Know better, do better

I’m taking a landscape design course this term which I have approached with bated breath.

See, I did design and installations in Southern California before I decided to go to school for a horticulture degree. I came to it with a decent eye, but zero experience. My experience was with community gardens and my own garden, plus what I was learning in a retail garden center. In six months, I did about 40 designs and installed around 15 of them.

So when I started this class, I thought: okay, I’m going to find out now if I did okay or if I was off my ass.

For the first three weeks, I was relieved. First, I handled the business end of design well which only makes sense as that was my background. I sold designs and consulting like a pro; my projects were organized, on time and on budget. My clients were happy.

I also did a decent job with the overarching themes of design – beauty and functionality. My lines and balance were good and I’m still impressed by my plant selections. But.

I see in hindsight some problems with the details. And they make me cringe.

I’m thinking of one project in particular this Sunday morning. It was house with a small front yard, a long drive that spanned the length of the house, and a medium sized back yard. My client wanted a different feeling and different theme in each part of the yard. She wanted tropical in front, Mediterranean along the drive, and Japanese in the back. (Stop laughing.)

I don’t think I even tried to talk her out of that idea, I just designed what she asked for. Now I would explore that idea a little more and talk about the pros and cons of the mixed approach. My concerns would mainly be about potential buyer’s perception when they sold, but let’s move on with the story.

The east facing front yard was subtly tropical – the specimens were red banana and queen palms, both common in the neighborhood. (First self flogging: I think I spec’ed the banana about 10-12″ too close to the house. We may have even snuck in a tree fern back there in the corner, which I now think was a mistake, though not a deadly one.)The south and north facing beds of the driveway were, even in retrospect, perfect. Mediterranean design is my strength and my specialty, and the beds were a well balanced, adequately spaced mix of Pittosporum tenuifolium, grasses, lavender and a very restrained sprinkling of annuals. The drive had just been redone, and the planting turned out gorgeous.

The back yard. OMG the back yard. I don’t know if I can say it. It’s too terrible for words.I didn’t use any foundation plants. That’s right. Every plant was a specimen.

Wait, I may have repeated a low mounded dwarf red pine once. Other than that, no repetition.

Also, there was a specimen tree, a Geijera parviflora, and yes, I think I spec’ed it too close to the property line.

I can’t recall all the plants that were in the backyard main bed, but let me tell you what I know now: there were too many, there was too much variation, and the area was probably grossly overplanted. In fact, most of my designs were overplanted – a common amateur’s mistake.

I have a friend who is a designer and we talk about being afraid to find out what happened with our designs. Time is one true and ruthless measure of a designer’s worth. Things dying doesn’t bother me as much as that doesn’t reflect on me. Things being too big or too wrong – that bothers me. Immensely. They all looked good when they went in, and certainly, it’s important that a design look good when it’s freshly installed. It’s also pretty important that it mature well and look good 1, 3 and 10 years later. It’s my worst fear that the whole thing would be torn out because I’d made some terrible mistake. This is not very likely as I know that I at least sited things well – nothing was planted in a place it wouldn’t do well. It’s the doing well part that’s scary.

I’m taking a trip to SoCal in December, and I am going to face the music and drive by all my designs. I’ll even take pictures so I can critique (read: torture) myself. When I visited last year, I asked my old boss how my clients were doing and he enthusiastically said they were great – visiting the nursery often, buying more plants and supplies, being the high maintenance customers I fondly remember. My old boss is the kind of guy who would tell me straight, so that’s comforting. Nevertheless, my knowledge grows and my confidence in my past work is shaky. I’ll find out for sure in December.

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