Specifying Plants

Here is a question asked by a client considering hiring us to design a landscape for their home in Williamsburg, Virginia. I thought the question and my answer are worth highlighting.

Q: My husband and I very much enjoyed meeting with you and discussing the design of our landscape in Williamsburg. We look forward to working with you to enhance the property. We reviewed the Letter of Agreement for Conceptual Design and have a question with respect to the project scope. The contract states that the plant design will be conceptual and show “rough quantity and types”. We understand that to mean that the actual quantity will be determined at the time of planting, based on the size of the plant at that time. However, we are not sure what you mean by “types”. Will the design state what kind of plant is recommended? We think it will be hard to visualize what the design will look like without knowing what plants are to be installed in the prescribed area.

A: Probably what is needed here is some clarification as to what I mean by “types.” When I say “types” I’m referring to whether it is an evergreen shrub or something deciduous, as well as how big the plant needs to be. We’ve found that the best approach is to design with “types” first. Then when the conceptual plan is approved and everybody understands what the goals of the design are, we can go back and determine exactly which species the plants need to be.

For example, I may see in my mind a sparsely planted area that has only a handful of plants, while you may be thinking about a botanical garden with dozens of varieties. The amount of time it takes to specify these two scenarios is quite different. So instead of spending a lot of time selecting plants and then finding out our design is not what you had in mind, we’ll put together a design using symbols to show how many plants there will be and where they’ll go. But we won’t call out the exact species for each plant.

Here are some examples. If the function of a plant is to serve as a screen – for instance blocking an electrical box or some other small feature – the type of plant would likely be an evergreen shrub that grows 3 to 5 feet high. If the function is a showy display or focal point, the type of plant would be something that has a special interest, say, flowers or bark or shape. If we have to consider the dozens of possible plants that could be used in either situation, it would add many hours to the conceptual design process.

A mistake people often make is to focus too early on individual elements such as plants, rather than the overall organization of the space. If you design a house, you don’t usually start with the furniture; you start with the layout of the rooms. Here’s a quote from one of my favorite books:

“Patios, pathways, fences and walls should be given first priority, as they contain your dreams. But don’t fret – there is a big difference between first priority and top priority, which is reserved for plants. It is for them you are setting the stage.” – Thomas Hobbs, The Jewel Box Garden

We’ve completed designs like yours many times before and the method I describe is what we’ve found to be best. I realize you don’t know us very well and I can imagine moving forward is quite unnerving. Our method works, it has worked many times before, and it will work in your case. Tell me what I can do to win your trust.

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