Google “great gardens” and click the images tab next time you want a little psychic lift. You’ll find plenty of pretty pictures with lots of colorful blooms and emerald-green lawns. But if you look closely, you’ll see that many of these images are formal gardens with precisely manicured hedges, golf-style turf and fussy flowers deadheaded that very day. In other words, they are high-maintenance, intensely staged scenarios rather than a place to relax and enjoy nature.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course—in the proper setting. But what makes a great botanical garden can be completely different from a client’s backyard refuge or a commercial landscape.

Photos: Nyce Gardens

A great landscape designer can tackle any of the above and end up with a garden that makes the client, the observer and whoever maintains it happy and appreciative. But what exactly makes up a great landscape?

If you ask “the man on the street” that question, aesthetics will probably take center stage. The first thing that pops into mind is beauty. But, as the old saying goes, that can be in the eye of the beholder.

Going pro

The Association of Professional Landscape Designers celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2014 and is an excellent source of inspiration for great gardens by great designers. The organization has chapters throughout the U.S. and offers its members advocacy, networking and an awards program.

“You can create the most beautiful environment in the world, but if it doesn’t meet the clients’ needs they won’t use it,” says Tina Nyce, owner of Nyce Gardens in Sammamish, Washington. Nyce is a long-time member of APLD and founded the Washington chapter.

“You need to understand your client’s limits,” she says. “Are they hiring out the maintenance to a top company? Or are they looking for a mow-blow-and-go? Understanding the client’s intentions on maintenance is critical. We don’t create a garden for someone who wants a landscape, and we wouldn’t design a simple landscape for a garden enthusiast who will be out there every day deadheading.”

“The most important thing is to give the homeowner the garden of their dreams,” says Patricia St. John, owner and designer at St. John Landscapes in Berkeley, California. St. John was recognized with an APLD gold award last year. “First and foremost, it’s meeting the needs and wants of the client.”

To achieve this, St. John encourages clients to visit websites such as Pinterest and Houzz. “I have a colleague who won’t even meet with a client until they put a Houzz portfolio together,” she notes. “I also give them books and everyone gets a copy of a booklet with pictures and descriptions of drought-tolerant plants that was published by our water agency.”

Sometimes, it takes more than just politely listening to a client’s list of wants and needs. “The most important skill a landscape designer needs is the ability to really hear what a client is saying, which may not match what comes out of his mouth,” says Susan Cohan, owner of Susan Cohan Gardens in Chatham, New Jersey. Cohan was also recognized with an APLD gold award last year. “They may say they love to garden, but if I find out that means they go out with a cup of coffee and clippers in the morning, I won’t give them a full-on landscape that wants an enthusiastic gardener.

“I think it’s really important to listen to all parties,” Cohan continues. “I feel like a marriage counselor sometimes. Even the children deserve a voice.”

Function and form

“A landscape needs to be functional,” says Nyce. “I use the analogy of building a house. A house needs strong bones, good walls and a good use of space. Unless you have that, your house will be very hard to work with. A landscape is the same.”

“Generally, the elements in the garden that get used the most are closest to the house, such as entertainment areas like patios or decks or a hot tub that needs to be near the master bedroom,” says St. John.

“I want to be sure that people can move easily through the garden,” St. John continues. “A garden needs balance and flow. I use focal points and repetition, and even the garden paths become part of the flow. Some of my favorite designers started as graphic artists. They have a sense of space and how different forms and shapes work together. Those are some of the best gardens I’ve seen. “

“You need to understand the goal of the landscape,” says Nyce. “I work with young designers, and the first thing they want is to make it pretty. That misses the mark. You need to understand the goal of the landscape and work to meet it.”

Once a landscape’s function is established, aesthetics can finally take center stage.

“The landscape needs to have some kind of relationship with the house,” says Cohan. “The style of the garden reflects the neighborhood and the home’s architecture. I wouldn’t put an English cottage garden in front of a Spanish-style home. Architectural elements demand consideration.”

Cohan also believes that like local food, local landscapes should be emphasized. “I think through design, through planting choices and through the materials used, we need to celebrate the region we are making the landscape in,” Cohan says. “I wouldn’t make a landscape that looks like Southern California here. And why are people here making Japanese gardens? We’re not in Japan.”

Across the country, Nyce is not quite as concerned with the issue. “We are thoughtful about the materials we chose, but I’m not 100 percent local,” she says. “Our clients come from all over. Many of them have memories that they would like to recapture. We do as much as we can to source locally, but we are not obsessive about it.”

