Do Garden Designers Need To Have Pretty Gardens Themselves?

Next week I will be participating for the first time in the Garden Designer’s Roundtable, a website that features a monthly round-up of blog-posts by garden design professionals.  Each month, several of the Roundtable’s designers provide their unique perspectives on a given topic, with links to all the posts published on GDRT.  Cool!

Given my limited experience with professional design, I confess that participating in this group makes me feel a bit like the Salahis at the White House State Dinner.  Like, can I really get away with this?  Is anybody going to notice I’m not supposed to be here?   Seriously, though, it is an honor, and I thank Scott Hokunson for including me.  Ever since staying at the Algonquin Hotel in NYC, I have always wanted to be part of a Roundtable! 

Anyway, May’s topic will be “Our Home Gardens” and it should be really fun to get a glimpse into the backyards of all these designers.  Revealing your own personal garden to a wider audience is a bit nerve-wracking, though. When you sell yourself as somebody who’s good at garden design, as somebody who even collects money from others in exchange for garden design services, you’d better have something going on in your yard.  Right?  Or is it acceptable to proudly declare yourself a garden designer even if your own garden is less than spectacular?

Do other professionals deal with this issue?  I have to say, my dentist’s teeth aren’t all that impressive, yet he’s taken excellent care of my teeth for 34 years.  Kristin, a young woman who’s done a phenomenal job cutting my hair on several occasions, sports blue hair herself.  My dermatologist has terrible skin, yet his mole-removing skills are unmatched.  So no, I don’t think a designer’s own garden necessarily reflects his professional skills.

Plus, with gardening, we can use photography very carefully to disguise the flaws.  The macro shot is always a nice tactic.  Unfortunately, if you show too many macros, your savvy audience will soon catch on to your trickery.  (“Wait a minute, another close-up of a dew drop on a leaf?  What gives?”) They will figure out that the macros don’t represent The Whole Truth of your garden.  It’s sort of like when you’re dating online, and you try to string the other person along for awhile with just your cute headshot.  They will humor you for awhile, but until you can provide evidence that from the neck down you don’t look like Jabba the Hut, they will remain wary and suspicious.

So I have decided that next week I will give you an honest look at my garden.  I’ve got some pretty little places, but then I also have some ass-shots that I will go ahead and reveal.  I have been working on my garden for five years now, and I will try my best to show you some of the processes I’ve gone through, the designers/books that have inspired me, as well as the problems that have arisen from my own indecision, impulsivity, and of course, sheer ignorance.

Woo-hoo!  Should be fun.  So I will see you back here on May 22, and please check out GDRT that day, too, to visit the gardens of several other excellent designers!  It will be like getting a peek at their underpants!

24 thoughts on “Do Garden Designers Need To Have Pretty Gardens Themselves?

  1. OK, I can’t wait. I am always intrigued to see more than macro shots. I want to see a garden’s design, or at least get a feel for a blogger’s spaces, and you are promising (teasing?) us that we’ll see the good and the bad. Yes please!

  2. Oh, I don’t dare show off mine. Especially after a show, well, my garden and yard looks like a location shoot for a George Romero movie. (I’m serious. The beginning of Land of the Dead, with zombies wandering through an overgrown park? All I have to do is open the back gate, let my drunk across-the-alley neighbors wander in, and start filming.)

  3. Looking forward to a peek at your garden, Mary. What I always find ironic about my own garden is that spring, summer, and fall when I should be working in my garden, are the times of year when I’m in complete overload with designing for clients. Not fair!! I’ve had to re-design for more streamlined maintenance so that I don’t cringe every time I turn into my driveway. Luckily one of the perks of being a full time garden designer is access to excellent, loyal crews. I don’t know what I would do without help occasionally.

  4. Groovy. A well designed garden can handle a bit of lazy maintenance. I can over look some overgrown shrubs, a few scattered weeds, and a dog/child toy or two laying about to see the bones of the garden. That’s where the real gardening happens. I am not a garden designer so I’ve been trying to figure out how to design my garden for about seven years. Everything I know I learned from library books, attending garden tours, driving around neighborhoods, and good ol’ trial and error 🙂 Sometimes its really hard to see a lot of time and effort go down the tubes when an idea doesn’t work or a better idea comes along. But plants can be moved and hard scape recycled so I try to stay a little zen about it 🙂 And before I make any moves I spend a loooonnnggg time thinking about it, using bits of sticks, pots, etc. to represent future plants/walls, arbors, etc. to help be decide if these will work for me. Looking forward to your post.

    • Thanks for your response, Felicia. I think a zen attitude is a gardener’s best friend. My problem is, I will make dramatic changes very impulsively, without necessarily thinking things through. Taking a slower more thoughtful approach, like yours, would probably serve me well.

