Plea from a Plant-Loving Landscape Architect

Campus of Princeton University

Michael Van Valkenburgh is one of a few hot-shot landscape architects who’s known for large, high-visibility projects, like his redesign of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House post-9/11.  He landed on my radar thanks to that project, which is local to me.  valkenburgh_headshot

So I was happy to discover his article “Landscapes Over Time” in the latest Landscape Architecture Magazine, in which he pleads with his profession to pay attention to what happens after their designs are installed.  Plants change (doh!) and designs need continuing attention, and not just from the mow-blow crew.  Van Valkenburgh has seen far too many parks and gardens be created and then left to become shabby, thanks to anemic maintenance budgets and neglect by the original designers, who tend to lose interest soon after the photos are taken.

A prominent exception to that rant is a landscape architect we all know and love – Beatrix Farrand, who served as landscape consultant to Princeton University for many years (a task now performed by Van Valkenburgh).  He quotes from Princeton’s website:

Farrand preferred to be called a ‘landscape gardener’—not an architect…. The only woman among the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects, Farrand [believed that] a living landscape—affected by seasons and the passage of time—requires constant attention. Farrand maintained an ongoing relationship with many clients in order to supervise the changes in her evolving canvas. Several times yearly, she strode through the Princeton Campus looking at every tree and bush and giving specific instructions for pruning, planting, and cultivation.

Van Valkenburgh asserts that “You are much less likely to care about maintenance if you don’t really love plants. And, for me, the most appealing landscape architecture is synonymous with a love of plants.”  Like us gardeners, he prefers open spaces with plants in them.  But guess what!  Many “justly celebrated” contemporary landscape architects don’t know squat about plants (my language), and have to hire horticulturists to select the plants for their designs.*

And lawn-haters will love this:  “Plenty of works with plants don’t really embody love of those plants. The classic case, of course, is the American corporate landscape made of sod and trees for the Mow, Blow, and Go approach, designed to require the least possible care. I have never seen a beautiful example of it.”

Respect for the “Horticultural Workers”

More passages I love:

No matter how skilled and artistically inclined horticultural workers are (and they are often extremely talented), they are generally perceived as declasse, left out of design discussions and poorly paid.  (Since my parents were farmers, and my father went on to oversee the grounds at a ski slope, I find this perception particularly distasteful.)  Heaven forbid that a landscape architect should hang out with them, much less join them, wielding a saw or a hoe, fingernails dirty.

The old name for horticultural worker was gardener, a word that connoted a great deal more dignity in the preindustrial world. Perhaps now with the green movement, the local food movement, and the promotion of urban farming, gardening will be honored more. It needs to be.

And he writes about maintenance workers who’ve found designers to be “snotty and uninterested in their input”.  (Reminds me of the tension sometimes found between Master Gardeners, designers and garden writers.  Or between psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers.  Et cetera through probably every field.)

Gardens not the Same as Nature

I’ll just keep on quoting.  “Standing in the way of conceiving landscape architecture as (to a significant degree) gardening is the widespread illusion that designed landscapes can take care of themselves, since, obviously, the woods of Vermont, the plains of Texas, and the shores of Cape Cod can look beautiful without tending. But designed landscapes exist to meet human needs, and pure nature can’t be counted on or asked to do that.” For example, it took an amazing amount of work to make Central Park look so natural.

And he cites a piece of conceptual art that proves his point.  One New York artist “put a fence around an abandoned lot, called it Time Landscape, and asked us to reverentially view what nature did with the site.”  Not surprisingly to anyone who knows plants, it quickly became an eyesore.

Another view of Princeton.

Change Noted

Van Valkenburgh sees his profession undergoing major changes, like paying more attention to designs over time.  But from what I can tell as a follower of the profession and faithful reader of Landscape Architecture Magazine,  no field has shifted as quickly to address environmental concerns, and not because they’re more virtuous than anyone else.  Civic and other large-scale clients now demand maximum sustainability.

