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.

WHY THINGS TOOK A TURN

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!

WHAT WAS THE BIG LANDSCAPE DESIGNER FAIL?

***We never established a budget***

THE HOW AND WHY OF THE FAIL

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.

MILLION DOLLAR ADVICE FOR DESIGNERS

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!

Boundless Landscape Border Ideas

glass landscape border
Garden in West Seattle with a super-cool idea to separate the front yard from slope out front.

Landscape border ideas? “Boring!” you might be thinking. But wait a sec. Borders are brilliant! Something as simple and straightforward as that border can be the difference between a basic garden and a spectacularly innovative one. Perhaps you think I’m over-selling a bit here, but I assure you, this is exactly the detail that makes a garden stand out.

It’s true, in the most basic terms, borders are just lines in the ground that divide two spaces. But before you draw one of those basic lines in the garden with some bender board you must first ask yourself, What do I want from this design? Do I want a nature-scape where the borders are invisible—grasses, perennials and trailing vines tumbling over one another to make a sea of horticultural communion? Or do I want to separate the garden and the turf to let each region of the garden shine on its own?

Either way, never overlook this oft missed opportunity to insert your own panache into your design.

An aside about Turf

I’m going to break a little blogging rule now and mention turf which is not our main topic of conversation here. It’s related however, and, in my opinion, an important aside. There’s a huge movement for removing lawns, particularly in the hotter, drier regions of the US. The primary goal is to dramatically reduce water usage. There are numerous other angles to explore as well. I have strong opinions about this, and I assure you we will discuss it at length, so I encourage you to stay tuned for our series entitled To Grass or Not to Grass, which will look at these issues and investigate design solutions for turf and turf-free gardens. This post is not that space. Right here, we’re just acknowledging that lawns exist and they often require borders. No judgement! Ok, back to the subject at hand…

FUNCTION: Why Do We Need Borders in the Landscape?

landscape edging with river rock
The edging in front of the stone prevents grass from creeping in.

Separation. A little distance. That’s all we’re trying to do. We want our garden residents—turf, decomposed granite (referred to as dg), shrubs etc.—to stay on their own sides. First let’s look at how things spread.

Grass: By it’s nature, turf grass is a spreader. It either uses underground runners (rhizomes) or above ground runners (stolons) to propagate itself and take over any non paved area within reach. Without a border it’s grass, grass everywhere!

DG: It is strong and inexpensive and if it’s stabilized with a polymer it can be as hard as, well, rock. It’s an excellent choice for walkways and patios. Nonstabilized dg however, has a consistency not much firmer than wet sand. Without a proper border, dg will spill out into the surrounding areas, look messy, alter the soil biology and ultimately cause your space to lose shape.

These are just two factors that make landscape borders so important!

FORM: Why do we need borders in the Landscape?

Because they look great! We now know what can happen if we don’t install physical barriers, but looking beyond that the most important part of garden design is making every item look intentional. The hard objects that help us keep things separate in the garden are just as important and can be just as interesting as the plants they are there to retain.

basic landscape BORDER MATERIALS

Here are the super basic choices for borders. Note I didn’t say bad choices. Every one of them serves a purpose and may be the perfect one for your needs. Here are 7 of the most common ones. I’ll discuss the top three.

  • Benderboard
  • Steel edging
  • River rock
  • Concrete Band
  • Brick
  • Concrete paver
  • Wood
steel edge landscape border
Clean, invisible line of the steel edge

Benderboard vs. Steel Edging
In a battle between the two, steel edging is the clear winner, hands down. It comes in 20’ powder coated 4” sheets of brown, black and sometimes green. You get steel stakes with your purchase to anchor it into the ground, and it is sturdy stuff! The reason I prefer it is that it makes a very clean line—straight or curvy—and it almost never comes popping out of the ground when it’s installed correctly. The cost is typically around $55 per 20′ panel

