Working with the Wizards of Landscape Design


Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Your garden needs a facelift but redoing it yourself is harder than you expected.
  • You bought a home but its landscape is worn out, outdated, or just plain ugly.
  • You’ve bought plant after plant, but your garden just doesn’t look the way you imagine.
  • Your water bill has skyrocketed. Now, every time you see the sprinklers watering the grass, you think, “Do I need a lawn?”
  • You discovered vegetable gardening and want raised beds and fruit trees to grow your fruits and vegetables.

If so, it’s time to call a landscape designer. Professional landscape designers are the wizards of garden design. These wizards transform blah, tired, outdated, obliterated, or thirsty gardens into welcoming, productive, water-wise spaces to bring you joy.

Working with a landscape designer is like working with any professional. The more you understand what they do, how to work with them, and what YOU want, the more successful your project will be.

Landscape designers focus on you, the homeowner. Most start with an in-person, on-site client consultation where they ask about your dream garden. They’ll tour your property to analyze the site while they identify opportunities and challenges.

Before that meeting, do your homework. Take photos of gardens and plants you like, and even those you don’t like. Browse the internet too. Talk with your partner or other decision-makers. You don’t all have to agree, but do know what each other would like.

Remember that your garden should complement your home’s architecture and climate. A Japanese garden, for example, fits a Craftsman-style home beautifully but looks out of place with a Mediterranean home. Similarly, the plants that thrived in your Michigan garden will wither in our heat. Pastels and white flowers fade away in our bright sunlight. A skilled designer will steer you away from plants and styles that don’t work here and towards ones that do.

Develop a realistic target budget. Like remodeling, much more goes into landscaping than you might expect. In addition to design costs, there are installation costs such as labor, demolition, hardscape, plants, soil, mulch, lighting, irrigation, and sometimes permits. Share your project budget with your landscape designer so he or she can adjust the scale of the project; though it is up to the landscape contractor to develop detailed installation costs.   

If you live in an HOA, know the design review process, the documentation they require, who it gets submitted to, when to submit it, and how long reviews take.

Tell your designer about any unusual property setbacks, height requirements, issues with neighbors, and so on.

If the landscape is part of a larger remodel, involve the landscape designer in the architectural design. Collaboration between the architect and landscape designer helps ensure that the outdoors integrates with the indoors.

Don’t make the mistake of installing your garden’s hardscape (decks, paths, patios, etc.) before you have a planting plan. The two must be designed as a whole. Doing them separately is a big mistake.

Expect to sign a contract that describes the project, the landscape designer’s work scope, milestones, expectations, and payment schedule. Most designers ask for a deposit as well. 

Once your designer begins your project, remember that careful and thoughtful design takes time. More than a week, sometimes several months. Expect some back and forth.  Allow space for your designer’s creative process. That’s why you hired them.

Once the design is complete, it’s time to get on the landscape contractor’s schedule. Work only with licensed and insured landscape contractors. You may have a gardener you’ve worked with for a long time whom you trust, but their skill level won’t come near that of a licensed landscape contractor. And should things go wrong (!) you’ll have no recourse unless you work with a licensed landscape contractor.

Don’t wait until the last minute to start your project. The best designers book many months ahead. In fact, the demand for landscape designers skyrocketed during the pandemic. Many are booking more than a year out. Landscape contractors book out far ahead of time as well. So, if you have a wedding coming up or another timeline in mind, plan far in advance so you won’t be disappointed.

Finally, expect your landscape designer to stay involved through installation. They’ll answer the contractor’s questions and participate in on-site decision-making. Some landscape designers purchase and place the plants for their designs as well. Keeping the designer involved is the best way to be sure you get the design you paid for.

Once the garden is complete, stand back and appreciate all the hard work and all the hard workers – including you – who made that garden come to life. Enjoy!

Garden expert, designer, educator, and author Nan Sterman specializes in low water, sustainable, and edible landscapes. Nan hosts, co-writes, and co-produces opens in a new windowA Growing Passion, a show that explores the power of plants in our world. Nan is also author of California Gardener’s Guide vII, Waterwise Plants for the Southwest, and Hot Colors, Dry Garden. More information is at opens in a new