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Helping Mother Nature Design the Perfect Yard


While there are gardeners who have the knack for creating fantastic gardens, most of us need a little help--whether with the technical realm of plumbing and hardscape or with plants.

The big question is, where do we turn for assistance in making our garden dreams a reality?

Unfortunately, the process of creating a landscape can be confusing and daunting for the average person, because there is no clear blueprint for who you should use in a landscape project, Placentia landscape architect Carey Orwig says.

In general, there are three types of landscape professionals: landscape architects, landscape designers and landscape contractors. Whom you use depends on the work you need done. You may need one or more of these specialists.

Landscape architects are trained in all aspects of safe, functional, aesthetic exterior design, including grading, irrigation, lighting and structures such as pools, water features, decks, spas and balconies. Some become involved in plant selection, while others do not.

Such a person has a degree in landscape architecture and is licensed after working as an apprentice and passing a rigorous, three-day exam.

You pay for their design services, which includes preliminary plans, revisions and the final construction plans. Depending on the size of the yard and the complexity of the project, such plans generally range from $2,000 to $4,000, experts say.

Landscape designers generally focus on softscape--plants--and leave hardscape to the architects and contractors. Many work for contractors. A designer's training will vary from certificates to horticultural degrees and years of professional experience. They are hired as consultants for their plant expertise and generally charge from $35 to $55 per hour.

Landscape contractors have a contractor's license and specialize in hardscape and softscape installation. While they often design hardscape, most leave softscape to designers and architects. They generally make their money from materials and the labor involved in installation. Their fees vary widely, depending on the size and scope of the project and the type of materials used.

Although every job is different, in general if a project requires the integration of many different elements such as retaining walls and grading, irrigation, water features and plants, many experts suggest starting with some good plans from a landscape architect.

If you mainly need plants and softscape elements such as paths, arbors and trellises, a landscape designer is often sufficient, Irvine landscape designer Barbara Deed says.

Whichever expert you decide to use, there are several considerations that can make the experience pleasant and productive.

First, realize that the process of creating a landscape can be a long one, Orwig says. "There are a lot of elements that must come together to make a landscape work," he says. "Initially, there is the planning and design phase, which includes approval of plans and selection of colors, materials and plants."

Once construction begins, the situation gets worse, Orwig says. "It will seem like a pain when everything is torn up and a mess, but I remind clients that they will eventually have the environment of their dreams."

Realize, too, that delays are common, says Patti Ferner of Orange, who has training in landscape architecture. "If you have an important date by which you'd like the landscape finished, give the contractor a deadline a month before your final date, because there will be delays," she says.

Before meeting with a landscape professional, make a specific list of what you want, including color choices and issues such as privacy, Deed says. Gather pictures from magazines.

Also consider what type of environment you'd like. "Do you want an outdoor entertainment space with a barbecue, spa and patio cover, or are you looking to attract birds and butterflies?" Ferner says. "Is it an informal or formal yard that you want?"

Despite your likes and dislikes, it's also important to consider the practical question of how much time you actually have for maintaining your garden.

"If you're really busy and don't have much time to spend outside, I suggest a lower maintenance landscape," Deed says. "If you have time to garden, consider higher maintenance plants."

Ferner suggests walking the neighborhood and taking photographs of likes and dislikes.

It's also important to give the landscape professional critical information about the yard. "Where are the sunny and shady areas?" asks Ferner, who will sit in her clients' yards to get a sense of each space.

"I note where the hot spots are and where there is very little sun," she says. "I also keep an eye out for things like windy conditions."

Talk to several professionals before making a final decision, Orwig says.

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