Benderboard, on the other hand comes in two varieties: one is brown, about 1/4” thick x 5” high, comes in 40’ rolls and is made of HDPE plastic and also comes with plastic stakes, the other is a black edge with a rounded bubble at the top and made of an unspecified plastic. The black one, I never use, ever. It simply looks unprofessional and will often start inching it’s way out of the ground as soon as you turn your back on it. But at a cost of only around $25 for a 40′ roll plus installation, it is an adequate cost effective substitute.

river rock landscape border

River Rock
The third basic edging material is river rock. By this, I’m referring to the white-ish speckled stones that are relatively consistent at about 6”-9” in size, although you can certainly find them somewhat, and even much larger. I often see them used as borders in a garden, marched in a single file row around turf areas. While, I myself often use them in my borders, I assure you that this application (the single row of matching rocks) is not an elegant choice. But we’ll get to design in a moment.

River Rock Pro-Tip: The most important thing to know if you are using river rock is that you must ALSO add edging first! Rocks do not a true border make. These rocks, when laid out, leave holes and openings for sneaky creepy grass to find its way in, or dg to find its way out. If you’re going to be there to maintain the garden and keep the grasses at bay then have at it. But it’s a risky move and extremely frustrating and time consuming to keep that mess managed. I know! I’ve made that mistake exactly 3 times before figuring it out.

Beautiful landscape Border Materials

We know that borders are used to divide spaces, and that’s really all there is to it. No one ever said that it had to be rocks or a straight piece of metal or plastic. Somehow, over time however, that’s just what evolved in most typical gardens. But there are so many interesting materials out there that can be repurposed and used to do the same job.

I have a husband and wife client pair, one is an artist who works with pottery. Along the side of their property lived stacks of cast off bricks, multi-celled cement blocks, and pile upon pile of broken and unused pieces of the artist’s pottery. It was an absolute gold mine!

I started out using some randomly sized rocks and boulders and then interspersed small groups of varying patterns of old bricks and blocks. Finally I selected uncommon and exceptional pieces of pottery from what she referred to as the “chard pile” and voila! We had a border, literally unlike any other!

So many different materials to make a whimsical and unusual border.

unconventional border material ideas

I was lucky with that project. It’s not often that you find such a unique assortment materials all in one place and at no charge. You can however keep your eyes open for all kinds of items that would work well in your border. Here are a few examples of borders I’ve designed and others that I’ve seen and either fallen in love with or been intrigued and amused by.

  • A trench of pea gravel with tumbled glass. Contain it in edging with landscape fabric underneath to prevent weeds from emerging and rocks from sinking.
  • Spanish roof tiles on their ends to create an “S” curve.
  • PVC or metal drain pipe cut to varying sizes. Place on ends in the ground, then add plants into the actual pipes. Cascading plants such as Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ or a wild strawberry would do the trick.
  • Gabions. Wire frames filled with rocks or any other chunky type of material. In collaboration with another designer, we once made gabions out of broken tiles and tea sets and won an award for it!
  • Dried bamboo poles—anything from 2” to 5” in diameter, cut to varying heights and “planted” on their ends. It makes an interesting natural edging with a twist.
  • Flagstone “planted” vertically to be about 6”-9” high, and irregularly organized: this is a great choice if you’ve had a recent flagstone project because there’s almost always leftover pieces that are too small for paving. Use these smaller pieces to make a low vertical border.
  • Skateboards. They will degrade but that’s part of the charm. I recommend wood decks not plastic. The plastic turns to powder with over exposure to sun and moisture.
  • Metal car rims (avoid plastic. See above). You get the best impact with a variety of designs!
  • Bicycle rims. Unlike with the car rims, bike rims are finer and thiner and look modern and streamlined when you use matching ones. But if you want to avoid the problem of many things marching in a row, it would be interesting to bury them to varying depths to make the border of a varying height.
  • Glass wine or other beverage bottles turned upside down and “planted”. Caution: don’t use clear. They get dirty and moldy inside and it’s unsightly. Darkly colored bottles mask this problem.

Try mixing materials! Bottles, bamboo and drain pipe—all round objects—can be combined to make a dynamically interesting, colorful and extraordinary border. If you’re adding something like rims or skateboards, it’s likely going to be difficult to find enough of them to make a complete border with only that subject. Consider using boulders and river rock to supplement with these special items.

