The Role of a Garden Designer

Using a bold colored container to anchor a color scheme and give year round interest

Using a bold colored container to anchor a color scheme and give year round interest

"I charge extra for marriage counselling" I quipped as husband and wife gave me two contradictory lists of 'must have's' for their new garden. We were all laughing but it's not the first time that I have played referee when meeting design clients.

Have you considered hiring a designer but wondered how much it would cost, if you really needed one and how the whole design process works? Let me take some of the mystery out of it for you and explain how I do things as well as typical variants.

What skills does a designer have?


The hands-on approach may not be the most glamorous...

The hands-on approach may not be the most glamorous…

Typically a designer will be a trained horticulturist with extensive hands-on plant knowledge, be an artistic visionary and see exciting possibilities where homeowners only see problems. Designers will also have demonstrable design skills that marry function and form. We see in 3-dimensions, 4-seasons, and 360 degrees. We understand scale, proportion, balance. We see the big picture.

There are no qualifications legally required for someone to refer to themselves as a designer although many like myself have chosen to take a series of professional certifications in horticulture, have taken design and construction courses and are members of professional landscape design related organizations at a state or national level.

Should I get my patio and paths installed before calling a designer?

BEFORE: A patio should be more than just a concrete slab outside your back door

NO!!! Let me tell you a true story to explain why:

Some lovely homeowners hired a “company” to build retaining walls, fix drainage problems, install a patio and also add paths. Great right? Actually no.

Here’s why: they only know how to do those things -they are not designers. They don’t see the big picture like designers do. They haven't been trained to understand balance, scale, proportion, horticulture, seasonality.

A well designed garden needs a holistic approach.

The result of this approach where the homeowner tried to be their own general contractor? Yes the walls, patio, paths and storm drains were installed and look technically adequate BUT the planting areas are far too narrow and mostly taken up by storm drain gravel. There was no relationship between the garden bed and path shapes to the architecture. Rather there were just awkward spaces left with soil in them and there were no drawn plans other professionals could work from. The result was functional but impractical and far from the creative and fabulous space it both could and should have been.

So… I would have to spend HOURS and charge far too much for the time taken to map out every odd angle and drain in order to create a planting plan and I still couldn’t get any decent plants in there and the design would be substandard.

AFTER: A well designed patio needs careful attention to detail to get that perfect balance between function and form. Read more about this project here

If the homeowners had known to hire a designer on day 1 this scenario would have been avoided and the overall result would be so much more artistic and creative.

I feel so bad for them. Please don't let this happen to you too.

What services do designers offer?

This will depend on the size of the company. Many smaller businesses including mine offer hourly landscape consultations or garden coaching services to trouble shoot problems for you and give you ideas to get your started while teaching you about soils, plants, garden maintenance and anything else you need to know to be successful. These appointments are ideal for homeowners who want to learn more about their garden and how to take care of it.

A shallow garden lives large after two linked patios are turned at 45' to the house. Would YOU have done that?

A shallow garden lives large after two linked patios are turned at 45' to the house. Would YOU have done that?

The main focus of a designer, however, is to provide clients with a drawn landscape plan which may be rendered by hand or done on the computer. It is drawn to scale and includes plant names , location and quantity. Depending on the area being designed this drawing may include existing buildings, trees and lot lines. Many of us also provide a series of design notes detailing any suggested materials, containers, water features and art. I also include a typed plant list with hyperlinks for clients easy personal research.

Who is going to do the work? (Think carefully before you answer!)

Who is going to do the work? (Think carefully before you answer!)

Design-build companies will also offer installation of their designs using their crews and any specialist sub-contractors while design-only companies like mine will assist you in finding the right contractors for the installation; usually people we have worked with for many years. Some designers will only offer their design services if they are also installing the project while others are happy to design for the enthusiast DIY-er. Just ask! Your designer may offer an ongoing consulting service throughout the installation  which gives you peace of mind that any necessary changes made along the way (and there are always a few) keep with the original design intent.

The first batch of plants delivered and set out - after which they were moved several times!

