Check-out line garden design? Ain’t happening!

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Why not daylilies? They deserve daylilies.

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.

Plants are selected for functions or pieces of a composition.

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.

Landscape design is defining outdoor space to suit the user’s lifestyle needs.

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.

These foundation plants, Cryptomeria ‘Globosa Nana’ didn’t know to stop growing, in spite of the name.

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!”

no knee jerk foundation plants
Look Ma! No shrubs slammed against the house!

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.

this house needs a foundation planting
A few houses would definitely benefit from a foundation planting! This one cries out for one…but judge each house on its own. Many are unsuited, and to install is to be forever fighting to keep the house from being smothered.
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Carol Reese

Carol Reese is an Extension Horticulture Specialist housed at the University of Tennessee’s West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Jackson. She is a nationally-known speaker, blending equal parts gardening knowledge, natural lore, and quirky humor.

Carol is the gardening and nature columnist for several newspapers, as well as a contributor to several gardening magazines. She was the Q&A columnist for Horticulture Magazine for several years.

Her B.S. and M.S. in Horticulture are from Mississippi State University, and she could also add her Ph.D. if she “had ever written that damn dissertation!” While there, she taught classes in Plant Materials, and co-taught Landscape Design for non-LA majors alongside a “real” landscape architect.

She attributes her love of horticulture to being raised on a farm by generations of plant nuts, including a grandfather who dynamited his garden spot each spring to “break up his hard pan”. Carol’s very personal appreciation of natural lore is at least partially a result of her near daily rambles through the wild areas near her home with her motley collection of mutts, also known as the strong-willed breed of “Amalgamations.”

 

28 COMMENTS

  1. Composition as in painting, is the most difficult goal to reach in any garden.
    Asymetric or symetric…Most people do not look rigorously to texture, height, color,
    size, contrasts…for theis lack of patience, reserach, criteria.
    Finally, depending solely in local, inept nurseries makes it impossible.to have a well thought garden
    with biodiversity in the urban context, its flora/fauna in mind.

    • Very good points! It is the same in any art form, and often people understand it in paintings, but lose that when looking at a landscape, but it is indeed a canvas…

  2. Love this rant. In another life I was a landscape designer, now I just have the best time ever gardening and asking myself all of those questions, and still expecting something Nana to stay that way ……
    bonnie in provence

    • Yes, I like to say Compacta, Nana or Dwarf simply means it will get too large more slowly!!

  3. Carol, I love this, and I SO get it. Every profession has people like that. I could recite my own version of this, in regard to my even HAVING a speaker’s fee when asked to address a group about monarchs, let alone it be an amount that is fair and in line with my colleagues. Once I got a reputation as someone who knows more than a little something about monarch butterflies, I began to get requests to speak to this group and that group, and not just locally. Did they ask me to come and speak before that? No. After my book on monarchs came out? Yes. And why is that? Because then they thought I had something of value that they wanted to hear. They just don’t want to pay for it. It doesn’t matter that I do several freebies throughout the year, but I shouldn’t have to explain that or any other reasoning behind why I charge a fee to take time out of my schedule, create a presentation that’s appropriate for their particular group, drive to their venue, and impart knowledge I’ve gained from 12+ years of experience and educating myself about my subject. On the other hand, there are those groups that don’t bat an eye, and make me feel like I’m almost royalty in their respect for what I do, and it’s for those people whom I’m more willing to go the extra mile. Oh, but I forgot… none of that should matter, because I’m getting rich from selling my books, right?

    • Yes, oh my! You charge THAT for an hour program? …not realizing the years of study, the thousands of average photographs until you get the good ones, the many miles of travel, the books and articles read before you ever start to piece together a program which takes many hours of developing a logical sequential story line with a good beginning and a solid ending – a program that is always under revision and evolution as you learn more yourself or find better ways to tell the stories, or illustrate the concepts. “…and hour of my time” shows how little they know of what goes into a good program.

      • This one always slays me: “We only need a 30-minute talk…” as if that is SO much different than an hour, in regard to work involved. Putting together a good presentation isn’t always dependent on the length of time they want you to speak.

        In a way, it’s like when my mother, who was a hairdresser, would get customers who thought the cost of a haircut should be dependent on the length of the hair cut off. How many snips of the scissors does it take? The same!

        You laid it out perfectly, Carol. “Always under revision and evolution as you learn more yourself or find better ways to tell the stories, or illustrate the concepts.”

  4. Okay, asked with respect, as an Extension Horticultural Specialist, what is your role so I know? What should we, Joe Q. Public, ask you or any Horticultural Specialist when you come to our house? I don’t know, and I just finished doing my Master Gardener certification under the local county extension agent. Is there a difference between a Horticultural Extension Agent and an Extension Horticultural Specialist? Further, I recently asked our local county extension agent about my elderly pecan trees that drop huge branches that could make anyone a quadriplegic in the snap of a neck Was it okay to ask him to look at them? My neighbor did, and he came out for her. Is that going too far? Truly, some of us don’t know. As for design, I always want to create my own design so that’s never entered my mind.

    • Thank you, Laura – I was kinda shocked when I saw that this author is an Extension Horticultural Specialist. I kept thinking “People, talk to an experienced Master Gardener – they are supposed to (and most happily) give you some ideas”. Most of us love doing just that. I could go on and on about this but won’t.

