From Lawns to Landscapes

A landscape designer can save you time and money, helping to avoid costly mistakes and assuring the end results you desire.

photo by Susan Van Haitsma

The first lawns—areas of grass maintained for the benefit of people as opposed to pasture for domestic animals—date to the Middle Ages. As they do not occur spontaneously in nature, lawns sprang from man’s desire to manipulate the environment in order to create pleasing outdoor spaces. Early lawns were small and often covered with wildflowers.

By the 18th century, however, expanses of manicured green were indicative of the status of the landowner. European manor houses, if not evidence enough of the occupants’ wealth, were complemented with a surround of turf that sat idle, except for justifying the staff required to maintain it. While the less fortunate were forced by economics to devote every square inch of property to subsistence, the upper crust could afford to sew turf simply for the sake of it.

The industrial revolution, however, spurred urbanization. Masses left farms and fields, livestock and soil, lulled by the promise of a steady income not tied to the whims of nature. They flocked to the close quarters of cities. The middle class rose, but so did a deep desire for connecting again with the earth. u

Need spawns invention. Suburbia was born in the late 1800s. Improved transportation, thanks in part to Henry Ford, enabled a person to become a commuter. Following WWII, the suburbs grew at record pace. The lawn no longer defined the upper class. Average Americans could purchase a house with a patch of grass all their own. “Working in the yard” became an American pastime and maybe even an obsession for some.

Here in the south, as in 18th-century Europe, a person’s yard is used to gauge his status. Unwritten rules about the grass pervade. Critiques of individuals’ lawn care are as common as casseroles. Parking on one’s front lawn, for example, is as uncouth as going barefoot in the grocery store. Decent folks don’t do that. Mow the yard on Sunday and certain assumptions will be made about your soul. Once again, the lawn makes a statement about those who own it.

Even if a person’s dignity isn’t at stake, his curb appeal is. Thankfully, human ingenuity has taken manipulation of the natural world past the simple production of grassy play places. Borders, walkways, walls, flower beds, decks, patios, foundation plantings and outdoor lighting turn the modern yard from simply functional to a work of art. Passers-by pine for the same serenity on their own half-acre.

Nature does attempt to thwart homeowners by sending up weeds or denying water or shooting a dormant vine up a tree trunk. Most recently, Mother Nature sent ice to reap havoc. She’s always trying to grab back what humans have boldly claimed from her. Tenacity, homeowners hope, will trump tyranny.

A beautiful landscape requires more than periodic plant additions; a beautiful landscape requires a plan.

After a harsh winter, it’s great to get back out to one’s small piece of paradise. In the wake of February’s ice storm damage, maybe it’s time to finally take stock of your landscape: rethink the perennial garden, improve the outdoor lighting and at last build a raised garden. Every homeowner has any number of items on the wish list.

But impulse buys at the plant shop plopped into the ground aren’t the way to proceed.  “Plants are so secondary to everything else,” says Campbell Vaughn of Campbell Vaughn Design Group. A beautiful landscape requires more than periodic plant additions; a beautiful landscape requires a plan.

“You’ve got basic elements and principles that go along with any design: line, form, texture, repetition,” explains Vaughn. Practical considerations such as drainage, irrigation, grading, sizes of plants at maturity, location of plants for best growth, appropriate hardscape and proper mulch set the stage for pleasing flora. A landscape designer understands how those pieces fit together to seamlessly form the views from the street, the deck and the kitchen window. He or she sees the yard as a whole, unlike the average homeowner who sees that the corner of the yard “needs something.” “A landscape designer will point you in the right direction before you make a mistake,” says Scott Anderson of Anderson Horticultural Group. The designer’s expertise in materials and methods surpasses the homeowner hodgepodge approach to landscaping.

There is no charge for design drawings if the client proceeds with the project after the plans are drafted.

Hiring a landscape designer isn’t as pricey as most people think. Hourly fees range from $50 to $150. The hourly charge applies to consultation and time spent on-site by the landscape designer. There is no charge for design drawings if the client proceeds with the project after the plans are drafted. Clients who request design plans only, to be implemented later, pay a fee commensurate with the time it takes the landscape designer to produce them. Vaughn says, “If you want to fiddle with it for a long time, it’s okay to get a plan and do it yourself. But if you want to get it knocked out and looking great, a landscape designer is the best choice.”  

The landscape designer won’t be the one actually in the yard turning the shovel, operating machinery and hauling stones. Once the plan is in place, he or she acts as a contractor overseeing the work and ensuring the vision for the yard is coming together. Labor crews implement the design. Expect to pay $25 to $45 per hour for general labor. When part of the project, such as masonry work, must be sub-contracted, the landscape designer charges cost-plus, meaning the client pays the cost of the sub-contractor plus an additional 10 to 20 percent. Cost-plus is also used to bill for materials and plants and generally ranges from 20 to 50 percent.

Yes, larger projects will cost, but as Anderson points out, “It’s not every day that someone comes in and says re-do my whole yard. Mostly they want to re-do a section of their yard or garden.” So there’s no pressure or expectation that a client will surrender his plot of land. Remember also that landscape designers buy materials at wholesale prices, so the customer isn’t paying any more for the materials than he would if he bought them retail. Plus the customer is relieved of the burden of deciding what to buy, spending the time to make the transaction and finding a way to get the materials transported back to the site.