*I’ve corrected my original misreading of the Van Valkenburgh article, which cited Piet Oudolf as a consulting horticulturist for landscape architects, NOT as a landscape architect who consults with horticulturists.  Sorry!


  1. Oh, to have a nation of gardeners, and by that I mean absolute lovers of plants. Isn’t that what Washington and Jefferson had wanted? I suspect it would have a major positive impact on our collective consciousness.

  2. Respect for the “Horticultural Workers” It is about time this became more of a topic of discussion and nice to see a landscape architect I have never heard of bring it up. Billy Goodnick might take a few pointers from this.

    I would suggest that a big leap in that direction would come from dropping the derogatory use of the “mow and blow crew.” There is nothing ‘declasse” about maintaining turf in a garden. You can get a college degree in the subject. All workers deserve respect and the ongoing devaluation of labor in our culture is part of the driving force in the death of the middle class.

    The less lawn movement should embrace this respect for turf management workers if they want to really change the nature of American lawns.

    • Christopher, I think we agree on many things! Yes, labor is extremely devalued in our culture; seemingly, the harder, more dangerous and grueling it is, the worse the pay. I would love to see people working in landscape/grounds maintenance adequately compensated for the work they do, and given compensation and time to actually *care* for yards- they are the first to pay for our collective obsession with what is cheap and fast. I don’t think the industrial assembly line “fast as you can go then faster” model is respectful to anyone, or to the ground we stand on. It is my belief that we seriously need to examine and overhaul how we value both people and land.

    • Interesting points! But how should we refer to untrained workers who just mow, blow and sheer, in contrast to the knowledgeable, talented hort workers who do a great job? We need a term! And I think it’s possible to criticize that kind of garden care without criticizing the workers themselves. It’s the client who’s not paying for trained help.
      And btw, I worked for 30 years as basically a support staffer among self-proclaimed “professionals” (like lawyers and politicians) so have plenty of experience feeling dissed, and sometimes even being mistreated by people who seemed to consider themselves my betters, and were sure paid a lot more than I was.

      • Well first off you need to dissuade yourself of the notion that just because someone is mowing, blowing or sheering they are untrained and unskilled. I sheered a 30 foot long row of cherry laurel smack up against the house into a box today. Would it be right of the golfers passing by who saw me doing this to assume I am a half wit?

        Secondly it doesn’t matter how much or how little training the worker has. They are working hard. That alone deserves your respect.

        Calling them landscapers will suffice.

        Sure it is possible to criticize that kind of garden care without criticizing the workers. It just never seems to come out that way. The landscapers always get the blame. A garden that requires that kind of care is the kind of care it is going to get. Blame the designer, installer, homeowner. It isn’t the landscapers fault they are tending sad and boring gardens.

      • You ask what do you call an untrained worker who tends to a garden : How about untrained or unskilled landscapers.
        No need to denigrate those people who are trying to eek out a living and who are fullfilling a purpose that the paying public wants : low wage workers.

        If the property owner understands the value of their landscape then they are going to seek the best possible professional for the job at a competative price.

        Professor Van Valkenburgh brought up some very valid points and I applaud the notion that landscape architects are being educated with a greater emphasis on horticulture and garden maintenance.
        I have seen a great sea change in this element of our industry over the years.
        When I started my LA studies in ’76 there were no classes offered on brown field restoration, sustainability or any indepth horticulture classes beyond basic Plant ID winter/ summer season . Only 2 classes in hort were required in a 5 year program .
        When I returned back to school 10 years later the Landscape Architecture department and the Horticulture departments were cross pollinating professors. You could find Van Valkenburgh at the hort dept. at Arnold Arboretum and the Arboretum professors, Peter del Tredici and Gary Koller at the GSD ( grad schoool of design) .

        All this change is good for our profession but even the best laid far sighted landscape plans can only go so far if the client does not put value on their project, and that is the crux of the situation : economics and value.