However, Nyce is quick to point out that her designs stress sustainability. “Sustainability is more of an understanding of the environment – using horticulture to help the eco-system,” Nyce notes. “One of our latest projects had a rain garden that used water from the roof to irrigate the landscape. We installed a nurse log to help wildlife and make a place for insects and mosses and that whole level of the environment.”

Of course, you can’t have a great garden without great plants. And that’s often where problems can begin.

“It’s simplistic, but choosing the right plants for the right place is critical. Take in all the factors, both natural and man-made, that are going to affect those plants,” Cohan says. “Choose plants that will fit the space when they reach their maximum size. I had such an argument with an engineer client of mine who wanted to plant a burning bush in a 3-by-3-foot area and said he could just prune it to keep it in check. Why plant something that wants to be 15 by 15 in a 3-by-3 space?!?”

“I started my career working in a nursery and taught plant ID at a local community college for the last nine years,” says St. John. “I use a lot of foliage plants. Foliage can provide beauty and interest and is more easily maintained.”

One of St. John’s current favorites is Cordyline ‘Design-A-Line Burgundy.’ “I use it just about everywhere,” she says. “It has strappy burgundy leaves and when you put gray or chartreuse up against it, it’s absolutely gorgeous! If you repeat it through the landscape it ads unity. I track purple in the garden.”

Build it right

All the communicating, planning and beautiful plants will be for naught if the installation is shoddy or substandard. Quality landscape construction is a must to have a great garden.

“People forget that, particularly in a residential setting, first and foremost the landscape is a built environment. It’s built by people for people,” Cohan says.

“Homeowners specifically don’t get this concept. They think they can run into Home Depot and get some tools and build an environment. Then they call someone like me to fix it,” Cohan explains. “Building a landscape is just as complex as building a kitchen. You can really screw things up if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

“I think a critical part of the process is the relationship between the designer and the client with the landscape contractor who installs the garden. That can make or break a garden,” says St. John. “I’m installing a garden right now with existing planter boxes. Some had boards rotting out. Our contractor suggested that instead of replacing the boards, we use stone work instead. It’s a wonderful addition to the garden.”

St. John goes on to explain that when a plan is drawn up, there are almost always changes. “There are always going to be adjustments, and the communication between the designer, the client and the contractor is very important.”

“Structure and drainage are construction issues. You have to put the money there if you want long-term sustainability,” Cohen says. “We see so many patios that are sinking because they aren’t built right. Or decks that are falling apart.”

Giving back

Although not strictly essential to garden aesthetics, one thing that great designers (and great people) have in common is a desire to give back.

“I think serving others is really important,” Nyce says. “I’m a founding member of APLD. I started the first local chapter here in Washington. My husband and partner in business is the treasurer for the Washington Association of Landscape Professionals. We give back to the industry and to other causes as well.” One of the couple’s latest causes is Water First, an organization that works on providing clean water worldwide.

“I’m very involved in lots of organizations,” says Cohan. “I was on the APLD board for eight years. I also teach and donate consultations for charities. Right now I’m doing a teaching garden with my students.”

“I’m quite involved with my community,” adds St. John. “I’ve been a member of the Berkeley Garden Club for 14 years and was even president. And I’ve found that it’s good for business, too.”

All three designers agree that their APLD membership has opened doors and enhanced their careers. “APLD has been invaluable,” says St. John. “I get referrals from other designers, and I actually just referred a couple jobs to other members. It’s really helped me continue my own education as well. And that’s been especially important in California recently with all the water issues we’re having.”

“I have personally gotten so much out of volunteering for the association,” Cohan enthuses. “The people I’ve met, the gardens I’ve seen, the learning, the doors that have opened because I’m a certified designer are remarkable.

“Too many people ask ‘what’s in it for me? Why should I join?’ As soon as you join and participate, that question is answered with such clarity,” Cohan continues. “There’s a camaraderie and mutual respect. And beyond that there’s everything else – opportunities, exposure, networking. If a project comes my way and I don’t want to do it, I give it to another APLD member – and that swings both ways.”

Nyce has traveled overseas for humanitarian work as well. “We have been to Romania to landscape a living hope center,” she says. “No matter where we go, we can study and grow and be part of the environment. I don’t think there is anyone on the planet I couldn’t learn from.”

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