So, what do you think? I hope now that you’ve poured over some of these unconventional landscape border ideas that you’ve come up with some of your own. I find that once you break away from the home improvement or landscape supply center’s choices for border materials, you begin to look around your world and consider everything a possibility. As long as you continue doing that, you are going to create some killer gardens!

Send me photos of your great borders and I’ll happily post them here!

Good luck! -Natalie

WHY ARE MY PLANTS DYING?

the Truth about plant death

I’ve got some cold, hard truths for you today. There’s no point in beating around the bush about it (pun intended) so I’m just going to say it. You ready?…Plants die. That’s right. It’s a grim fact and no one escapes the carnage. If you tend to plants, you will kill plants. If you think that’s rough, keep in mind that when you design or maintain gardens for others, you will kill their plants too.

Ouch! I know. But sometimes you just have to rip the band-aid off.

Who Kills Plants?

Everyone! If you want to know why plants are dying, here’s the thing, plants die for those with the proverbial “green thumb” and those with a “brown thumb”. No matter the color of your digits, no matter how much you pay attention to, or ignore them, they are living entities that have a cycle of life and death. Some impress us with their long liv-ed-ness and others seem to kick the bucket even before we’ve put our tools away after planting them. And others have a little help from the creatures and critters that share the space.

There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Even the best gardeners kill plants although they might make it seem otherwise. Those “plant whisperers”, have probably killed at least as many as they have nurtured to great beauty. In fact, you know what makes them so great at keeping beautiful plants? It’s in fact, because they’ve killed so many. The key is that each time one doesn’t survive, you learn something new about it. Perhaps the Sunset book said sun to part shade and you discover that, whoops! Not so happy with the shade part in that equation. Lesson learned.

My Plant Graveyard

Many years ago, I went to a course for Mediterranean garden design. The instructor was world famous in her field. Yet, of all the information that she shared the thing that really stuck was that she kept a very special planter in her garden. One that contained the markers for each of the plants that she had killed. Hundreds of them! She called it her plant graveyard and said, “If you’re not killing some plants, you’re just not trying hard enough”. She inspired me to be brave. I learned that when I’m not afraid of killing plants, I’m able to be way more creative in trying new ones. What a gift, not just for me but for my clients!

In an effort to embrace the truth, I created my own Plant Graveyard. I even performed a tiny little ceremony. Ok, not a ceremony per se, but when each new tag was placed in my horticultural place of repose, I’d take a moment and reflect on where I may have gone wrong. What signs did I miss that could have prevented this tragic outcome. Was I too neglectful? Did I smother it with too much…water, pruning love etc? It helped.

Understanding the life cycle of plants helped me become a more mindful gardener; also, a more mindful designer. And you can too. Some plants just aren’t meant for longevity. It’s helpful to know that before putting them in a garden.

What else can be learned from dying plants

Ok, now that you’re settling in to the idea of plant mortality, let’s dive into the nitty gritty of why plants die. Here’s the very important, key information about plant death: although we simply cannot prevent them all, we can definitely be vigilantes to defend the gardens we protect. There are a handful of the most pervasive culprits that with knowledge and a good checklist we can guard against.

Some dangers are obvious. Some very sneaky. Here’s what you should look for, and how to defeat the offenders. Having a plant graveyard is fine, but let’s save as many botanical souls as we can*.

Dying plant causes
Dying plant causes
Dying plant causes
Dying plant causes

*I have purposely not included plant diseases and pests in this post. They certainly are villains in the garden, however, they comprise a completely separate and unique topic which extends beyond our scope here. We will discuss in a later post.

LANDSCAPE DESIGN IDEAS: Straight Lines, Voluptuous Curves

Straight lines, voluptuous curves

Which Is Right For Your Garden Design?

When you’re designing a new garden, picking plants may be fun but don’t run off to the nursery just yet! Let’s talk lines. Do you like firm, straight ones or curvy, voluptuous ones? I have great news! You don’t have to choose only one! Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too—straight lines and voluptuous curves. But there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.