Maybe a homeowner could save money by acting as his own contractor, but this idea can quickly go awry. Landscape designers know the most skilled trades people. They’ve vetted the brick masons, the stone layers, the carpenters and so on. Likewise, the homeowner might save some cash by doing some of the digging or planting himself or hiring it out, but general laborers who work for the landscape designer have done the same tasks again and again. They’ve become experts. Paying for the job to be done right beats paying for the job to be done twice, the second time to fix what was done wrong the first time.

There are ways to save money and to get the biggest bang for the budgeted buck. “I think a low maintenance planting plan is clean and simple,” says Anderson. “It can give immediate impact. Getting into gardens that require a lot of maintenance can be very expensive.” The cost of long-term maintenance should be considered at the outset. If it doesn’t fit the monthly budget of time or money, then scale down.

Paying for the job to be done right beats paying for the job to be done twice, the second time to fix what was done wrong the first time.

For an already functional yard, Vaughn suggests spending the landscaping budget on lighting. “The biggest impact anyone can get for the money is outdoor lighting. It gives you so much more outdoor time after dark. It makes you want to be outside,” he says.

Another thing to think about when budgeting for landscape design is how long you’re willing to wait for plants to mature. Patience will save money. “The more impact you want immediately the more it’s going to cost,” advises Vaughn. Cut expenditures on plant material by figuring out how to make what’s already there functional. It may be a matter of just rearranging or pruning established plants. And if the budget is slim, forego hardscaping elements involving stone, brick, concrete or wood. “Hardscape is expensive. It eats up your budget,” says Vaughn. u    

Don’t be afraid to do things in phases. Phasing in a landscape plan allows a homeowner time to save up for the next stage of the project. Prioritize needs and goals and then proceed accordingly. Anderson and Vaughn both agree that breaking a landscape project into chunks is a great way to progress toward the final vision, but they note some caveats to that recommendation, as well. It is essential to think of the current phase in relation to future phases. If you’re planning to install a swimming pool down the road, don’t build a brick wall with a single gate around the yard. How will the pool professionals get their equipment into the backyard?

While tackling the project in stages can accommodate the homeowner’s cash flow, Anderson warns that it may add to the overall cost of the project by 10 to 15 percent. Some things from previous stages may have to be undone to accomplish tasks in a later phase. Take into account what can be done in phase one, such as running water or electrical lines before laying sod, to facilitate the plans for phases two and three. Pay for those extras now to save money down the road.

Landscape designers are the superheroes of the residential yard. They develop a plan. They supervise the implementation of the plan. They advise homeowners on materials in terms of practicality, appropriateness, cost and durability. But they can’t do it all on their own. Homeowner preparation and participation are critical and they begin before making the first phone call to a landscape designer.

Phasing in a landscape plan allows a homeowner time to save up for the next stage of the project.

It’s important to know what you like and what you dislike. Do some online research. Page through lawn and garden magazines. Drive through neighborhoods. Get a clear idea of what appeals to you, not just plants, but the overall form. Gather some pictures to share with the landscape designer with whom you choose to work. In addition, assess how you use your yard. Do you like to read outside? Do you have small children who need a safe place to romp? Do the neighborhood kids flock to your yard for flag football? Do you enjoy grilling or dining outside? The way your family uses the land around your house will dictate the overall concept for the design.

When interviewing landscape designers, ask to see pictures of their work. Ask to drive by residences they’ve completed. Landscape design is “a word of mouth business,” as Anderson describes it. Ask for references and call them. Ask friends and neighbors who they’ve worked with in the past. This is the best way to determine if you like a designer’s particular style and how he or she manages projects.

Don’t forget to ask the landscape designer what his or her background is. What type of training has the person received? Vaughn received a degree in landscape architecture from the University of Georgia’s School of Environmental Design. Anderson earned a B.S. in Landscape Design Horticulture from Auburn University. Vaughn’s program of study emphasized the engineering aspects of design. Anderson’s program emphasized the plant sciences side. Both are equally qualified to design landscapes. The kicker is that though the title landscape architect may only be used by someone who has passed the certification exam, the title of landscape designer is not regulated. The guy who cuts your grass and trims your hedges can call himself a landscape designer too.

Homeowner preparation and participation are critical and they begin before making the first phone call to a landscape designer.

Once you choose the landscape designer with whom you feel comfortable, he or she will interview you about what you want to accomplish, tour the property, take measurements and construct a plan that fits the given budget. Understand how the design will evolve over time. What will it look like in one year, in three years, in 10 years? “Expect the landscape designer to be able to articulate the plan,” says Anderson.

After agreeing on the final design, a detailed estimate with a timeline will be presented. Mother Nature will of course do her best to derail the projected timeline. Rain is her weapon of choice in that arena. “Weather plays a big part in garden implementation,” says Anderson. Be patient, but not complacent. Trust that the designer is ensuring that everything is unfolding as it should, but don’t hesitate to step outside and take a look for yourself. Is it coming together the way you expected? If not, talk with the designer. It’s better to request a change before things are literally set in stone. Changes may affect the cost and the timeline. Nonetheless, you’re making an investment in your home. You should be happy with the results.

The lawn has come a long way since the 15th century, when the turf was torn out and replaced every three years and mowed (by hand) only twice a year. The lawn is now a landscape alive with flow and form and texture and shape. The piece of ground surrounding a person’s home reflects personality, interests, tastes and, depending on where the car is parked, status. A landscape designer will make the view all the better.
 

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