Interview: John Black, landscape designer

11 05 2010

I discovered John Black and Verdance Fine Garden Design when his blog link appeared in my Referrer column on my WordPress stats page earlier this year. I visited his blog, A Verdant Life, and learned that John was featured on HGTV’s Landscape Smart and Landscapers’ Challenge series. Be sure to visit his blog—he’s an engaging writer and a great resource for tips on design, landscaping and all things garden.

Since I began gardening about eight years ago, I’ve fantasized about a career in garden design. Utter curiosity compelled me to ask him if I could interview him to learn about what a career in landscape design entails. I sent him the following questions and he responded with witty and insightful answers to all of them. Thanks, John, for being a source of inspiration to me and for taking the time to be part of my blog. All photos and illlustrations © John Black/Verdance Fine Garden Design.

From John’s blog: As principal of Verdance Fine Garden Design, John gives homeowners the big picture that reveals their property’s full potential and inspires a delight-full landscape. His imaginative yet practical designs come to life through detailed plans, with architectural elements and plant combinations that are not only interesting and beautiful but also appropriate to the owner and the environment. John is a member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD), the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), and the California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA). His work has been featured on HGTV’s Landscape Smart and Landscapers’ Challenge series.

What does a landscape designer do?
In broadest terms, I would say a “landscape designer” is anyone who makes plans to improve the outdoor environment. But it’s a vast and debated title, and “improvement” is subjective. Is the mow-and-blow gardener who also plants petunias in his clients’ yards a landscape designer? What about the commercial architect who fronts her buildings with über-thirsty lawns? They both create landscapes, for better and for worse. Personally, I would hope anyone who calls themselves a landscape designer is fairly knowledgeable about design, horticulture, outdoor materials, and ecology, and applies that knowledge in site-specific and artful ways.

What skills are required to be a landscape designer?
Landscape design is a lot like other “design” fields, governed by principles such as form, contrast, hierarchy, rhythm, line, color and so on. These are important in both the planning of our ideas and the visual communication of them—the plans we present to our clients. Landscape designers need comprehensive knowledge of a broad palette of materials, from plants to paving materials, finishes, textiles, lighting and furnishings. We should have some sense of designs that precede us, either to emulate them or evolve them. Obviously, we need to understand our clients’ wishes, and local environmental conditions. But the best landscape designers I know evoke rich emotional responses with very simple and subtle gestures. And to achieve that, we must understand human nature—what people respond to, what brings us pleasure, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and so on. The spaces we create can have a profound influence on our fellow humans, and we really ought to know what we’re doing.

How did you initially decide to study landscape design? Where did you study? Your blog mentions you worked for an ad agency “in a previous life.” Tell me about your profession before embarking on a landscape design career.
I graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in Communication and a master’s degree in Sociology, intent on becoming a hotshot advertising copywriter. One thing I forgot, though, was to get any real copywriting experience. So I spent the next five years managing accounts at one of San Francisco’s premier agencies, basically running interference between our hotshot copywriters and our clientele. It was fantastic preparation for what I’m doing now, for both teaching me how the creative process works and how to represent a creative product and manage its production. I ultimately did go on to be a copywriter, but would never have been very successful at either that career or this one without first being an agency “suit.” It’s really striking to me how similar the two businesses are: they may deal in different media, but ultimately they both develop creatively strategic responses to human needs. I had been gardening a lot since moving to a new house, and after advertising lost its allure for me, I found that landscape design scratched that same itch, but with a kinder and gentler… uh… scratchy thing.

Tell me about Verdance Fine Garden Design.
Verdance Fine Garden Design was started in 2003, in the back bedroom of my house in Palo Alto. Since then I’ve moved out to an office within seventeen paces of three coffee shops, which has been great for my productivity (but not so great for any papers, keyboards, carpeting, etc. within spilling distance). The focus of my work is residential gardens throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, from San José up to San Francisco and over to Berkeley and Oakland. When I began my practice, a lot of my designs were the rumpled, English cottage garden style that I really enjoy. Since then, I’ve become a lot more proficient in contemporary, efficient designs that use fewer species to greater effect. I tend to focus a lot on the structure of the spaces I design, not just the plants. I also use a lot of plants whose foliage, rather than flowers, is the main attraction. And, because we’ve been through three years of drought and counting, I tend to select water-thrifty plants instead of gratuitous lawns.

