Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Mistakes

“A man’s mistakes are his portals of discovery.”

–James Joyce

13retain1_lgThen again, Joyce was a man of ideas.  I’m sure no contractor ever said to a client: “Oh, that retaining wall I put in last fall is collapsing now?  But of course!  How could something so bourgeois hold back the anarchy of our modern age??  Don’t you see??  It was futile from its inception!!!”

Anyway, it only took me a few minutes to compile a long list of mistakes that I have made over the course of my study of landscape design.  Here are just a few:

1. Giving landscape design advice to people who didn’t ask for it.  You might think that this would be obvious, but when you’re a new landscape design student all super-excited about what you’re learning, like I was, sometimes you can go a bit overboard.

Exposure to any outdoor environment would trigger my critiquing impulse, and I would start to mentally re-design every space I entered.  Didn’t matter whether it was a friend’s backyard, the planters outside the Mexican restaurant, or the National Mall — all were fair game. 

Sometimes my ideas did not stay politely in my head, like they were supposed to, and to my dismay my friends and family did not respond with the awe and gratitude that I imagined they would.  Instead I would get, “Hm, interesting.” or “Okay, maybe.” or, in the case of my dad when he caught me staring for the umpteenth time into his backyard: “What now?”

A Corollary to this: Turns out most folks don’t care about the Latin names of plants, either.  So no need to announce to your friends that that’s an Ilex cornuta growing there by the McDonald’s Drive-Thru.

2. Drawing crape myrtles that look like unexploded mines or medieval maces.  Behold: 


I drew this for my first landscape design class — Landscape Graphics.  I’m not sure whether this crape myrtle is more likely to detonate or float away into the heavens.  Laegerstromia x ‘Nuclear Mushroom Cloud’

3. Buying pots that are too small.  This was a lesson I learned pretty early on: bigger is better when it comes to pots.  I only own a few large containers, and I winced a little at what they cost, but I have never regretted buying any of them.  They have become nice, substantial features of my landscape.  Plus, most of what I have planted in them survives the winter because of the larger soil volume.  Little pots look cute in groups, but big pots are real players.  I can actually grow a tree in a pot?  Amazing!

I’m not a real purist about the material either — I have a couple of large, glazed terracotta pots ($$$), but I have fiberglass and plastic, too.  I have not been excommunicated from the landscape design community for having plastic pots (so far).

4. Thinking I could have one of those Piet Oudolfesque kind of grassy landscapes for my very own.  This was the image that made me fall in love:


For a Principles of Design class, I traced over this image multiple times — once to show line, once for value, once for texture, etc.  In doing so, I became smitten with this landscape (Pensthorpe in Norfolk, England) and with its creator.  My mistake was in thinking that I could replicate such a landscape in my own shady (key word there – SHADY) backyard.  It took me a few years to accept that I would never have Sunlight Illuminating Glorious Sweeps of Grasses in my garden.  Luckily there are other beautiful arrangements of plants (Weak Sunlight Illuminating Dry Shade Groundcovers???), although violins still play a bittersweet tune in my head whenever I look at this image.

5. Thinking that designing for real clients would be as fun as designing for hypothetical clients.  I love doing design for people who don’t really exist!  They have so much money, and they are open to anything!!!  Contrast this with designing for real people who actually own the land that you want to mess with — dang it can be a real bummer!!  Why can’t this couple see that they need an enormous stone labyrinth here, not a patio!!!   What?  I have to make phone calls?  I have to collect bids?  There’s a budget?  You mean I don’t get to sit here and draw freakishly bulbous crape myrtle trees all day?

Sadly, this is just a small sampling of the mistakes I have made since stepping into the world of landscape design.  I have a whole other list of Gardening mistakes (top of the list: the time I lovingly transplanted what turned out to be Horseweed) but that is for another posting. 

In the meantime, may my mistakes be your “portals of discovery.” 

And here are a couple of other very smart people presenting “Mistakes”:

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI

28 thoughts on “Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Mistakes

  1. Ah yes. I worked at a plant nursery for a year and was asked by the owners to do a little consulting now and then. Talk about overkill. Not just my designs but the time and effort I put in to them. I was deaf to the words, “a little consulting.”

    And just this past Saturday at the nursery while my friend and I were talking about the merits of Drimys lanceolata, a woman walking by us had the nerve to blurt out “the correct” pronunciation of said plant. Really?

    I suppose mistakes are a rite of passage all gardeners need to make. It keeps us humble.

    • Correcting people about Latin names is so downright obnoxious. Right up there with pointing out grammar mistakes in other people’s Facebook status updates. And I say this as a Latin plant name enthusiast AND an English teacher.

      • When I was taking ornamental plant classes at Longwood Gardens, one of my instructors stated: “As long as you use the correct number of syllables, don’t fret over your pronunciation!”

  2. I think my biggest mistake has probably been to tell anybody associated with my children’s schools that I’m a horticulturist/landscape designer/hort journo. I seem to immediately get sucked into running every working bee, organizing plants, trying to get school composting programs going….. Even my very feminist husband (after many weekends of toil) has said exasperatedly “Next time can’t you just say you’re a bloody housewife?”

    • Ooooh, good one, Cath. People at my own school know I like to garden, too, and they often come to me with questions. As long as the questions don’t result in me toiling in other people’s soil, I”m okay with it. In fact it makes me feel somewhat useful. 🙂

  3. I love your crape myrtle. Have you seen any books by Chip Sullivan? — it looks like his work, a bit comic book (but in a good way).

    I have never had anyone pay attention to my landscaping advice either. I have been my only client, and even I sometimes argue. I also miss those wonderful imaginary people from class projects.

  4. Pingback: Mistakes! | Garden Designers Roundtable

  5. Pingback: Garden Designers Roundtable ~ Mistakes | A Garden of Possibilities

  6. I think it highly probable that in the more far-flung parts of the Roman Empire, Latin pronunciation might not have been as precise and formal as some of the old ladies at the Home Depot Master Gardener’s table seem to think: ‘It’s POCKS ROHMAHNA, you Hiberian doltus maximus! ah eh oh ee oo…NO DIPTHONGS!”

  7. The Latin name problem is at least one I don’t encounter, as I never know them and thus never try to pronounce them, much less correct anyone else’s pronunciation. No, I’m firmly in the “that daisy-looking thing” and “those ones that look like those other ones from Dad’s yard” camp of plant classification. It’s what got me where I am today!

  8. Mary,I’ve slowly learned to keep my ‘helpful’ design comments to myself when no one wants them. The flip side to this is when family asks for garden design advice, i give it to them and then they do the exact opposite!

    • I know what you mean, Debbie. Sometimes I think people just ask for advice because they’re looking for validation for what they already want to do. When they don’t get it, they just proceed with their own idea.

    • Oh my, Debbie…wish I could contradict any of that, but it is the exact same results you’ve had! Run from family, friends and neighbors…I am now starting to say “I don’t work for family, … unless they have a huge budget and I get free-reign to do what I know is the best, with no interference at any time.” That gets them good…

  9. Enjoying your brand of mistakes – I still make some of those. #1 so easy to fall into, #4 so easy to get trapped in, and #5…well, I need to free-up more time and get back to my theoretical projects to hopefully fire me up from the way things have worked out over the decades…I think the intangible pay from theoretical clients with budgets larger than the US Govt’s theoretical budgets might be the ticket?

  10. Pingback: Garden Designers Roundtable: Mistaken | Deborah Silver & Co. - Ιστολόγιο

  11. Pingback: Garden Designers Roundtable: Mistaken | Deborah Silver & Co. | Ιστολόγιο

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