  5. Judging from the proliferation of ‘Garden designer/Landscape architect’s own garden’ and ‘Contractor/Architect’s own home’ features in the glossies, it would seem that it IS important, though it often feels like–given the general luxury and perfection in these spreads–that perhaps the R&D or Client Development tax advantages may be ripe for abuse. Anyone who has ever dirtied a shovel knows how much it costs just to have plants, and to care for them; but the fountains, follies, and fine furniture so often on display bring to mind more questions than ‘inspiration.’ I find myself uncertain whether I would trust a garden designer whose own property looked like it was getting daily attention–it would make me too curious to know who is paying for it. Then again, I wouldn’t trust a skinny chef. Congratulations on being a part of a roundtable…from what I understand, once you’ve been a part of one, you want to be again and again. It can turn into a vicious circle.

  6. I can’t wait to see everyone’s underpants!

    But seriously…I know a few designers who treat their gardens like a great website or calling card. Others who use them like a laboratory (with a mad scientist in the house). This is going to be a fun roundtable!

    • I can totally see how designers would use their gardens as labs, and therefore might have to sacrifice a sense of unity in the design. That could also be a good excuse for places in the garden you’ve neglected…you could say, “oh this bit of tangle here? this is my William Robinson Garden.” Ha-ha.

  7. What a fun topic, i know you will be a great addition to the table. My garden is like a garden should be “a work in progress”. I also do test gardens so i can observe how plants do over time. I have a formal garden in front, a cottage area, a shade garden, a wildlife native garden and a zen garden that is also where we hold plants waiting to be installed. And we just finished a raised bed build of cinder blocks that are skim coated to show clients how it can be a veggi garden and nice feature at the same time. Of course i still have nothing planted in it….maybe next fall : ) So as a whole there is no real flow but it is interesting. This is all on a 50 x 130 foot lot.

  8. I’ve been very curious to see your garden and would be suspicious of a dermatologist with bad skin but would trust a skinny chef. I’ve found some garden designers so comically pretentious about what they consider bad design that the opportunity to see their gardens is definitely intriguing. A designer’s hesitation to show their own garden makes you wonder what they’re hiding.

    • Yes, at the very least there should be some indication they’ve been out there attempting something. On the other hand, most garden designers are ordinary people with limited time and money, so I think it’s unfair to expect grandeur.

      • How expensive creating a garden can be is definitely a factor in any setting. A home garden is often just a small patch of soil with some, hopefully, healthy plants. Who has the time or money for grand? No one I know! What’s frustrating to me is reading designers who deride the design attempts of folks who shop at Lowe’s or Walmart and then attempt all the design themselves. It may not be considered beautiful by the professional designer but if it is maintained by the homeowner and brings them joy, that’s all that matters. It’s the condescending snark that sometimes infiltrates gardening that eats away at me. Home gardens, like our homes, are private spaces that are meant for the owners not the audience. I admire anyone who puts their garden on display, regardless of their profession. But when a garden designer ridicules the attempts of others but refuses to show their own garden, I have to wonder why. I’m curious to see your garden because we have so much in common: cramped noVA suburb with kids/dogs and full time teaching careers that leave no time for grand.

  9. Short answer – yes! Long answer – yes, within one’s budget and as a way to get inspired, relieve stress, gain enlightenment, and to practice what one preaches. And again, all within constraints of time. I can’t wait to see your post.

  10. As a completely overwhelmed “Landscape Designer” this time of the year I often arrive home at dusk seeing all the things that need doing in my garden that I’ve just spent all day doing in clients’….To top it off, I’m on Garden Tour for the first time this year….which of course meant I HAD to totally remove the 20 year old foundation planting at the front of my house and rework it with more native/”gardeny” material and prove my philosophy with clients….”If you’ve got good architecture why hide it?!?” No wonder I keep waking up at 5 a.m……My garden is part of most consults I have with clients. They get an idea of the plants I’m thinking of using for them, plus their truer size once growing out of pots, and just how much variety there can be. It’s also where I try out all the “new perennials” that might disappoint in real life, turn into thugs, or are just plain annuals. So yes, it’s important it look “good” while also serving as a learning center, test garden, and being always in evolution. ( and since my garden is fully exposed on all sides, with streets on 3 sides, I am in full view while working in it….so everything I do takes that much longer due to neighbor, dog walker, and driver by questions, interest, and requests for free “extra” plants and plant info…)

    I don’t get a chance to comment as much as I’d like but can’t tell you all how many times I’ve nodded my head in agreement with things said here…laughed out loud in delight and pleasure….and just plain enjoyed “having coffee” with all of you here!!! No surprise that Black Walnut has already risen to such high notice and recognition…such a joy!!!!

    • Becca,
      I meant to get back to you sooner regarding your very nice comment about the blog. It’s so gratifying to me that BWD has become a little community now. To me that is the ultimate sign of success :o) Thanks so much!

  11. I think the answer is yes, yes and yes! You garden shows your philosophy, and playfulness.Personal gardens further careers and attract client. They also serve as the means for a dialogue. I am looking forward to your long hard view, and blog post.

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