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The seven professionals potentially available to help you with your landscape and gardens are:
Although there is certainly overlap, these are distinctly different levels and kinds of professionals. We will consider them in the order listed. First we will give a general description, list the strengths and weaknesses, then a comparative analysis will follow. Finally, we will examine how to evaluate any given individual within each of the professions.
A landscape architect has a minimum of a four year Bachelor’s degree and may have six or more years of higher education. To be thoroughly certified she must also have three years of internship in a landscape architectural office. The following paragraph is taken from the United States Department of Labor.
“Persons planning a career in landscape architecture should appreciate nature, enjoy working with their hands, and possess strong analytical skills. Creative vision and artistic talent also are desirable qualities. Good oral communication skills are essential; landscape architects must be able to convey their ideas to other professionals and clients and to make presentations before large groups. Strong writing skills also are valuable, as is knowledge of computer applications of all kinds, including word processing, desktop publishing, and spreadsheets. Landscape architects use these tools to develop presentations, proposals, reports, and land impact studies for clients, colleagues, and superiors. The ability to draft and design using CAD software is essential. Many employers recommend that prospective landscape architects complete at least one summer internship with a landscape architecture firm in order to gain an understanding of the day-to-day operations of a small business, including how to win clients, generate fees, and work within a budget.”
Landscape Architecture is a thorough and serious discipline aimed at providing aesthetically satisfying solutions in the creation of spaces inhabited, visited or seen by humans. The study involves design theory, engineering, planning, aesthetics, history and the sciences. The scope of the education is both broad and deep and consequently, the scale of the projects a landscape architect can undertake is essentially unlimited.
The landscape architect has a sound education in all practical considerations – proper building codes and techniques, legalities and so on. He can provide a detailed plan with material specifications, quantities, sizes and so on, from which contractors can give accurate bids. Because of their degree, they are qualified to apply for a broader range of projects, for example, government projects, which are not open to non-licensed designers.
The term landscape architecture was first used By Frederick Law Olmstead in the late 1800’s. At that time there was no specific academic discipline for it so it began to be taught and studied under the roofs of the architectural schools and has been stamped with that mindset. That is to say, with many notable exceptions, landscape architecture, by the views of this author, is characterized by a quality of architectural rigidity and over-reliance on structure. As mentioned, there have been notable exceptions. Tommy Church and Russell Page, to name two, and there are many exceptions practicing today.
Typically, landscape architects are not taught horticulture so their plant recommendations are frequently unreasonably limited. More importantly, a degree in landscape architecture does not signify talent as the qualities, or lack of, in the designs produced do not guarantee or prevent a degree. In fairness it should be said that no degree of any kind in any of these categories signifies talent – it only signifies the successful completion of a curriculum.
Many landscape architects spend most of their time in offices and have little field experience. Too often they are not able to communicate in a real fashion with various trades people, such as masons as their knowledge may be largely theoretical, not based on hands-on experience. Before hiring a landscape architect, ask to see a portfolio, even if only of school assignments and make certain that she is capable of understanding your aesthetic and working within your budget. If possible, get references.
A landscape designer may be certified through one program or another (of which there are many), or may not. These programs are usually associated with an educational institution but there are various individuals and other organizations which also offer a certification program. In addition, many botanic gardens have ongoing master gardener classes (which is not landscape design), as well as design courses which individuals may take toward certification or simply for the education.
The landscape designer works with site analysis, cost estimates, practical considerations such as drainage, light availability, elevations and all other facets of designing an implementable and sustainable landscape. He also usually works with hardscape elements such as walkways, patios, walls and so on. The following is a course description for a Landscape Design Course from a University in California.
The practice of landscape design involves site analysis, development of design concepts and design plans, selection of construction and plant materials, and preparation of construction plans and documentation.
The Certificate in Landscape Design (CLD)
The curriculum for the Certificate Program in Landscape Design emphasizes the interaction between human needs and the environment and provides students with practical skills for understanding landscape design. All design studios emphasize the design process and problem solving using actual sites as case studies. Students generally complete the Certificate Program in Landscape Design on a part-time basis in three to five years.