  3. Testosterone-on-wheels-mow-blow-go-commodify-all-I-touch.

    Too many decades of them. Yet, HOA’s have them legally entrenched. Especially at the higher end subdivisions.

    Love your find, Michael Van Valkenburgh. He’s rare. I’ve referred Dottie Myers, landscape architect, for decades, on the few occasions the job required. She knows/loves/adores plants.

    Bidding commercial jobs drawn by LA’s is expensive in time. The plants drawn are often wrong for the site and the owner of the project must be contacted for approval to make a change. After years of this you learn, install the LA’s fantasy. You’ll never reach the corporate owner, and job supervisors are paid to get the drawing installed as drawn. Sad, but true.

    Design for unskilled labor to maintain any garden. And I break that rule all the time. I often use espalier woody plants, no trellis/wires. Few know how to prune them properly.

    Landscape architect and master gardener are terms misleading to the general public. LA’s are neo-civil engineers, they move dirt & water. During the go-go late 80’s in Atlanta many builders went cheap, hiring LA’s. Their work failed often for infrastructure and there were several lawsuits. Back came the civil engineers. I’ve taught master gardener classes for years. I’m degreed in horticulture & engineering. Master gardeners are a 10 week class.

    The ‘gardeners’ installing my designs humble me daily. My designs are nothing without them. Love my team.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

    • Exhibit A: Here we have the perfect example of that disrespect. A designer so marinated in estrogen and an imagined superiority she’s been doing it better and longer and against the trend for decades. Why I bet she has great sustainable landscapes that predate the civil war.

  4. WOW. A landscape architect who actually cares more about plants than swales and concrete paths.

    I have always thought of landscape architects as someone who cannot make up their mind about landscape design or building design. such became landscape architects because they never thought of being a civil engineer

    the TROLL

  5. Wow, so much indiscriminate trashing of landscape architects. I think, like in any other profession, there are a diversity of landscape architecture professionals. Sure, some unfortunately give a bad name to the profession by designing “fantasies” that are wrong for the site. Others, however, work closely with horticulturists, restoration ecologists, and engineers to create ecologically conscious and socially meaningful work. For example, I’m currently working on a large project, fighting to have my invasive plant species assessment plan accepted by our clients and engineering colleagues. Please think before you make generalizations. The landscape architects I know are a varied, creative bunch who are committed to growing the profession–and by that I mean both seeking out learning opportunities for themselves and also doing more to create designs that strengthen institutions, neighborhoods, and cities. Sure, not every landscape architect is a dedicated plant lover, but PLENTY (including me, big-time) are big plant geeks with their own gardens and horticulture-related side-projects. For what it’s worth, Michael Van Valkenburg is not known as an outlier or a diamond in the rough within the landscape architecture community in *any* sense. On the contrary, he’s one of the most recognizable and esteemed names in the profession.

  6. Thanks for highlighting a person that many of us outside the world of landscape architecture would never know about. Van Valkenburgh comments on learning from how landscapes are maintained to improve his designs is an idea that I applaud. Much could be learnt from that guy who has to try and push a lawn mower around a complicated landscaped area. Having said that we shouldn’t limit the imagination of a designer by the demands of maintenance. If that was the case we wouldn’t have iconic designs like the Golden Gate Bridge or the fascinating vertical gardens of Patrick Blanc. Good design and good maintenance go hand in hand.

  7. I am a garden designer having been a fine arts major (painter) and I have worked for landscape architects designing their planting plans. I know a few landscape architecture who gardened first, but I have to say they were the unusual ones. In NYC many come right out of landscape architecture school. never garden – don’t have a place to gardener in the city and just experiment on their clients gardens. One such architect had only taken two plant identification classes while in college. They don’t tend to work for the same clients over long periods of time so they never gain the experience of seeing a garden mature and deal with the problems that arise from the different stages of development. The smart ones tend to work with horticulturist and trust their knowledge, but many are arrogant and tell their clients they can have whatever they want. I found I was always having to educate their clients to what the setting could be- ” No you can’t have an English perennial garden because you only have one hour of light.” was a typical response. The great thing is that a much more educated and organized group of people are coming up in all areas of horticulture , from gardeners , to designers and landscape architects. In the last 20 years I have seen the industry grow with so many more talented people and I have to say making more sustainable environments!