Landscape Design Theory
Way back when I was taking my very first landscape design course, we were taught the two primary approaches to landscape design—rectilinear, with straight lines and precise angles, to create a formal and balanced look, and curvilinear, with free flowing lines to create a fluid and informal landscape. Over my twenty years in the industry these design principles have been reliable foundations to my designs. Early on, however, I discovered that melding the two can make magic!

Choosing only lines or curves when you’ve got a blank slate is easy, but as a designer or a homeowner, we typically start with some non-negotiables. Perhaps there is an existing rectangular, concrete patio, or a kidney shaped pool. Those are fixed objects that need to be preserved but don’t necessarily need to dictate that every other feature must mimic it. The key is to introduce complementary shapes, not necessarily identical ones.

Combine lines and curves
Let’s take a rectangular patio as our example today. One way to incorporate a curved walkway into this fixed element is to apply the rule of thirds. Imagine the rectangle being divided into 3 equal parts. Intersect your new curvy walkway 1/3 of the way from the end, not in the middle or at either end of the patio. This innately creates intrigue and interest as you interact with the landscape.

Next, create your curves. I recommend sweeping, undulating curves. In a walkway, make them uneven so it widens and narrows. This creates an informal and natural path which can be enhanced by plants gently spilling over the edges.

Once you have the design is in place visitors are forced to walk through the patio to get to the walkway, and again, through the garden. In this way they experience the whole garden, not simply zip past it.

Pitfall Warning

  • Avoid perfectly symmetrical curves. They seem unnatural and forced.
  • Avoid subtle curves. They appear to be a installation mistake.
  • Be intentional, always.

The wonderful thing about a curvy walkway or wall that is anchored with firm lines and angles is that it gives you the opportunity to create an informal, maybe even wistful garden, while maintaining a sense of order and structure.

If we then take this idea to the next stage, you can add shrubs, perennials and a tree on one side and a drought tolerant turf or ground cover on the other. Or if you’re going turf-free, plants all around!

If you only want straight lines in your design

Now, circling back to our original design theories we can see what the same patio would look like if we used a purely rectilinear design approach. The drawing below shows that adding straight lines for your walkway is a great solution for a different style garden. In the case of a formal or modern theme it is no doubt the best choice.

Know the rules. Then bend them.

Great design, be it in the landscape, in the home or in any other creative field, has rules. Curvilinear and rectilinear are just two of the foundational ones. As designers you need to first know the rules before breaking or bending them. They serve as guideposts in creating beautiful, accessible and functional gardens. And once you know how to use these important design tools, you will be able to manipulate them just enough to create unexpected and breathtaking results, every single time.

Good luck!
Natalie

SEASONAL SPECIAL; PLANNING YOUR NEW SUMMER LANDSCAPE, NOW!

I know what you’re thinking! Natalie, summer is over. The kids are back in school, there’s homework and karate classes to deal with. Work is ramping up and I’m already seeing Halloween decorations in the stores. I can’t possibly think about planning my summer landscape now.

But I’m here to tell you that you can. And you must. I cannot count the number of clients and prospective clients who have contacted me in spring to discuss their landscape ideas which they can’t wait to unveil for a May graduation or June wedding. Unfortunately, unless we’re talking about a super simple plant refresher, spring is way too late to get that ball rolling.

A full landscape project—out with the old, in with the new—simply takes time. How much time? More than most people think.

Let’s break it down.

THE DESIGN 8-16 weeks:
I hate to admit it but this part is a bit squishy on the specifics, mainly because it depends on both the designer’s schedule and the client’s response times. Additionally, if permits are required, it will rely on bureaucracy. Biggest. Time-suck. Ever. But this is why we want to start landscape planning early!