What area of the field do you specialize in? How is your specialty different from other areas of the field?
A few ways to organize the different areas of this broad field are along lines of small-scale (e.g. residential) versus large (commercial or public); renovation (garden makeovers) vs. restoration (of natural lands); and native (or adapted) vegetation versus exotic. Another way to think about the work is, who is the ultimate client? For instance, a front-yard garden might be designed for the owner’s pleasure, or might actually be to invite the admiration of passers-by; a wetland habitat might be restored to encourage native shorebirds to nest; a detention basin or stream might be designed to purify the stormwater that passes through it. My work is limited to residential gardens, but I’m always conscious of all of a garden’s clients: the humans who live there, the others who pass by, the local ecology. It’s not enough for a space I create to be “pretty”—it has to be smart, functional and improve the world as well.

Do you work initially from sketches and then translate them to the computer with software? Could you explain the process of a garden’s design—from meeting with the client to conceptualization to sketching to presentation to implementation?
The first step is to define the nature of the work: what are we trying to achieve? What are the problems to solve, needs to meet, preferences to fulfill? What’s the budget? The timeline? I have a questionnaire I use to help guide my clients and clarify their wishes. Once we understand our qualitative goals, it’s time to define the quantitative aspects of the work: documenting the site’s measurements, sun exposure, soil type, existing vegetation and hardscape, structures, and so on.

This provides the basis for the development of design concepts. I begin with some quick functional diagrams: what spaces are we looking to create, and how should they relate with the site and with each other? Should the dining patio be next to the kids’ play area, or removed from it? What happens if we put the vegetable beds up close to the house, versus tucked away in a corner? The goal here is to quickly sketch out as many variations as possible, to fully explore what works, and doesn’t, and why. As these relationships become better defined, I move on to the design concept phase, putting forms to function: how large should that dining patio be? Should the veggie beds be arranged formally?

I’m still sketching at this point, but the lines are getting tighter and dimensions are becoming relatively accurate. I’ll review a few concepts with my client to get their feedback; once we have a solid direction to go in, I’ll refine the concept into the schematic (or preliminary, or illustrative) design, which is to scale with accurate dimensions and representative color, maybe some perspective views, and key features or specimen plants called out (even if we don’t know all the plants or materials/finishes just yet). This gives my client a sense of the look and feel of the new space; and with their approval, I’ll develop the implementation plans, including a detailed planting plan as well as conceptual diagrams for hardscape, lighting, materials and finishes, etc. This is what the homeowner gives their contractor to install from, and I also show up during installation to answer questions and make sure the plan is being implemented consistently with our vision. I’ll also purchase plants, pots, furnishings and accessories for my clients. And, I follow up after installation is complete to make sure everything is growing and wearing the way we expect.

What are some common myths about the profession?
The single biggest misconception I hear is that landscape designers spend all our time working with plants, buying them at the nursery and/or setting them in place. The reality is that most of my time is spent in my studio, either at the drafting table or at the computer, not only drafting but also taking care of all the administrative details that any business requires: bookkeeping, researching products, marketing, writing proposals, returning emails and phone calls, and plenty of other behind-the-scenes work that has nothing to do with plants.

Another common confusion is that landscape designers are the ones installing the landscape. Although some designers are also licensed as contractors, for the most part our work ends with the installation plans; if there’s any confusion, the soft hands and clean fingernails should give us away. I think it’s also a myth that landscape designers are de facto gardeners: even though I enjoy gardening, I’m not a “gardener” or a “plant geek” by any stretch, and my own yard is horribly out of shape.

Finally, it absolutely is a myth that kissing a landscape designer makes you go blind.

Who (or what) are the biggest inspirations for your career?
For my career, I’m inspired by any entrepreneur who can balance doing the creative work they love with the mind-numbing administrative necessities like bookkeeping. For plans and presentation graphics, I’m inspired by the usual garden design and landscape architecture magazines like, yes, Garden Design and Landscape Architecture, as well as journals like I.D. Magazine and Communication Arts, and Edward Tufte’s work on visual displays of information. When I was beginning my education, I watched HGTV religiously, although I don’t find their shows quite as inspiring today. For plant combinations, there are countless landscape designers and architects, both contemporary and historic, whose work I would be honored to emulate; but on any given day, I’m more inspired by just walking around the neighborhood and seeing what nature is doing all on her own.