In the description that follows, the word “course” refers to a full semester of thirteen classes. A “module” is equivalent to seven classes. Two modules may satisfy one-course requirement.
To earn the Certificate in Landscape Design, students must complete the following twelve courses with a grade of B- or better in each course.
There are, however, many people who call them landscape designers and are practicing landscape designers who do not have this education. For them, it has generally been a vocation and they have come up through the business by working in various capacities associated with gardens, such as nurseries and landscape contracting companies before launching their own design business. They may do installations as well or can act as contractors and find the sub contractors to do the work.
Generally, landscape designers seem to have a more natural, less structural orientation than many landscape architects. If they have the education outlined above, they are at least theoretically prepared to handle a broad range of design projects. Very often they are dedicated to quality garden design. If they do not have the education then they have followed a vocation, or are just beginning one. If they have followed a vocation and have been at it some time they should have a portfolio as well as the ability to quote price ranges for various aspects.
As with Landscape Architects, the title does not necessarily signify talent. The education, experience, and ability among landscape designers varies considerably. Before hiring a landscape designer, ask to see a portfolio and speak to references, be sure of compatibility and know precisely what you are to expect for what you are to pay.
A garden designer may have a formal education and may not but is usually well versed in horticulture. Garden designers also work with site analysis, light availability, cost estimates and such but often do not work with hardscape elements. These people are generally “plants people.” Their talent is in using their knowledge to create attractive planting beds with shrubs, ornamental trees, perennials, vines, and groundcovers.
Some schools offer professional level courses in garden design, in which they teach; site analysis, client brief, plan drawing, section and elevation drawing and color rendering. The following paragraphs are from the syllabus of one such university.
“Students will be able to survey a small site using running dimensions and triangulation making note of site details such as the position of trees, buildings, simple level changes, and services, etc. They will be able to evaluate the data collected on site and produce a scale drawing at 1/8 or 1/4 inch scale to accurately portray the site’s characteristics. Working with a simple client brief students will produce a sketch proposal based on that brief.
Students will apply pattern analysis concepts which have been taught concurrently during the course. The proposal will be drawn using pencil and then technical pens, on architectural blanks using the title blocks to display appropriate information. Students will demonstrate an understanding of spatial concepts, design philosophy and a reasonable knowledge of landscape graphical symbols.
Students will produce section/elevation drawings to help illustrate the project, both for contractor and client, as well as a display board to help convey their ideas.”
A graduate of such a school would probably not call themselves a garden designer but a landscape designer. There are many garden designers who do not have this education.
Landscape designers are usually devoted gardeners and knowledgeable about plants, especially perennials. They usually know the best plant suppliers in a given locale and can design and implement attractive gardens comprised primarily of plants.
Usually, garden designers are not builders and do not do hardscaping or take on major site alterations. Before hiring a garden designer, be sure the scope of the work you want done is within their capabilities. Ask to see a portfolio and to speak to references.
A landscape contractor is someone who implements, or installs landscapes and will often also contract for garden maintenance. These can be very large operations with several trucks, various machines and pieces of equipment and a large crew of workers overseen by foremen or project managers or both.
However, there are tens of thousands of landscape contractors, the majority comprised of a small staff, one or a few trucks and a couple of small tractors or backhoes. Sometimes a landscape contracting operation will have a designer on staff and offers designs at low or no cost. This is because they will make their money on the installation.
The larger the operation generally the more extensive are the tasks a contractor can undertake. These range from simply planting plants to building in-ground swimming pools, to landscaping entire developments.
Most landscape contractors have the capability of building masonry structures such as patios, walks and walls, wood structures such as arbors and decks and can either do or have other tasks done, such as installing irrigation or lighting systems.
The focus for landscape contractors is building or implementing the plans of landscape architects, developers, and landscape designers. For residential work, there is generally nothing they can’t achieve, in terms of building others’ designs and they may have their own designer or design staff. They are usually insured and bonded.
Landscape contractors are usually at the high end of building costs. They often have considerable overhead so must add a profit onto all materials and labor so the bottom line tends to be high. Their use of plants is often very ordinary and repetitive and their designs can be uninspired – but there are exceptions. Get all agreements as contracts, not estimates, ask to see a portfolio and for references.