This is what you can plan on:

Site Plan: Most designers will need an accurate drawing of the property, some rare cases will require a survey. So, there’s scheduling the consultant for field work (1-2 weeks), and then drafting the data (1 week).
Site Analysis: Going to the property, interviewing the client, taking copious notes and photos of the site and interpreting them. (Just a matter of scheduling)
Preliminary Plans: Personally, I always give a client 2 design choices and a plant palette. (2 weeks). If needed or requested I may also include 3D renderings (adds 2 weeks)
Client Review Time: Rarely a client will give 100% feedback immediately. Most take 2-3 weeks. Still others I don’t hear from for 2 months or more. (0 days – 8 weeks)
Revised Plans: Taking client comments and making changes to the drawings, plus adding the specifics (2 weeks)
Client Review Time: See above (0 days – 8 weeks)
Final Touches/Final Plan: (1-2 weeks)


LANDSCAPE PLANNING Insider Tips

  • Consultants (structural or civil engineers, and irrigation designers require extra time because each has to wait for a completed design in order to begin their work
  • Personal challenges can put landscape on a lower priority for the client
  • The designer’s schedule may be loaded and cause delays

BIDDING up to 4 weeks:
Once you have a completed design it will be time to get estimates. Every designer has a magic recipe for this. Some turn the drawings over to the client to find a contractor, others submit their plans to a few trusted contractors and compare bids. Still others are licensed contractors and bid the job themselves.

Apart from Design/Builders, we—designers and clients—rely on the contractor’s schedule. During busy times it can take up to 4 weeks to get estimates. If it’s slow as little as 1 week.


Landscape Planning Insider Tips:

Bidding is super important! I cannot emphasize this enough. Sometimes a contractor will ask to come back 2 or 3 times to check things out. It’s not because they’re incompetent (usually). They just really want to make sure that the information is accurate. If not they may over or under charge. While it may seem like a win for the client if a contractor under-charges, I assure you it is NOT! The client is almost always the loser in that situation, just in unforeseen ways—quality, attention, overcharging on other items—all to make up cost.

  • Any project with special services—mason, carpenter, electrician, metal fabricator, etc—will take longer to get a bid for.
  • During spring and summer contractors are very busy. Their priority is on paying jobs so bidding tends to slide. Getting bids during winter (yes, even in Southern California) will tend to derive rapid results.

CONSTRUCTION 4-12 weeks

This is what you can plan on:

  • If permits are required it can take a very long time. It requires up front research during design and may require changes or additional drawing clarifications down the road. It varies city by city.
  • If the project is planting and irrigation only things will move very quickly. A front or back yard only will likely take only a week or two without any unusual circumstances. If it’s a full property, closer to 3 weeks
  • Adding basic hardscape to the project will add approximately 1-2 weeks if we’re just talking about average walkways, steps, patios etc.
  • Pools take months
  • Outdoor kitchens can take 2-4 weeks
  • Random issues are the real deal-breakers when it comes to schedule. These are the unpredictable things that cause extensions. Here are a few I’ve come across personally:
    • An actual 4’ concrete wall underground ran across an entire property where we were going to plant 36” box trees.
    • A water line directly under the tile we were removing busted the minute we started.
    • A different contractor did “demo” before we started and left the entire root system and stumps of 30 Oleanders that were supposed to be removed.

Landscape Planning Insider Tip:

Keep in mind that, just like in the design process, a smooth construction phase relies on both the contractor and the client. If the contractor is knowledgeable and prepared that’s a great start. Likewise, if the client is efficient in responding to requests, and making choices on materials the project will run more quickly.

CONCLUSION
If you have a plan for your landscape that involves a full property make over with many moving parts you’re looking at the possibility of needing 8-9 months from site analysis to sipping cool beverages on your deck. And when very momentous events such as weddings or graduations are involved, it is so satisfying to be ahead of the game.

Starting in September or October for for a fantastic summer fling gives you the best shot at having a stress free landscape makeover with plenty of time to spare.

Cheers!

GARDEN ART: Found Items

Do you find that there are some things in your life that you just can’t let go of? I’m not being esoteric here. I mean “things”. Like “stuff”. Maybe it’s an old chair with busted springs or a jewelry box you’ve had as long as you can remember. Maybe it’s even jewelry. We all have treasures that aren’t so much treasures as much as they are objects that have inspired and created memories for us.