Describe a typical week of work for you. What exactly do you do? What are your key responsibilities?
Usually my week is divided among administrative work like bookkeeping; marketing work like emails or blogging; developing or refining design ideas; visiting nurseries or other vendors; and meeting with new or current clientele. Right now I’m also teaching a continuing-education short course on personalized garden design. In school one of my instructors encouraged us to think about what times of day we were best at what tasks: I tend to be most creative in the morning, so that’s when I’ll sketch out ideas. My meetings and phone calls are often scheduled for late morning or early afternoon, when I’m still thinking pretty clearly. By afternoon I’m best at researching and organizing information; I spend a lot of time online, where I can quickly research plants and landscape materials. And most of my email communication and administrative stuff tends to happen in the evening (although I’ll often let it sit overnight and review it in the morning with fresh eyes). I do subcontract some aspects of the planning to other designers, but ultimately I am responsible for the overall design concept and key features. I also make sure that conceptual drawings or plans meet my standards for graphics and “look and feel,” and sometimes coloring or rendering plans makes for a nice way to end the day.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job? Most rewarding?
The most challenging aspect of my job probably is the same challenge most entrepreneurs and sole proprietors face: having to wear so many hats other than the one we enjoy most. I’m not a bookkeeper, so it’s often an afterthought to send out invoices—usually prompted by realizing my bank account is almost empty. Project management is a necessary evil for me; I would rather spend all my time designing, but the two go hand in hand because the design continues to evolve throughout installation. It’s also challenging to keep a design within budget, since there are so many variables that impact project costs: types of materials, quantities and sizes of plants, even the time of year. I depend on the contractors who install my work to give me a heads-up if they see anything in the design they feel could be achieved more economically. Finally, it can be challenging to make every design unique and not recycle “formulas” for plants, materials or features that have worked in the past.

The most rewarding aspect of my job is stepping back once an installation is complete and seeing my design actualized. Sometimes there’s a wave of relief if it’s been a particularly complicated job that turns out well; sometimes there’s just the satisfaction of seeing something that has existed on paper or in my imagination literally come to life. At the risk of sounding immodest, often I pat myself on the back when a plant combination I’m trying for the first time, or a unique new feature I’ve dreamed up, works and looks like a million bucks. It’s also hard to beat the feeling when a client tells me how delighted she is with the new garden, or when we see the first hummingbird checking out the new flowers. That’s when I feel I’ve really created something and made a lasting contribution.

What do you consider your greatest success? Biggest setback?
It always feels like a setback when a project doesn’t come to fruition for one reason or another. Usually it’s a matter of limited budget delaying a plan’s implementation, but there have been times when my clients and I parted ways before the design was complete. I put so much of my heart and my imagination into a project that it’s difficult to not feel these setbacks as personal failures. However, each of them is a priceless opportunity to learn how I can improve my process. I’ve been very lucky to have had no setback worse than a little lost work.

Conversely, any time a design makes it into reality, it feels like a success. But I would say my greatest success was getting a call from HGTV’s Landscapers’ Challenge show, inviting me to participate in an upcoming segment. From my earliest days studying landscape design, I had watched that show and analyzed the designs, their presentation and their installation. However, because the show was set in Southern California and I’m in Northern California, I figured I would never have the chance to be part of it. Little did I know they were branching out, and taping segments up in my area! I made sure my design was as good as any I had seen on the show before; and I was thrilled to win the challenge and have my work featured on national television.

What projects rank among your favorites? Why do they stand out?
The Landscapers’ Challenge project was one, simply for sheer marquee value. Another was the first project I did with HGTV’s Landscape Smart, which was a lesson in doing good, inexpensive work quickly; my design was very ambitious, and at the end of the first day I was sure we’d never finish. (We did, beautifully.) The big jobs that are impressive to behold are favorites because they look great in my portfolio. But sometimes the little projects, like a tiny townhouse patio, are favorites for the innovation and attention to detail they demand. My projects are kind of like children: each one is different, but I’m hard-pressed to say I like one better than another. Usually.

