From the group up.
Landscape architect Joby Jackson of Winona says assessing your outdoor needs means much more than just picking plants. "It's about outdoor living," Jackson says. "Do they want an area to entertain, more lawn space, or a pool? The planting is the smallest part of it, really."
It's also important to look to the future instead of simply thinking about what will work right now. "They should identify short-term and long-range goals for their landscape," says Bogue Chitto landscape designer Jamie Gatlin of Growin' Green Landscape. "Some of these could be (things like] a pool house, a play area for children, an outdoor cooking area, a garden area, or even a future home addition."
Next, it's time to pick the right professional for the job. The perfect person will be different for every homeowner and every project. If the job is small or only requires a simple planting plan, the level of expertise will be different from one that calls for a new driveway or patio. "If you just want somebody to arrange plants for you, you wouldn't necessarily need to have a landscape architect," says Griffin. "I locus just as much on the hardscape--where does your driveway go, and what do you do to keep it from cracking? How do you keep the fence from warping? The landscape architect has been trained in that."
Choosing a landscape pro comes next, and the natural way to start is simply to look around. "The best research a homeowner can do is to look at local landscape projects that are attractive to them and then question the owners about the design and installation company," advises Gatlin. Once you've narrowed it down to a few, seek out more of their recent work. "Talk to the people they've worked for," says Jackson.
During the interview process, Griffin says it's a good idea to ask the designers or landscape architects questions that will reveal their knowledge and creativity, as well as their own personal style. "Ask them if they know what plants will grow best in bad soil, or in sun versus shade," he says. "Ask for their ideas." Griffin says his preference for a "kind of natural landscape" means that even a more formal garden will still have a "loose" feeling. Other landscape professionals might prefer a more structured look, so make sure their vision meshes with your own.
Ready to break ground? The experts recommend getting started as early as possible. For a new home, that might mean contacting the landscape architect even before construction begins. "To me, the perfect scenario is one when I work side by side with the architect and the interior designer," Griffin says. "That way, I understand what they're doing inside, and I can take that outside." Gatlin notes that being involved on the ground floor also means he can help prevent costly future repairs. "The landscape designer should be involved in house placement, driveway and utility placement, and future amenities," he says. "...Growin' Green has corrected more drainage problems in our 22 years in business than all other problems combined."
Seasonally, most local landscape pros say their busiest times kick off in spring and go strong through the warm months. That may lead to conflicts and delays, especially with the most in-demand contractors. "The best thing to do is not wait until you're wanting it now," says Jackson. "It's great to be able to start planning in the slower winter months."
As the designer starts his or her work, be sure to let I hem know if you have any strong preferences or aversions for your garden setting. "I always ask what plants they really like and, more importantly, if there are any plants they don't like," says Jackson. "Take juniper groundcover--some people dislike those, and some really love them. It's good to know that before I design a plan that has juniper in it."
By incorporating favorite plants in a pleasing palette and pattern, the landscape professional is able to create an environment that's everything the homeowner hoped for. "When one plant stops showing color, another steps up to perform, and then another," says Gatlin. "Blend this with fragrance and textures, and you have interest in your landscape throughout the year."