For me it was some of my grandmother’s old teacups. She was a bold, brassy British woman that stood at a towering 4’9”. She was bossy, and silly, and would break out into a song and dance, whenever the mood struck her—an ‘old ditty’ always at the ready. In her twilight years, as she became more subdued, it seemed that the only thing that brought her comfort was a nice, hot cup of tea. I inherited several of her cups and although I never became much of a tea drinker myself, I simply couldn’t let them go.

One day I was trying in earnest to cull our overflowing boxes of “things”. So many tea cups and not a cupboard to put them in. I noticed that I had a few small succulents that hadn’t been planted yet when it dawned on me. They were just the perfect size! I didn’t need to throw out the memories. I simply needed to redefine them to fit into my world. Now they’re not just Nanna’s old things, they’re a wonderful memory of a great lady, brightening my kitchen window.

And we can do so much more!

THE INSPIRATION

We often think of the garden as a serious place. A proper place. It is a place for well curated plants, clipped just so. There is nice furniture, that belongs on a patio. It is to be enjoyed in the proper way (you can add a stuffy British accent there for effect if you like).

As a professional landscape designer, I will say “Yes, but…” This may all true but if you want to really transform a garden, make it into not only a beautiful horticultural experience, but a deeply personal space to be enjoyed, I’d like to give you permission—no, I’d like to strongly encourage you—to color outside of the lines a little.

Years ago when my son was very small, we used to go to the newly opened Kidspace Children’s Museum in Pasadena, a lively and creative space for children to learn and play. I had started my own landscape design business about 3 or 4 years prior, and was still looking for my voice in the field of design.

One day at the museum, my son and I were playing around in the amphitheater—he was working on climbing from one tier to another as I sat on a curved concrete bench watching. Suddenly and simultaneously, both of our attention became hyper-focused on the concrete itself. He began grasping and prying at what turned out to be little Hot Wheels cars embedded in the concrete.

I was intrigued. I had heard of people using different types of rocks and pebbles in concrete but this was entirely different. And what a great idea! Why not add something unique into the concrete to make it personal? Records, Leggos. How about the favorite dish set that was ruined when a couple were broken? Or, throw in some nails and wood screws. Suddenly, what was plain, dull concrete becomes an element of focus and a personal reflection of the owner. So many possibilities.

Courtesy of Kidspace Children’s Museum

APPLICATION

Even if you’re not working on a project that includes concrete, you can still insert a little something unique—a little “you”—into the garden. A good friend has bowling balls in his garden! When he and his wife bought their house there were a few in the garden, not so much a design choice. Perhaps an, “I don’t know what to do with these things” situation. Rolling forward a few years, they added one or two more, and soon a friend, children’s singer-songwriter Dave Kinnoin became smitten with the idea of it. Soon he was a bowling ball benefactor, even penning a short poem about his contribution and taping it to the ball. They now have 25 in the garden. How great is that?! Bowling balls can be plain or exotic and beautiful, but the story and the memories attached to them add untold depth and enjoyment to their whole garden.

Bowling balls and teacups are a great start and here are more examples to consider:

  • Motorcycle helmets (clear out the foam padding first)
  • An old tube t.v. (convert into a planter by removing the glass screen and innards)
  • A chair where the seat has been replaced with plants
  • An old tool box turned planter
  • A converted vanity
  • A wheelbarrow
  • Empty wine bottles, different colors
  • An old guitar, piano or other hallow musical instrument

Pro-design tips and cautions

Before you start putting stuff out in the garden, willy nilly, let’s go over a few pointers in design and logistics:

DESIGN

  • Place small items in areas along a walking path with very low growing plants so they will be discovered.
  • Larger items have a little more flexibility and can be placed in and amid plants that have varying sizes.
  • If the item is tall or angular it will work nicely with weepy and flowing types of plants.
  • Be judicious on the quantity of items you use. One, odd item in the garden will seem like an accident. Two items, well, I’m sort of opposed to even numbers (too matchy-matchy). Three or five is great when you triangulate them through the garden.
  • Don’t add too many pieces (“too many” will depend on the size of your garden, so use your best judgement). The idea is to have a garden which expresses a playfulness and whimsy, not one that looks like an outside junk yard.