What are the tools of the trade that you use the most? Favorite gadget?
I never visit a site without my 300-foot measuring tape. A roll of tracing paper is invaluable both in the office and in the field. My Moleskine sketchbook and Pilot Precise V5 pen are almost always with me. I run most of my business from my MacBook Pro, and I have a love/hate relationship with VectorWorks CAD software. I love my Copic color markers, especially the #0 colorless blender. One of my favorite gadgets is Google SketchUp, which I use to explore design ideas between the functional diagram and schematic design phases. The two images (left) illustrate how SketchUp lets me quickly evolve and reality-test ideas, and I can still add a layer of manual illustration if necessary for look and feel. Actually, my favorite gadget may be one I don’t own—a laser level for measuring slopes.

What are some of your professional goals for the future?
Here in California, landscape designers are not licensed as landscape architects and contractors are. As a result, the scope of services we’re allowed to provide is limited, mostly to design concepts and planting plans for single-family residences. I’m working toward licensure as a landscape architect so that I’ll be able to develop my designs in fuller detail, as well as serve a broader range of clientele. I’d also like to continue expanding my practice, bringing on additional designers not only for the extra hands, but also for fresh input and cross-pollination of ideas. And, I’ve often thought it would be fun to create a display garden at an exhibition like the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show—although that would be an extraordinary commitment of time and resources.

What’s the most important advice you could give to someone interested in becoming a landscape designer?
For better or for worse, it’s extremely easy to call yourself a landscape designer. There’s no aptitude test, no license, no oversight. As a result, there’s a lot of room to run your business your own way; but also a lot of room for error. Especially just starting out and likely self-employed, it can be difficult to develop discipline and pursue landscape design as a business, not just a glorified hobby. The most important advice I could offer probably would be to join an organization like the APLD, get to know other designers in your area, and learn as much as you can from them about how to develop your skills and build a robust practice. You don’t have to do things exactly as they do, but they’ll be good and bad examples from which to learn.

What is the average salary for your field? What are people at the top of the profession paid?
Compensation is incredibly difficult to estimate, because the profession is so loosely defined and diverse. The self-employed landscape designer might charge $50 per hour, or three times that. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2008 put the median annual salary for landscape architects at about $59,000 (although I have no idea what level of experience that reflects). In general, I think most of us recognize that this is not a business which will make us rich, at least not financially. The rewards tend to be much more intrinsic, such as the satisfaction of seeing a concept built or doing right by the environment.

What is your impression of online landscape design programs geared to someone who isn’t able to attend school full-time?
Because there’s no national accreditation of landscape designers or landscape design schools, there are a lot of programs out there from which to choose, and none is necessarily any better or worse than another. Different programs will fit different interests and situations, whether that means going to school full-time, part-time, at night, on weekends or online. Obviously, it’s important to research what a program entails—what’s the full curriculum, what are the instructor(s)’s credentials, what sort of a portfolio will the student develop? For that matter, is a formal program even necessary? There are plenty of books that the self-directed individual could follow to get a decent education in landscape design. For me, one of the most important criteria was the opportunity to get detailed, personal critiques from an experienced designer. This helps ensure that the students learn to communicate their vision effectively, both in concepts and in detailed plans. And, I would want to see that a program teaches students to draft by hand, which is a vital precursor to any design work including digital drafting.

Are there any particular landscape design schools you would recommend for someone wishing to become a landscape designer?
While there are schools that are known for their landscape architecture programs, these are distinct from landscape design, usually embracing a more theoretical and abstract study of land planning and open space development. For landscape design, again because there are no national or state standards, the student might look into the expertise of the faculty; what types of careers program graduates go on to have; whether the program emphasizes design, construction, horticulture, golf course management, etc.; and what sort of portfolios are coming out of the program. The local chapter of APLD might be able to provide more information about a particular school as well. Remember, it’s possible to become a garden designer with no formal training. On-the-job education—particularly learning how landscapes are installed—is as important as anything you could learn in a classroom.

