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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Beware of Tiny Flowerbeds That Are “Up Close and Personal”

A prospective client, who never gardened before and doesn’t intend to garden ever, informed me that she purchased an illustrated book about perennials so that she could choose the plants for a proposed garden. It was the moment I would dread for the rest of the season; a situation that every designer hopes will never occur.

Instead of inquiring what I had in mind for her project, and before listening to my suggestions, she began flipping through the book’s pages, selecting whatever caught her eye. Without any regard for a plant’s personality or performance, she insisted that I work only with her choices for a tiny garden to be planted along her front walkway.

The client lives in an imposing home, on a prominent street, in an upscale neighborhood. In her part of town, the garden is an accessory that enhances the home. One cannot plant only with one’s heart. A keen editing eye is also necessary, especially for a flowerbed on the front lawn. None of that seemed important to this client.

She balked when I tried to explain the design impropriety of using some of the plants that attracted her attention, and the need for miniature ornamental shrubs as structure to showcase perennials. When I continued to suggest plants more appropriate for the scale of the project, I could sense frustration in her voice and annoyance in her eyes. Eventually, I decided to keep my mouth shut. In retrospect, that was the wrong decision. Even at the risk of losing her business, I should have been vocal - very vocal.

As I envisioned, the client’s choice of plants did not look good in her garden. The flowerbed had no bones to enhance its contents, and, as expected, I was not permitted to address that problem. Although a great deal of thought had gone into the plant compositions, the resulting garden was hopelessly ugly. No matter how hard I tried to place and reposition plants, the fluffy, puffy, sprawling perennials, selected by the client, appeared helter-skelter with nothing to ground them.

Exacerbating the situation was an instruction to restrict the color story to hot, tropical tones. This aesthetic preference, perfectly suitable for a large sprawling landscape, gave the small flowerbed a congested and frenetic feeling.

Then, a day before planting, a prevailing heat wave scorched some of the perennials. As I was unable to replace them before the start time - there was a clause in our agreement about the beginning and end date of the contract - I could only hope for temperate weather so that withered plants might recuperate quickly; but that did not happen. Consequently, when the job was complete, neither the customer nor I was pleased.

For the next two weeks, I began the process of replacing prematurely dormant plants, moving remaining ones to enhance their appearance, and discretely substituting some of the client’s plant choices with others more appropriate. In the end, nothing that I did alleviated the client’s disappointment. Sadly, none of that remedial work pleased me, either.

I have learned two lessons from this experience: - First, if I cannot convince a client to reconsider an idea that is unrealistic, I should walk away from the project. Second, I must never accept a commission to design a tiny garden, at the formal entryway to a home, composed exclusively with perennials.

Gardens admired from afar may appear more attractive because distance enhances the beauty of plant combinations. Also, when seen from that perspective, nature’s blemishes are diminished. However, up close and personal flowerbeds - that is, gardens that are literally in one’s face - reveal every flower’s flaw. Fastidious homeowners, who confront the garden intimately each time they enter or exit the house, will notice and scrutinize every fine detail.  As a result, the designer’s intentions are lost because - as the tweaked saying goes – the client cannot see the garden for the flowers.

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Reader Comments (6)

Sort of the mirror of your experience: I have learned from hard experience at my nursery never to talk a customer into buying a plant that they express reservations about initially. They will never be satisfied and something will always go wrong.

I like how you make a story of your post. It is very well-written and even has a plot and kept me engaged and wanting to read. It shows how much you care about your work and how to solve problems with clients ahead of time.

December 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCalgary landscaping

Oh dear, that really sounds like a no-win situation. Why, oh why, would she hire someone...then not take their advice?!? Actually, it's far too common an many professions. You're right, though, at least you learned some good lessons...too bad they had to be learned so painfully :-(

December 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScott Weber

Happy Holidays to you too. Carolyn

Allan, This sounds like a nightmare. I had never thought before about how much being a garden designer involves teaching -- and there is nothing worse than trying to teach someone who absolutely refuses to be educated. One wonders why this client hired a garden designer at all if she didn't trust you to know more about garden design than she does! I have learned the hard way that those tiny flower beds are the most difficult to get looking good. It's good that you've been able to salvage an important lesson for your own dealings with clients from this unfortunate experience.

Happy Holidays, and may all your clients be cooperative in 2012!

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJean

I know just what you mean Allan. We all start out just buying plants for their color without the thought of how it will look in a few years. However, if I could have afforded an expert years ago I would have listened to their advice.


December 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGatsbys Gardens

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