LOGISTICS

  • Plastic will degrade, fade, and turn into powder. Don’t use it!
  • Wood, if you want the object to stay in it’s present condition, should be treated and protected first. Sometimes, however, the process of decay and weathering over time, is part of it’s unique beauty. Just know that wood directly on soil or directly exposed to water, snow or sun will decay more rapidly. You can place wooden objects on some kind of paver to keep it off the soil, just be sure to level and compact the soil first to avoid uneven and unwanted settling.
  • Metal is great but know its properties. Copper looks better and better over time as it patinas (green staining). Steel will rust. Stainless steel will remain unchanged.
  • Ceramic and glass is fine.

Wrapping up

Keep in mind once these found and unique treasures are incorporated into the garden space, they become part of the cacophony of the garden. That is to say they must be cared for, just as you would care for the plants. Make sure to occasionally go out and check in on these items. Look for things like mud splatter, bird droppings or plants that have grown over and obscured them from view. To reiterate, we want them to look intentional, not discarded.

I believe that a garden is an expression of who you are as a person. Whether I’m playing around in my own garden or designing for someone else, part of my “process” is to really get into the head of who’s garden I’m working on and to bring their unique personality and perspective into their outdoor living room. In this way, the garden is a place to feel at home, and a place to share with others a small piece of who you are.

ABOUT THIS BLOG & ABOUT ME

Natalie Cousins-Robledo

FIRST, ABOUT MY BEGINNINGS

Hi there! My name is Natalie Cousins-Robledo and I’m the owner of successful landscape design firm, Minanda Landscape Design. We’ve been creating spectacular gardens for 16 years now but, my personal journey to this point was hardly a straight shot. It’s been more like a circuitous, meandering one through multiple careers and life changes on my way to doing something that I truly love.

Like many of you, I didn’t graduate from college, jump into my dream job, and BAM! Successful career! I changed my major a few times first, got a degree in Peace Studies, worked for a while and then went back to school to study landscape design. I’ve been a mediator, a voice and piano teacher, a bank teller, a case manager for pregnant and parenting teenagers, a fundraiser for a major cultural institution, and more along the way.

The 1998 memory of my first inkling to explore landscape design is as salient today as ever. Grumbling over a bowl of noodles, I was again, miserable at my current job and pondering if I’d ever land on a career that fulfilled me. “Well, what do you like doing?” my husband prodded.

That was easy. We had recently rented a house with a huge back yard and I was taking it over. Vegetables in the sunniest spots, a compost bin in the back and even a home made worm bin which I’m particularly proud of considering this was before Google and YouTube. I delighted in spending every minute of unscheduled time in my first garden since childhood when my dad used to tell me I had to work in the “Weed Patch” before I was allowed to go out and play. Now, the nostalgia of that sweet memory drew me into the garden day after day. How could I turn this love of gardening into a career? Design was my answer.

I didn’t immediately leave my job, or jump into a classroom though. I started by devouring everything I could get my hands on. I bought books, subscribed to magazines and took classes at our local nursery. I bought plants (promptly killing most of them before buying more and learning what I did wrong). I even designed friends’ gardens for free just for the practice. Only then, after really proving to myself that this was not another phase, did I begin studying landscape design in a small and short lived but exciting program at Cal State Northridge. Licensed Landscape Architects taught us everything from design theory, and construction materials to irrigation design and plant ID. It was heaven!

I made it my goal to dive in 100%. I wasn’t taking a traditional approach with a degree from a 4 year program so I needed to make myself as knowledgeable and professional as my future counterparts who had. I won’t kid you. It was a lot of work. But here’s the thing, it never actually felt like work!

The view from my office window

Six months after completing my design certificate program, I interviewed at 4 landscape architectural firms and got 2 job offers. I began working for a firm where I learned the ropes of project management for both commercial and residential projects. I’d take a project from the earliest iterations of a concept and to the grand opening. I took on side jobs for homeowners in my neighborhood and cut my teeth on going it alone. I networked with other professionals and joined associations which led me to getting a job working on a successful landscape makeover television show called The Outdoor Room with Jamie Durie for 3 seasons. I’ve won a couple of awards for my work and have designed and installed gardens for countless fabulous clients. When, after 4 years in the field, I became pregnant, and the phone calls began coming in at a regular pace, I knew that I was ready for my own firm.