Finally, do you have favorite plants that you frequently work into your landscape designs? What are they and why are they a “must” in your designs?
I am forever making notes about new favorite plants, and forever making new notes with new new favorites! In general, I am attracted to plants with interesting foliage, since they’ll look good regardless of whether the plant is in bloom or not. Some of my favorites include Coleonema ‘Sunset Gold’, Spirea ‘Goldflame’, Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’ and Salvia chamaedryoides. I’m also a sucker for native or climate-adapted plants which perform well in ordinary garden settings without demanding too much water or care. At the top of this list are Carpenteria californica, Salvia spathacea and almost any Phormium variety. When there’s room, I enjoy planting great drifts of grasses and grass-like plants, such Carex tumulicola, Panicum virgatum and Muhlenbergia capillaris. I love using shrubs and trees that have colorful foliage in the fall, such as Parrotia persica, Acer circinatum, Quercus coccinea and Nyssa sylvatica. For all of these favorites, though, every design is unique to the place and the people who live there; so there are hundreds more plants that I consider “favorites” for any given circumstance. Ask me again tomorrow!

© Cindy Dyer/Dyer Design and John Black/Verdance Fine Garden Design

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13 responses

11 05 2010
insectamonarca

Very interesting read. I believe the article should be published in a gardening magazine. It is informative and insightful about the reality of running a small business. Noticed the hint of native plants and reference to drought. These are present day realities that all of us need to thank about when designing gardens and landscapes. I noticed John designed with less lawn and created spaces of color and texture of materials. Well done. Thank you John and Cindy.

11 05 2010
shaun sadree

wow very amazing yards, so lovely and very peaceful

12 05 2010
Kay Hamilton Estey

This is a super article. Cindy your questions are excellent, and I loved the one about ‘favorite tools’. I agree that Google Sketch-Up is easy to use and good for quick 3D rendering. Thank you for reporting John Black’s thoughtful and interesting responses in depth. I agree with the comment that this should be published and I’d love to refer to it on the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show Facebook site.

12 05 2010
cindydyer

Hi Kay,

Thanks for the comment! I thought his answers were phenomenal, too!

By all means, feel free to refer to the article on the Garden Show’s Facebook site! Can you e-mail me when you have posted it?

12 05 2010
Laura Schaub/InterLeafings

Ah-ha, John, we’ve got it in writing that you’d like to design a garden for the San Francisco Garden Show…you’re on our radar now! Outstanding article, and I agree that it should be published. You have worked SO hard, and your example is a bar that other landscape designers need to know about. Congratulations on your quest to become a landscape architect, we can say we knew you when! Cindy, thanks so much for publishing this, it’s going up on a few FB pages in a moment!

12 05 2010
Michelle Derviss

Informative and insightful interview.
A pleasure to read and to learn more about the master designer behind Verdance Fine Garden Design.
This would make for a great article in a nationally distributed garden related magazine.

12 05 2010
cindydyer

Thanks so much, Michelle. I think we will pursue getting it published in a garden-related magazine and glad others are agreeing!

12 05 2010
Laura Schaub/InterLeafings

Hi Cindy,

I work with Kay at the SF Garden Show, and also contribute to the Garden Designer’s Roundtable; we’ve posted to both! Will suggest it for the APLD page as well. Thanks again!

http://www.facebook.com/sfgardenshow

http://www.facebook.com/GardenDesignersRoundtable

12 05 2010
CristinaDaSilva

What a great interview. It’s so good to read about other garden designers’ experiences, and how they decided to become a designer. Landscape designers come from all kinds of different backgrounds…from nurses to copywriters.

12 05 2010
cindydyer

Thank you for your comment, Cristina!

14 05 2010
thekingoftexas

Shades of Barbara Walters . . .

Great questions and great answers—now you should contact the appropriate people—those that are at the apex of their professions—in all the areas in which you are proficient, areas that include photography, cosmetic makeup, hair dressing, painting, desktop publishing, concrete leaf casting, knitting, home decorating, book collecting, wedding planning, party planning, travel planning, feline care, white rat care, aquarium fish care, animal rescue, traveling, creating travelogues, writing, copy reading, father criticizing and chastising, etc., etc. The list is virtually endless but I’ll stop here—I’m running out of ink.

Well done, and a tip of the kingly crown to you and to John Black. For two people having met only in a digital world, you have collaborated beautifully to produce a product that will be of interest to a wide audience—I trust that the audience will respond accordingly.

Please let me know when the article appears in a national gardening publication—I’ll rush out and buy at least ten copies for myself, family and friends.

29 05 2010
sunil

thanks for sharing this wonderful post

9 03 2011
landscape design tampa

Really feeling the designs you have going on here. Keep up the good work and thanks for all the info.

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