I Hate Designing Gardens by Suzanne Albinson

March 4, 2010

in Articles, From the USA, General Interest

Suzanne Albinson's garden

Anne Wareham, editor

A piece by an American correspondent about getting bullied into garden design, and the pitfalls. From 2010, before we were set up to take comments.

Suzanne Albinson:

I really admire garden designers. I don’t know how they do it. I hate designing gardens for clients. You spend all that time consulting, measuring, researching, designing, drawing, providing a plant list together with season by season instructions for maintenance requirements and what becomes of it all?

I started out late in life as a jobbing gardener and only because we moved to New England and I was so very homesick for old England. We were renting a house with nothing but the typical landscape of grass and a few desultory junipers around the foundations of the house. I had left a lovely country garden in North Yorkshire with hundreds of roses, a cobbled courtyard festooned with Clematis and climbing roses and wide curving borders crammed with plants.

I had to garden and I certainly wasn’t going to do it in a rented house. So I started working, for free, in a little perennial garden attached to a bed and breakfast inn. The owner was a wonderful lady who was passionate about England and all things English and she gave me free reign. I was just so happy to be digging in the dirt again and being with my old friends herbaceous perennials. I expanded the garden for her over the years and by then I was a paid gardener. Because of that first garden I was lucky enough to be approached by others needing gardening help and I set up a little business.

After a year or so, people started to ask me for help with the layout of their gardens. “Could you just come and take a look at my garden and give me some advice?” Fine, I was happy to do that but then I was being asked for more than advice. They would like something on paper, a design perhaps, to scale, which they could take to a landscaper to implement. Thus started my garden designing career, such as it was.

The very first proper garden design I did was for a large garden in the country. The clients hadn’t a clue about gardening or what it entailed. They had good intentions but not the knowledge or the energy. I did make it clear to them that if I designed a garden for them and it was planted up, it would have to be taken care of. I designed a fairly simple garden for them with groves of trees and shrubs, and a limited palette of perennials in borders close to the house. There was a long driveway down to the house and they originally wanted a line of trees either side but I persuaded them that little groves either side would look more natural in the country landscape. They hired an inexperienced landscape company to carry out the design and the first thing they did was to plant all the trees and shrubs within two feet of each other. I’m not sure they understood the scale of the drawings. They all had to be replanted at the proper distance apart. Not a good start.

Then the same week the trees and shrubs were replanted, the client went to a local nursery and purchased a job lot of trees on sale and stuck them in all over the place and completely shot the design. I suppose he didn’t understand that leafless sticks grow into large trees. I’m afraid I gave up in disgust.

I Hate Designing Gardens - Image 2An elderly friend of my mother in law moved into a very unprepossessing house in an old subdivision and I was asked to design a garden for her. It was a very scruffy site with an ugly wheelchair ramp to the front door and an enormous, oppressive conifer growing right against the house. I had several discussions with the client and I think I understood what she wanted. She specifically asked me to be sure to include lots of herbs in the design as she liked to cook. My design took out the conifer, disguised the ramp with shrubs and included a wooden deck off the living room with a herb garden close by for easy access. On our final consultation when I went over my plans, she said she had decided she couldn’t possibly take out the conifer, and all she really wanted were a few pots of herbs hanging off the ramp because now she and her husband were getting Meals on Wheels delivered every day and she wasn’t doing any cooking. The garden was never put in and it still looks scruffy.

I spent a year, on and off, researching and designing a Japanese garden for a dear friend. She asked me to design her dream Japanese garden and I told her I didn’t want to. She begged me, so I finally gave in. I learned a great deal about Japanese gardens doing the research and I knew her tastes. It really was a labour of love. The garden was to compliment a contemporary house my husband had designed for them so I had a vested interest. He also designed a beautiful tea house and pergola which were included in the garden design. I felt it was my piece de resistance. When we had our presentation meeting and I carefully went over the plans, my friend burst into tears of joy. Her husband remarked, “It’s just not us.” Neither the garden nor the tea house has been installed.

You see how frustrating this is? There have been small successes: a garden for a retirement complex, an entryway garden for a woodworking company, a north facing garden for a very discerning client and a few others. Now when people ask me to look at their garden I just tell them I will give them some advice and they had better follow me around and take notes because I am not going to put anything down on paper.

Suzanne Albinson

Pictures are of Suzanne’s garden.

Read a response from Chris Young, deputy editor “The Garden” – …one of my new year’s resolutions was not to give my advice too freely…

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