  8. The general public is very ignorant of the difference between a mow & blow person and a gardener, a landscape designer & a landscape architect. It seems if you step onto their property they think you can do it all (to a limit). People are dis-connected from their landscapes and would just as soon simplify than understand it all. We need an educational campaign to enlighten people of the differences between these “levels” of workers. Perhaps this could be incorporated into the new national gardening campaign that is needed to encourage people to be gardeners of their own plots. We need a quick, concise, catchy, and interesting way to engage homeowners on the subject. We as a nation also need to value labor- it is so easy for some ignorant homeowner to take a swipe at their lawn worker when the their garden looks awful!

  9. Wow, a lot of great stuff on this post. I would return to the first one raised: think about what’s going to happen AFTER installation, for chrissakes! A good friend of mine has a back yard that is a cornus jungle because no provision was made for controlling spread. I am trying to help her get things under control, and it is a major job.

  10. Agreed regarding the need for holistic and long-term attention by designers. However, I think a little nuance is in order here. Righteous indignation is a wonderful thing, but in these days of polarization and fact-fumbling, perhaps a little more care with words–thoughtfulness–is called for. Mr. Van Valkenburgh does not imply that Piet Oudolf knows “squat” about plants the way that I’m afraid your wording does here. What he knows is that there are others who know more and his projects benefit greatly from the collaboration. What Piet Oudolf and horticulturalists such as Roy Diblik and Patrick Cullina have been accomplishing TOGETHER as collaborators is a model of responsible, dare I say, sustainable design. I’m glad your “rant” lead me to read the article for myself.

    • I agreed. In the article, he was saying James Corner, ASLA, used horticulturists and Piet Oudolf for their designs. Piet Oudolf and his wife had their own plant nursery for 25 years, and he is also a plant breeder. He knows plenty about plants!

  11. I guess I am one of the “mow & blow” workers you are talking about. But I wouldn’t say I’m “unskilled.” I say, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

    If a company wants and likes simple, they deserve it.

    Mow and blow is to cubism, as garden landscaping is to impressionism.

  12. I see a great, elaborate chicken-and-egg cycle here.

    Why do landscape companies take a mow and blow, shear it till it cries approach? Because that’s what the homeowner demands.

    Why do homeowners go for vast swaths of lawn punctuated with sheared, sad plants? Because it’s what they see at the corporate campuses, the shopping centers, and schools.

    Why do these places have such lame landscapes? Because the landscape architects designed it that way.

    Why did the landscape architects design it that way? Because they think that’s all the landscape guys can do.

    And on, and on…

    Just like in all the anti-lawn debates, it comes down to one. Simple. Thought. How do we change what people see as “right”? I’m giving a talk Thursday night for an HOA. It’s your typical newer subdivision in the western DC suburbs, lots of builder grade plants chosen because they looked good immediately but will be a future nightmare – compacta hollies, manhattan euonymus, burning bush, all jammed in a 3′ bed between the garage and sidewalk. Hopefully I can inspire some folks that it needn’t suck like this.

  13. This is a fabulous post and conversational exchange. Good issues and questions raised. I became aware of some of these issues when I heard Lynden Miller speak about the public gardens she has designed beginning with the Conservatory Garden in Central Park. She is not a LA, but an artist turned garden designer who has created many beautiful public gardens. And she quickly learned about problems around maintenance which requires funding. She insists that any public garden she works on has an ‘endowment’ of some sort that insures the funding for ongoing care.


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