died”. They are just glad they are gone and replant something else, which may also die because of a soil issue or some other issue in their yard. In fact, these are usually the people who buy and dump a host of chemicals on their property trying to make everything outdoors “picture perfect”. And yes, I do use miracle grow at least once per season, and a weed/feed on my lawn in the spring, however, I limit the usuage, mostly accept nature on its terms. Whenever possible, I seek a natural solution to my gardening woes. But this kind of gardening takes real involvment! And the true gardeners out there know what that means. They share my memories of chasing away gophers day after day..for months…funny they were so cute when I thought of them as little chipmonks that were hungry, until they ate all of my every flowers bed…or just bit off the tip, enough to kill the bulb! But through persistance and involvment, and some level of acceptance, we have come to an understanding. We both live here and we both have specific goals and we work it out each year, without ripping up their habitat or dumping chemicals down into their living room. (lol) Thanks for reading, happy gardening in 2008 to all, there is always so much hope at this time of year!

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