      Ann

      Master Gardener

      Extension Agricultural and Natural Resources Proram Assistant

      • Ann, this question is certainly valid. The way extension specialists work is not common knowledge, so I get the confusion! County agents are to serve the individuals in their counties, and have discretion to make house calls when appropriate. A specialist’s job is to develop information in her or his area of expertise and supply county agents with that information so that they can better serve homeowners. If a county agent has trouble sleuthing out an issue and requests that a specialist make a house call with them, they will do so. Specialists serve either statewide or over many counties I am hired to be the specialist for the 31 counties of west Tennessee but certainly provide information and training in other parts of the state so as to be a team player, and the other area and state specialists will come here and provide information and training on their particular specialties as well. Perhaps I did not explain as well as I should, that simple logistics prevent me from providing personal assistance to each citizen. If I were to start doing, so, there would be no time to develop training and information as I am directed to do. For example, we are developing an inservice training right now on backyard fruit production that will be offered to the county agents this summer. There will be new publications, power point presentations and helpful links to our UTHort website so that they can get all that information at the click of a button and offer you and every other homeowner the help they need. Does that make sense?

    • Laura, your question is certainly valid. The way extension specialists work is not common knowledge, so I get your confusion! County agents are to serve the individuals in their counties, and have discretion to make house calls when appropriate. A specialist’s job is to develop information in her or his area of expertise and supply county agents with that information so that they can better serve homeowners. If a county agent has trouble sleuthing out an issue and requests that a specialist make a house call with them, they will do so. Specialists serve either statewide or over many counties I am hired to be the specialist for the 31 counties of west Tennessee but certainly provide information and training in other parts of the state so as to be a team player, and the other area and state specialists will come here and provide information and training on their particular specialties as well. Perhaps I did not explain as well as I should, that simple logistics prevent me from providing personal assistance to each citizen. If I were to start doing, so, there would be no time to develop training and information as I am directed to do. For example, we are developing an inservice training right now on backyard fruit production that will be offered to the county agents this summer. There will be new publications, power point presentations and helpful links to our UTHort website so that they can get all that information at the click of a button and offer you and every other homeowner the help they need. Does that make sense?

  5. Hi there, my dad forwarded this to me and I love it! I got my MLA at NCSU and plants are my love. Thank you for a great story. So true!

  6. I love your article. Since I am semi retired I am constantly asked those “Questions” especially about the perfect plant that will bloom all summer and be evergreen! I adore your humorous response. I wish I could get my “southern on” and be so polite. Sometimes I am rooked into volunteering, but I have learned that if you don’t charge something, they think your advice is worthless. Usually I have gone to giving them the look and tell them they can come visit my garden for ideas of what will work, but of course they are too busy to do that.
    I have told them my fee and they offer lunch.. not me.

  7. I think so many of us have been in this same predicament! I would say the difference between your doctor example and the landscape corollary is that the average person knows there is much they don’t know about medicine! But they have no idea of what they don’t know about landscapes, gardens, plants, and all that goes with designing a garden. They just know they can’t do it….but it must be easy, right?

    I do see your point about overgrown foundation plantings and I also agree that you must look at each situation as unique. However there is nothing more unappealing than a house that looks like it’s been dropped onto its lot by space aliens surrounded by a flat sea of lawn. Foundation planting is an almost universal expectation and evidence of care according to research by Joan Iverson Nassaeur. I think it is more about choosing appropriately sized plants with a pleasing mature form than it is about foundation planting being a problem in general, though I do agree that the fact that they are often covered by architectural eaves and overhangs does pose a problem. In general it looks nicer to have a house appear to have emerged from the landscape rather than appearing plunked down from the sky on top of the land.

  8. Thank you for writing this. I particularly agree about foundation plantings. “… life sentences to endless maintenance.” I have lived in five houses in which I have destroyed countless plants and trees, installed miles of french drains, just to restore the drainage and preserve the foundation of a house. There should be a four foot rule for all plants around a house.

  9. Apparently, this is why the idea of “Master Gardeners” aka the “Volunteer Extension” was created– to intercede with the hoi polloi so that the more highly educated government workers can have distance. Of course, unless the volunteers also have a deep understanding of horticulture and gardening/design knowledge there will be a certain lacking, but the point is that they are willing to interact with Joe Public and take the “slings and arrows”.

  10. Love this! I feel your pain. So often when someone new finds out that I can draw or sew, I hear, “Could you make me_______?” Or worse, “Ooh, can you show me how to make _______.” As if you can sit next to them and they will magically absorb your time, experience and practice by osmosis. People don’t understand that art in any form is “real” work.

  11. Carol, I know the feeling. I have had it happen to me during garden tours at my place ( which by the way you have never been to. You have an open-ended welcome BTW ). Fortunately it doesn’t happen often. More likely to happen at a nursery if I start talking to someone & they think I might actually know what I’m talking about. The world is always looking for a quick fix these days. Garden/landscape design take a lot more than a look at someones house on a cell phone… hard to explain that to folks….

  12. Carol, I was in the surgery center today waking up from a routine colonoscopy and getting asked what plants the deer don’t eat. With 600 deer per sq. mile here, the answer isn’t much. People assume since I know plants, I know design as well. I am limited to “don’t trim them into green meatballs” and use odd numbers for plants. Also go with the design of the house and red mulch is not a design element. Keep ranting!

  13. I chuckled to myself all the way through your post, Carol. As a former interior designer turned landscape designer nearly 20 years ago & a garden design author, I have had this same experience too many times. I probably would have said “Euphorbias, plant Euphorbias.” knowing full well the sap issues and the fact I am in an entirely different growing region.

  14. Yes, please tell them to plant daylillies, and then send them to my house to pick up my extras. They won’t stop spreading.

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