The Modular Garden


Should gardens be priced by the square foot?  It's an interesting idea.  The Knibb Modular Garden is a concept pioneered by LA landscape architect Sean Knibb.  Basically, the plants are pre-selected and more or less pre-designed, the hardscape materials have already been picked out, and the garden you're getting can be priced by the foot.

It's an interesting idea.  Because the plants are pre-selected (which is something most landscape designers do anyway–they use the plants they know will work over and over), you can see photos of completed gardens and know that this is more or less what you're getting.

But here's what this got me thinking about:  why aren't plants sold this way?  Why doesn't my local garden center come up with a six-pack of perennials in four-inch pots and sell them as, say, a ten square-foot garden combination for sun?  Or an eight square-foot combination for shade?  The message would be:  here are six plants that work great together.  Pick up as many six-packs as you need to fill your space.  Pick up a design sheet at the cash register.  Go home and plant your garden.

And could it be a six-pack of plants plus a box of fertilizer or a bag of compost?  A package deal?

It won't work for everybody all the time–I don't have any big blank spaces to fill anymore–but what if I did?  How cool would it be to pick up a combination of ornamental grasses and flowering perennials that all had the same light and water requirements and that my garden center recommended?  And wouldn't the garden center rather sell six of something, even at a slightly discounted price, instead of three or four of something else?

Best of all, those kinds of modular gardens could easily go into demonstration gardens around the garden center.  Plant it around the parking lot, let people check it out throughout the year, and encourage them to replicate it across however many square feet of garden they have.

Has anybody seen this kind of by-the-square-foot approach in garden centers?


  1. I’ve never seen it in garden centers, but many gardening catalogs sell “predesigned” garden sets. Not quite modular, but roughly so. I wonder, though, if it would really work in a garden center, where one is so apt to see something marvelous, pick it up, then start buying things to go with it. As soon as I saw a pre-assembled set of plants, I’d think, “but if ONLY that included X instead of Y!”

  2. Easy to price the plants of a modular landscape. If it is to be contracted prices must be custom.

    Labor is time, time is money.

    Does the planting site allow for easy delivery of plants, or must they be hand wheelbarrowed down the drive, over the path, up the hill and down the slope?

    Do existing plants have to come out? Does the soil have to be amended with pick-ax, tiller, granite sand?

    Hardscape? Will a pre-priced flagstone patio be placed on flat land or a slope? Using fill and creating a retaining wall costs $$$.

    In many landscapes modular landscape plants/installation pricing would be perfect. And in others, not.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  3. That would take all the fun out of gardening (having the pre-design at the garden center). I want to do it all myself, including the goofs. I like re-arranging. That would be for people who don’t really like to design, or garden. (This last said in a snotty superior tone.) The modular garden concepts sounds great for a landscape designer who works with a subdivision developer. A prosepective buyer picks out the house plan and a landscape plan up fron. Here is your choices in the $50/sf, here are the choices in the $75/sf. etc.

  4. I think it’s a great idea. But only at local, independent nurseries/garden centers that can be trusted to know local gardening conditions and plants that grow well in that region. I can just see Home Depot trying to do this and selling plants unsuited to a particular region.

    It’s true that gardeners may not need or desire such a service. But lots of people are intimidated about buying plants (many of my friends have told me that’s how they feel) and would love a service like this. Non-gardeners and gardeners who aren’t comfortable with design or experimentation would, I think, jump at ready-made designs.

    As one of your other commenters points out, you do see ready-made designs offered in magazines. But again, those are for a national audience and may not feature plants that do well in one’s own region. That’s why it would be great to see this offered in local garden centers.

    Austin, luckily, is blessed with numerous independent nurseries, and some of these have wonderful display gardens, like Natural Gardener, which you saw, Susan, at Spring Fling Austin. Display gardens are useful for seeing which plants work well together. But taking it to the next level would be printing fliers that illustrate the planting scheme, including the plant information, and selling the plants as a collection.

  5. Years ago I worked in a garden center in upstate NY that did just that – great quart-sized six packs of coordinating plants with little handles that contained design information and each plant had its tag with information on it. I don’t recall who our local vendor was, but we thought the idea was a good one and set up the display.

    What a nightmare!

    Customers would routinely pull plants from one six-pack and replace it with a completely different plant more to their liking. Tags, which were colorful and informative, would go missing. If one plant suffered in the six-pack it would be passed over in favor of another, so lots of time was spent consoidating plants to keep these six packs marketable. We finally gave up on the concept and quit ordering them due to their high maintenance issues.

