By Mel Bellar
When someone asks me what I do, I tell them that I am a landscape designer. I will very likely continue on to say that I have a landscape design, installation and maintenance business, because installation and maintenance are a huge part of what we do. But the emphasis is on design. Clients and friends often introduce me as a landscape architect and I generally correct them because I am not a landscape architect. A landscape architect has a lot more technical training, requires a university degree and must be licensed by passing a serious exam. I would love to be a landscape architect, but it takes a lot longer (I didn’t have time for another 4 year program) than becoming a designer and was just not necessary for what I wanted to do. Anyway, the best part of being a landscape architect is the design part.
Some folks being very complimentary, refer to me as an artist. While I am flattered by the sentiment, I usually tell them that I don’t consider myself to be an artist and much prefer the idea of being a designer. What I love about design, or landscape design in particular, is that the goal is to make something that is functional and beautiful, whereas an artist’s goal is what? The designer’s success, or failure, is pretty apparent and is not entirely subjective; the artist’s success, on the other hand, is very much in the “eye of the beholder.” I like doing something that clearly has value and is less ambiguous.
There is a lot of overlap in the realms of the artist, architect, engineer, craftsman and designer. My objective as a designer is to create an experience that is both utilitarian and pleasant (functional and beautiful). Some disciplines are much more about function because aesthetics is not so important (what is under the hood is what counts) and some are primarily about beauty or something less tangible (art and red carpet couture). The beauty of landscape design is that it is very functional, providing walkways, steps, patios, screening, shade, play areas and many other useful outdoor features. At the same time all of these utilitarian components add structure and beauty and can be enhanced with purely aesthetic elements: sculpture, fun objects (not quite worthy of being called sculpture: flower beds, ornamental trees and on and on. Even the plantings can be functional: They can be edible, intended to attract wildlife and pollinators, provide fragrance, cut flowers, screening and shade.
I am getting a little carried away here, but it is very therapeutic for me to become so excited about my calling, here in the dead of winter while I struggle with procrastination. I have a pile of projects on my virtual desk awaiting my attention, many that require going out into the vacillating cold/ice and rain/mud to measure and think. That brings me to my original inspiration when sitting down to write this column. I was thinking about the difference in the results of creating a garden ad hoc versus doing a design. It is a lot of work to create a site plan. It requires extensive sketching, measuring, determining elevations, re-sketching, re-measuring and so forth until there is a site plan accurate enough to do a true-to-life design. Then there is all the work to actually come up with a design that meets the functional requirements and that will be beautiful. Doing a top-down or comprehensive design is time consuming (it can take weeks to months) and is therefore expensive; clients often don’t understand the need for or the expense of a design, and it is very tempting to skip this step and just wing it.
I have on rare occasions agreed to do a smaller project, like revamping a bed or creating something very obvious and discrete, without insisting on a formal design. However, I find that I nearly always end up sketching it out to make sure that the proportions are going to look right and to figure out the plants and materials that will be required. In my own garden, I have skipped the explicit design step many times and it still looks pretty good, so it makes me wonder. It is definitely not the most efficient way to go about things as I am constantly moving things around and making adjustments to compensate for the lack of forethought and planning. Truthfully, even with the best planning in the garden, there are always adjustments to be made.
Having thought about these issues a lot over the years, I have come to realize that I/we are always designing on some level or another. Whether we are choosing what to wear in the morning to work with the weather and the day’s activities or creating a new garden, we are constantly making design decisions, though we may not think about it that way. The level of formal design required greatly depends on the scope and importance of the task. I think some forethought and design is well worth the effort for even a small garden, but for anything larger than a small area, it makes a huge difference. More to come on this huge topic!~
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.~