The first batch of plants delivered and set out – after which they were moved several times! You can read about this garden makeover HERE

Your designer may also offer to procure, deliver and set out the plants for you if such an agreement works with the installation team. Since the designer will have selected that particular variety of plant for a reason (the exact shade of purple leaf matches the color of your outdoor cushions for example) I always recommend taking advantage of this so that any necessary substitutions due to availability of plant material still hold to the original design. Let's face it a red-orange Heuchera may not be the best replacement for a coral-orange one even if they are both the same size and both like shade!

How do I find the right designer for my project?

Garden art may be the perfect finishing touch

Do you have special pieces of art that need to be incorporated?

While personal referrals are enormously helpful be aware that your friends may have had  completely different design parameters. Certainly ask how well your friends designer interpreted their requests, listened to and answered questions but also ask how the rapport was between the designer and installation team.

Nurseries and garden centers may also offer recommendations and you can search organizations such as the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD ) by state. In Washington we also have Washington State Nursery & Landscape Association WSNLA (of which I am a member) and Washington Association of Landscape Professionals (WALP) that can help direct you through their listings.


Can you see yourself here?


Do your homework; look at designers websites, read their books, read magazine articles about them and that they have written and scan their blog. Listen to and watch any promotional or teaching videos they have. Attend a seminar they are giving. Do you like the designs they have already done? Do you see a design style that appeals to you? A good designer can create in multiple aesthetics but are likely to specialize in a few.

Most of all you need to feel you can trust your designer to understand you so start by chatting on the phone. See if you get the sense that your personalities will work well together.  If the call goes well set up an appointment to meet on site.

What will the designer ask?

So you want to grow vegetables; how many?

So you want to grow vegetables; how many?

During your initial consultation the designer will try to understand how you plan to use your garden. Will you need to seat 2 or 20? Do you need kid-friendly spaces? A dog run? A vegetable garden? They will also want to understand your lifestyle so if you are working 80 hours a week they will understand the need for low maintenance and be prepared for them to tell you that your desire for a 40' raspberry bed may not be a good one as they then explain the care and maintenance needed to manage it!

Design is all about the details; this paint color was selected to echo the color of the conifer foliage

Design is all about the details; this paint color was selected to echo the color of the conifer foliage

You will be asked about your color and style preferences – and this is usually where I need to put my counselor hat on. These are the two elements that can be hardest to articulate so I recommend using images from books, magazines, Pinterest or Houzz to help you pinpoint what you (and your spouse) are drawn to. Houzz is especially good as you can add comments beneath the images to tell your designer what it is you like about the photo (the winding path – or the pergola design) and can elect to make these ideabooks private between yourselves.

What happens next?

Your designer will provide a summary of the project for you to review ( I call this the Design Criteria) as well as the Design Proposal which states how much the defined project will cost, what you will receive and an approximate timeline for completion.

What does it cost?

This will vary across the country and between companies. In the Seattle area expect to pay between $80-150/hour for both the consultation and the actual drawings. (A few companies will offer a 'free' initial consultation but trust me the charge is there – it will just be absorbed into the final cost if you select them). How long a drawing takes depends upon the complexity of the design. The projects I work on can range from 2-10 hours depending on whether it's a quick sketch of a single planting bed or a full suburban landscape.

Is it worth it?

You can read about this garden makeover here

You can read about this garden makeover here

The best designs often come about as a collaboration between the homeowner and designer which is why it is so important to find the right person who 'gets it' . My aim is to create a beautiful, functional space that will fit your needs, reflect your personality and be an oasis that wraps itself around you.  The testimonials I have received would say "yes – it's worth it".

Updated 6/9/20

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  1. Ann Evans on August 12, 2015 at 5:36 am

    Great post! Lots of information. What is that absolutely beautiful blue conifer in the next to the last photo? It probably won't grow in Michigan, but I can still dream!

  2. Karen Chapman on August 13, 2015 at 8:55 pm

    Hi Ann, that is Cedrus deodara 'Feelin' Blue' – a personal favorite of mine. Sometimes sold as a groundcover but this was a short standard that I am training