  6. I can see the value in selling the “collection” at a trusted (emphasis on “trusted”!) local nursery, but I balk at the idea of modular pre-planned landscapes sold by the square foot. It seems to remove the concept of individuality and uniqueness that I love about garden design. I wonder if it’s marketed as “McGarden”? ; )

    Pam, I’m in Austin, too–and you’re right, our local independent nurseries have really done some great work in creating unique display gardens (Natural Gardener’s labyrinth garden area=super cool). Seems that route is much more helpful and inspiring overall than pre-planned packages.

  7. Prefab never really caught on with houses and I can’t see it catching on with gardens where you have even more issues with being site-specific and meeting people’s individual tastes.

  8. I actually like the idea for someone who just cannot bring themselves to figure out gardening in their hectic lifestyle- a lot of people (not me) bought a house in a huge development in the last 5 years- these are possibly people (again, not me) who would like a ready-made garden.

    Someone who is not into gardening might still want some pretty flowers to look at- who’s to judge?

  9. I remember as a kid that some company was selling roll-out mats that were embedded with flower seeds to create an instant garden and you could order by the foot. I really wanted to have a roll to see how it would work. Probably saw it in the Miles Kimball catalog, Grit newspaper, or the back of a comic or something. Thought it was a great idea. Do they still sell things like that?

  10. One of the local nurseries here carries premade combos of plants for containers. They include a photo of the finished product. You just pick it up, take it home, and put it in your own pot. It’s a good fit for container gardening, which is a bit more universal. Great for beginners, who are super-intimidated by putting together their own combos. After a season with a premade combo, they get to know the plants a little better and feel more comfortable mixing it up a bit next year, hopefully.

  11. I think good merchandisers at garden centers put plant combos together on end caps. Maybe not the entire pre-fab, for reasons of trying to maintain the display. But, I think it is good merchandising to make combinations to give people ideas.

  12. I’m having a hard time seeing how modular gardens could work out if they came prepackaged in a specific layout because no two homes and their plots,spatial layout, climate, sun , shade, drainage, topography and soil conditions are the same.

    I suppose someone could come up with some small planting vignettes, but it is doubtful they will truly resonate with the owner and the site. The most successful garden designs reflect the personality and specific needs of the gardener and the specifics of the actual site.
    For the most part, garden design is not a one size fits all kind of practice.

  13. Really? I have seen dozens of subdivisions across the country where house after identical house sits on the same size lot in the same spot on that lot.

    The people who buy these homes probably don’t care too much about expressing their individuality through their home choice, and they would probably go for one of these modular gardens as well.

  14. I don’t think this can effectively take the place of asking for recommendations from the nursery people, in combination with the homeowner providing additional information about the site to be planted by having photos, knowing the soil type, sun exposure, and information about constraints such as deer/drought/unruly pets or kids, etc etc.

    Staff that know the local conditions and a retail set up where staff have the time or direction to help the public make informed choices will always be a better alternative to some mass market “plug in” or “color within the lines” sort of design, IMO.

    Mail order nurseries that I am familiar with locally, such as Annie’s Annuals here in nearby Richmond, Calif., do a great job with their descriptive catalog and photos, and shots of the display gardens with suggested color combinations.

    As a professional landscape designer myself, I was underwhelmed by the Sean Knibb gardens shown in the article, but the concept may have its place. I guess some homeowners are just either too busy or too intimidated to ask questions and come prepared with sufficient information to get good response, or simply just would rather have all decisions made for them…

  15. Excellent idea….except that the too many would pick up two of say the 8 square foot garden packs and break one in half then come to the register and say “my garden is only 12 sqaure feet” or I don’t need that many plants etc. Or better yet “How big is 8 square feet? ( And they are the ones telling us kids are dumb).

    The best way to do this is as the way the mail order guys do it. Sell the plan on paper with a drawing or better yet photograph of what the garden looks like.

    Another idea is to have handouts in the garden centers with diagrams/color renderings etc then a display garden to back it up.

    The “by the square foot”oncept would work best for herb and veggie gardens.

    The TROLL

  16. We buy flowers and plants year round from nursery catalogs and its hard to figure out how many plants/bulbs you need per square foot. We usually have to call customer service to figure out exactly how many of each we need.
    ( for 20 years now!) We try to change the look every few years

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