Someone calling himself a landscaper is usually a garden maintenance person. He will generally have a small truck with a trailer, a couple of professional lawn mowers, string cutters, electric pruning shears, rakes, shovels, and brooms. There is usually little or no education behind the landscaper though there may be experience and they will often contract to install gardens. These people should not be used as designers, generally, unless they offer that and have a portfolio.
Many nurseries have landscape operations which include design and installation. Generally overseen by someone who came up through the horticultural industry with an education in horticulture, these can offer turn-key services and guarantee the plants. They will usually give you a design for little or no cost as they will make their money on the plants and the installation. Normally they can contract for residential-scale hardscaping such as walls, patios, irrigation systems and such.
You can be sure the plants selected will do well where they are designated to go. You need only contract with the one operation and they generally have the manpower to get the job done.
Of course, there are always exceptions, but generally, nursery designs tend to be quite ordinary, not inspired. The plants will thrive but the design may be quite blah. Nurseries tend to get over-extended in peak season so may begin a job, leave it for a while and come back later. If this is important to you, get a completion date specified in the contract. Before hiring a nursery, ask to see a portfolio of designs they did as well as projects they implemented and ask for references you can call.
A landscape designer builder is just that. He combines the services of a landscape contractor and the landscape designer. As with the landscape and garden designer, he may have a formal education and he may not. And as is true of the other professionals, his degree of experience may be extensive and it may not. Many landscape designer/builders came to the profession through a vocational or professional association with garden services. Many were gardeners-turned-designers-turned-builders. Normally, the landscape designer/builder will give a price for the design and only when the design is completed will contract for the implementation.
Can do the entire job from design through installation. Landscape designers tend to be less rigid than architects and usually have much more hands-on experience. They usually combine a knowledge of landscape construction and of plants and should have a good feeling for design. Some of the best work being done in America is by landscape designers/builders.
May be reluctant or incapable of taking on very large jobs or government projects. Before hiring a landscape designer/builder, ask to see a portfolio and for recommendations. Make sure you know what you are getting and what it is costing. Be sure that there is a sympathy between you.
The four most important qualities to assess in hiring someone to create your gardens or landscape for you are; Talent, Capability, Integrity, and Compatibility. A not very talented person you like, who is capable and of high integrity will do a great job creating for you a garden not worth having. A talented person without capability will give you an inspired design that can’t or shouldn’t be built, a person who is talented, capable and of good integrity that you don’t get along with is a poor choice and a person without integrity will let you down in every way.
How can you know these things about someone? Your own instincts, to begin with. If you don’t have a good feeling about someone, stop right there. Beyond that, always ask for references if you have any doubt and no matter whether you are dealing with a landscape architect or a gardener, ask to see a portfolio.
Keep in mind though, that everyone has to start somewhere so he may not have much to show. Anyone with any kind of education in the field should have design projects to show at least and these are worth seeing. Let him explain his drawings, tell what he was trying to create and see how you resonate. If he has built gardens or hardscape elements, ask to see photographs. This applies equally to the landscape architect as to the garden designer. His degree does not bestow nor even indicate talent and you have a right to know what kind of a designer he is.
Walk the area with the person and get their response to the site. Ask them what they see, what they might do. You may have to pay a consultation fee for this but it is worth it. Many, many gardens have been built that are utterly mediocre. You probably want yours to be splendid so take the trouble to find the right person to do it.
Do not assume the person with the most education is the most capable, or the most reliable. Ask for recommendations from previous clients. If they work for a firm, do a search on the internet or ask to speak with previous clients and to see previous projects. If you are talking to a landscaper (they are often only outdoor janitors), ask about plants, what the plant names are and what they need. If the person mows lawns, it is not likely that he also designs and builds beautiful gardens.
If you don’t know the person or don’t have a definite sense of their quality and they don’t come with a known background of considerable experience or a known reputation, get a contract, not an estimate, in writing.
Most of the people working in the realm of designing and building gardens, apart from the outdoor janitors who frequently go under the name of ‘landscapers’ and the giant contracting firms, are dedicated individuals who live and breath gardens. They want to give you a beautiful landscape. All the above should help you in deciding which among them to choose.
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