Biggest Landscape Designer FAIL

It was about 15 years ago and I had landed my biggest project as an independent landscape designer. I was feeling pretty smug. I wasn’t just doing little flower beds anymore. This was big time, and I was ready! There would be no big landscape designer fails for me!

The property was a sprawling mountainous estate with a recently installed swimming pool and a half acre of the San Gabriel mountains exploding upward into the distant limits of the property.

Gearing up for success, setting up for a fail

The design program was wildly ambitious. My enthusiastic clients had envisioned a babbling brook tumbling down terraces and terminating into a pondless water feature behind the pool. They wanted a generous deck and kitchen for entertaining, private seating areas dotted through the property and hillside, native plants to stabilize the slope, lots of trees and more.

Let’s be frank here. It was a designer’s dream come true. Not only was the design program exciting but the client’s themselves were delightful. We just “got” each other. Spoke the same language. When they’d start to describe something I could practically finish their sentences.

I worked hard on that design. Really hard. I worked in every landscape nuance that I thought would thrill them. And in our first presentation meeting, not to brag, but I totally nailed it.


Everything was going great! So when I arrived with the contractor for our 3rd and final meeting to review the construction cost estimate, I had my calendar ready. The contractors could break ground next week. I was that confident.

They anxiously took the estimate and began to read. As my clients flipped through the pages, with me prattling on about the process of construction, I suddenly felt a chill that was descending upon the room and it was impossible to ignore. When they arrived at the last page I could actually see the blood drain from their faces as they caught sight of that bottom line. $95,000.

They were shocked, angry and disappointed. —stunned that their little project would cost nearly a hundred grand. And I was equally stunned that they would expect otherwise from such an expansive project.

There was a huge mistake in the design process. No, not a mistake, a total FAIL! And although it took a minute for me to get there, I soon realized that the fail was 100% on me. This, in my experience, is the number one Landscape Designer Fail, and I had made it, big time!


***We never established a budget***


As part of my process, I have a form that I fill out in my initial meeting with every client. It allows me to make note of things like large trees, problematic views or drainage situations. It acts as an interviewing tool to discover what the client wants to accomplish. Also, it reminds me to discuss phasing and budget.

That last one is where it gets uncomfortable. A very common conversation back in those days might have sounded like this:

Me: So, do you have a budget in mind for your project?
Client: Well,…we don’t really know how much these things cost.
Me: Costs for landscape can have a very wide range depending on the size and scope of the project; what kind of amenities you want. That sort of thing. Is there a range you’re thinking of?
Client: We really want to do the whole project at once if possible. And we have money set aside for this.
Me: Ok, well, let’s get into these drawings and then get some bids. If we need to make some changes along the way we can certainly do that.

Anyone see a problem with this conversation?

This here is where the Landscape Designer Fail starts: NO ONE wanted to discuss an actual dollar amount. Without that discussion early on in the process it is extremely difficult NOT to fail.

The importance of discussing budget at the beginning of a project, in the middle of the design and throughout the process cannot be understated.


Clients don’t know how much things cost. And why should they? That’s why they hired a designer.

Let’s face it though, talking about money is uncomfortable. There’s even a podcast about it that’s actually called, This Is Uncomfortable, and it’s all about life and how money messes with it which, in this line of work, I can totally relate to.

So, to help you avoid some of my terrible mistakes here are my top 5 Pro-Tips on how to discuss money with a client, and a flow chart to get you going!

  1. Speak with confidence and don’t apologize for pricing. They may be uncomfortable about discussing money and budget but if you are not, you can help steer the conversation to a productive place. It’s better for them to consider this now than once they have a design they’ve fallen in love with but cannot afford.
  2. Don’t get into a game of chicken with the client about who will give up a number first. It’s awkward and unprofessional. The client is worried that if they say they have $50k but the price is only $30k, you’ll take them for a ride. Be prepared to offer a price range, even a wide one, based on the size of their property. Be sure to emphasize that it is just a “ballpark figure” and you need at least a preliminary design to narrow it down.
  3. Take notes about your budget conversation and email it to the client so they have the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings. If the client tells you they want to see the design before deciding how much they want to spend, this is especially important. When presenting designs and estimates, have your notes out clearly on the table and refer back to your agreement to proceed with the design without a budget.
  4. If their budget is wildly low, be prepared with suggestions for phasing or referrals. Sometimes a client’s budget will be so low that you will know immediately they cannot afford their project. For example, a full front and back yard makeover will not be accomplished with $5000. Not ever. However, that $5k will get them a complete design and the new parkway installed. When they have another $5k or $10k they can chip away at another phase. Ultimately the client gets their dream landscape.
  5. Most important tip: Do not lead your client to believe that the cost will be less than you believe it to be. No one wins! If the budget is $25k and you are pretty sure it’ll cost close to $35k, it is not helpful to say, “We’ll find a way to make it work”. It’s better to say, “Let’s itemize these costs and then decide what we can change or do without”.

In conclusion

The best advise I can give to help you avoid the Biggest Landscape Designer Fail is to encourage you to find your own voice in discussing money. It can be humorous, analytical, or any style that suits your personality. When you are totally sure that both parties have the same understanding of budget and services your project will be off to a great start and a spectacular finish!

Good luck!

Leave a Reply