It was the best move I’ve ever made!

NOW, ABOUT THE BLOG

Natalie Cousins Robledo
Sakura (Cherry Blossoms) Tokyo, Japan

Now that you know all about my landscape beginnings let me tell you about this brand new beginning and why I’m here, in the blogosphere.

Recently, I had a huge life-change! My family and I relocated from Pasadena California to Tokyo for 18 months, and what an amazing experience it has been so far! With so much to see and learn my expertise as a designer has deepened greatly and every garden and green space that I explore fills me with wonder. I am thrilled at just being here in this place of rich historical significance, and witnessing the remarkable achievement of living art everywhere you look, as one season unfolds into the next.

Fall color in the gardens of Tokyo Teien Metropolitan Museum of Art

Since arriving here in August 2018, I’ve continued to design and manage the maintenance division of my company from here. The physical distance that separates me from running the hectic day-to-day aspect of business, however, has brought into focus an exciting, new opportunity that I’m eager to explore.

It was not too long ago that someone asked me how I got into designing landscapes. It was a new friend who was picking my brain about her own garden. She had good ideas but was frustrated because she was having trouble tying them together and executing them. She felt great about the plants she selected but wanted to include a stone patio. This is where things started to get tricky. She tried doing it herself but had some trouble with the pavers staying put. Her regular gardener offered to help and although the pavers didn’t sink this time, he arranged them in a way that just looked all wrong.

I realized in that moment that I’d heard this story before. Not exactly this story, but versions of it. Many times. People who at the heart of it, are just like me: lovers of gardens and design, who want to take their skills to the next level. Maybe they want to transform their own garden or begin branching out to transform the gardens of others. But how?

I had an employee a few years ago who was a landscape designer in her own right—great skills and a degree in the field. After we got through a particularly tricky project, she offhandedly remarked, “They really don’t teach this stuff in school!” It’s so true, I thought! When I finished my certificate program, I thought I really knew my stuff. Years later, when I left my job working for a Landscape Architectural firm, I felt even more empowered. Once I was face to face with a homeowner, on the other hand, someone who had just paid me real money to solve their landscape quandaries, I felt very differently.

None of my classes taught me which plants are poisonous to dogs, for example. They also didn’t prepare me for how many plants in the Sunset Garden book, really aren’t available to purchase. Learning about gardens in different regions of the world and through history—that I studied that on my own. The first time I had to deal with the City’s permitting process, I was stymied. And then there’s the biggy: budget! Not one minute of my two years of classes was spent on how to understand and convey the complexities of project scope in relation to the money available. Zero!

So here I am, 20 years into my career, and I assure you that every new project I take on delivers me the opportunity to learn something new, spread my wings a little further, and to deliver newer, more conscientious and creative gardens to my clients. It is this accumulation of experiences and knowledge beyond what the classrooms offer that I want to share with you! I am here to fill your tool kit with real life, get your hands dirty (literally and figuratively) information about all things garden design.

Plants? Sure, we’ll talk about plants, but we’ll also talk about how to space them, what size to buy, and how much you can expect to pay. We’ll talk about how much patio you need to fit six chairs. There will be secrets on how you can make the farthest corner of your garden as interesting as the space right outside your back door. We, of course, can’t forget that the materials you choose when you create a border, walkway or fence can mean the difference between a nice garden and an amazing garden. We’ll therefore, look at some really sensational and unexpected choices! Also, particularly because I’m in Japan, we’ll look at existing gardens designed in a far gone era to find inspiration for our tomorrows. I have a list of topics a mile long and I simply can’t wait to dig in and share them with you!

This blog is an exciting new addition to Minanda Landscape Design and the services that we provide. It is a place I intend for you to come back to over and over to find inspiration, learn new skills, and grow in the garden as I have. Join me! Let’s make the world a more beautiful place, one garden at a time.