Dirty Secrets: 9 Things Your Landscape Designer Wishes You Knew

Remember when you couldn't leave your house because of the mountains of snow outside? Neither do we. It's something like summer now, and we're all about the great outdoors.

Good thing we've all got magnificent backyards, right? Oh, you don't? Hm, well, that's no problem -- we're here to help. And it starts with knowing all the truly dirty secrets of a landscape professional.

First off, it's important to differentiate between landscape architects and landscape designers: While they often do much of the same work, landscape architects have a degree, are licensed, and do tend to be slightly more expensive. For most residential landscaping the difference is negligible -- but for more complicated, propertywide projects, a landscape architect may be a better choice.

Now that you know who they are, here's what else they wish you knew.

1. They don't deal just with flowers

A landscape architect or designer will work with you to create a grand plan that encompasses your whole property, from installing a new driveway to adding a porch to grading your lawn. If you're just looking for someone to arrange your flowerbeds, you want a garden designer.

Susan Reed, a New England-based landscape architect, recalls helping a family member turn a barn into a livable space. Plans she created encompassed off-grid and solar aspects, a driveway and parking, and turnaround space for cars.

"All that stuff is hard to do," Reed says. "At the end, the man said, 'I had no idea that a landscape architect could give this help.' It blows my mind that people don't know the kind of help we can provide."

2. You should research the relevant regulations

A landscape architect's job is significantly easier when you, the homeowner, know the relevant regulations that govern your property. Are there any homeowners association rules you need to follow? What are the local guidelines designating how close to the property line you can landscape? (These are called setback regulations.) And make sure you know where those property lines are.

"It's great to get this stuff out right at the front of the project," Reed says. "If they're not known, then the designer will do things and then discover that they're not allowed."

Correcting the error(s) means extra time and money for you -- and a serious headache for your landscape architect.

3. Understand your property's major problems

Before hiring a landscape architect, make sure you know the basics of your yard -- and its problem areas. Does one sloping hill drain water onto your walkway? Can guests never find their way to your front door? Landscape architects can't fix a problem they don't know about.

"We even want to know anything they might do" in the future, Reed says.

Want to add a swingset someday? Let them know: They'll be able to create the perfect spot in your backyard and ensure installing the set doesn't cause any long-term problems. Sharing your plans up-front will "save the designer from discovering it later on and having to backtrack," she says.

And if you don't already have it, Vermont landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy recommends finding your property's plot plan or a previous landscape design, which provides many of the details necessary for any remodel.

4. Know how much maintenance you're ready for

Yardwork is hard work. While some people consider pulling weeds to be meditative, you might find it tedious. Let your designer or architect know how much maintenance you expect to do on a weekly or daily basis. Otherwise, he or she will end up with an unhappy and overworked client (you).

"How much time you can spend will affect the nature of the design," Reed says.

Eager gardeners might enjoy an elaborately landscaped yard, whereas the less-enthused might want "watering the grass" to be the only requirement. Be realistic about how much work you plan to put into your space -- biting off more than you can chew is a surefire route to a dilapidated yard.

5. Know what you want, but be open-minded

A great landscape is a collaboration between the designer and the homeowner.

"If we can find something that satisfies the longings of everyone in the home, then we've done the right thing and made the right choice," Moir Messervy says.

"The main quality I ask for is open-mindedness to new ideas they haven't thought of -- or even already rejected," Reed adds. "Often the landscape architect can show them how the idea has multiple benefits they might not have thought of."

This is doubly true if you have big dreams without the budget to match. Take water features: You may dream of a pond in your backyard, but Moir Messervy says construction costs are often too expensive for the average homeowner's budget.

"A lot of people want something that brings the sound of water in their backyard," she says.

A talented and creative designer can develop a cheaper feature -- like a " container water garden" -- that brings the same effect. Don't get hung up on one vision. Be open to thoughts and ideas from your designer, who knows the best ways to transform your goals into an affordable reality.

"Open-mindedness and flexibility are the most treasured qualities in my clients," Reed says.

6. Know what you love

Landscape professionals aren't just looking for your color preferences or plants you adore.

"Landscapes tend to be emotional, sentimental places," Reed says. "If a designer knows what a person is envisioning from a treasured previous landscape, that can make it easier to make them happy."

Are you looking to re-create the endless green lawns of your childhood? Or do you dream of spending your afternoons resting in a hammock by a babbling brook? Sure, maybe you won't be able to replicate those scenarios precisely, but laying them out can help your designer create an outdoor space that brings you peace.

7. Don't sweat the small stuff

When you hire a designer or architect, you're asking him or her to solve a "big-picture problem," Reed says. "When you're stuck on one thing, it's hard to solve the larger puzzle."

Sometimes something small must be sacrificed in service of the greater good. For example, a hill that drains toward your house might need to be repositioned or graded.

On that note, don't micromanage. While most designers love it when homeowners get involved, "whether we move a tree an inch or two one way gets a little close to the bone in terms of what we like to do," Moir Messervy says.

8. Don't listen to someone who won't listen to you

Unless you want your lawn to make a serious statement, make sure you use a landscape professional who's willing to work with you -- not against you.

"There are two kinds of expertise," Moir Messervy says. "The designer who wants to give you their style, and the designer who wants to listen to who you are."

If you're feeling steamrolled by the designer early in the process, it's OK to move on. While you probably hired the designer because of his or her aesthetic, if there's no room for your own it's not a partnership worth keeping.

"Unless their client asks them to be as imaginative as possible, their work should be about solving problems -- not about creating a tribute to one's own imagination," Reed says.

9. Live on the land first

Moir Messervy recommends living on a property for at least a year before landscaping. That way, you get a sense of the way the earth breathes: "You get to understand where the wet areas are, where the sun is, and how your neighbors see you," she says.

"Don't jump in too fast." Once you've been there for a while, you'll start to understand what parts of your land need to change -- and what areas you're surprised to learn you love.

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Want to know some other secrets? Check out our ongoing series about what home professionals wish you knew.

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