AHS Great American Gardeners Awards 2010

17 06 2010

Last Thursday evening, I photographed the American Horticultural Society’s (AHS) 2010 Great American Gardeners Awards Dinner, hosted by AHS at their River Farm headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. The award descriptions and recipient bios are reprinted with permission from AHS.

H. MARC CATHEY AWARD
Recognizes outstanding scientific research that has enriched the field of horticulture. After earning a doctorate in genetics from Michigan State University in 1981, Robert J. Griesbach joined the Floral and Nursery Plants Research Unit within the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS). For more than 25 years, Griesbach conducted broad based research in the genetics of floral plants, aided in the creation of new types of floral crops, participated in the development of new genetic engineering technologies, and facilitated the determination of the genetic basis of flower and foliage colors. Currently Griesbach works in the USDA’s Office of Technology Transfer in Beltsville, Maryland, where he coordinates programs to facilitate the transfer of significant USDA-ARS research to the private sector for development and commercialization. Over the course of his career Griesbach has published more than 100 articles in scientific journals and 28 in other publications. In addition, he has presented more than 280 scientific seminars and nearly 200 lectures to popular audiences. He served as the chair of the American Orchid Society’s Research Committee for more than 10 years and is a past president of the organization. In 2006, Griesbach was named a Fellow by the American Society for Horticultural Science.

LANDSCAPE DESIGN AWARD
Given to an individual whose work has demonstrated and promoted the value of sound horticultural practices in the field of landscape architecture. A landscape architect based in Bar Harbor, Maine, Bruce John Riddell, is principal of his one-person firm, LandArt. Riddell received his undergraduate degree from the University of Maine and masters of landscape architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in 1986. While doing his graduate work, Bruce studied under the tutelage of notable practitioners such as Ian McHarg, Sir Peter Shepheard, the firm Andropogon Associates, and A.E. Bye. After graduation Riddell worked with James van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme in Washington D.C. While at Oehme-Van Sweden he participated on high profile public projects—including the Smithsonian National Zoo and U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, and Battery Park in New York City—and on residential gardens for well-known clients such as Oprah Winfrey. Riddell’s primary focus is on the design and construction of intimate residential gardens, but has designed three public gardens in Maine—Southwest Harbor Veteran’s Park, Charlotte Rhoades Park, and the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens—all of which have won awards for design excellence. Riddell’s gardens typically combine native and naturalized plantings with site-specific elements such as gates, lights, fountains and stonework. In addition to his design work, Riddell is on the advisory board of the Beatrix Farrand Society and is ambassador-at-large for the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay. Do check out his website—his garden designs (and photography skills) are stunning!

PROFESSIONAL AWARD
Given to a public garden administrator whose achievements during the course of his or her career have cultivated widespread interest in horticulture. Eric Tschanz has been president and executive director of Powell Gardens in Kingsville, Missouri since 1988. During that time he has implemented the first three phases of the Gardens’ master plan. He just completed a more than $9 million development campaign and oversaw the construction of the new Heartland Harvest Garden—the largest edible landscape in the country. Tschanz’s horticultural career began with a summer job at Cox Arboretum in Dayton, Ohio. Captivated by the field of public horticulture, he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in horticulture at the Ohio State University and then completed a master’s degree in Botanic Garden Management through the University of Delaware’s Longwood Graduate Program. After completing his degree, he returned to Cox Arboretum as horticultural superintendent. In 1982 he became the first director of the San Antonio Botanical Gardens. Since 1985, Eric has been an active member of American Public Gardens Association (APGA), serving on numerous professional committees and as a board member. In 1997 he became a member of the group’s executive committee, serving as vice president and then president. He spearheaded the development of the APGA’s Year 2000 strategic plan.

JANE L. TAYLOR AWARD
Given to an individual, organization, or program that has inspired and nurtured future horticulturists through efforts in children’s and youth gardening. Growin’ Gardeners is a hands-on, interactive program that inspires and nurtures young horticulturists and their families. The program is the centerpiece of the Dow Gardens Children’s Garden in Midland, Michigan. Through the program, families are assigned a four-by-four-foot plot in a raised bed around the Children’s Garden. Families have the opportunity to choose the vegetables and herbs they wish to grow. Through weekly lessons and a workbook, they learn the basics of plant growth, weed and insect control and the use of gardening tools. Children, parents, and grandparents work together to nurture and tend their garden from planting through harvest. Growin’ Gardeners, which began in 2003 with 10 garden plots and 34 participants, has grown under the leadership of Horticulturist Melissa Butkiewicz to include 84 garden plots and 270 participants.

LIBERTY HYDE BAILEY AWARD
Given to an individual who has made significant lifetime contributions to at least three of the following horticultural fields: teaching, research, communications, plant exploration, administration, art, business, and leadership. This year’s recipient of the AHS’s most prestigious award is Steven M. Still, a professor emeritus of horticulture at the Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus and an internationally recognized expert and leader in the field of herbaceous perennial plants. Still began his teaching career while doing graduate work at the University of Illinois. After graduating in 1974 with a doctorate in horticulture, Still taught horticulture at Kansas State University in Manhattan for five years before moving to OSU, where he taught and mentored thousands of horticulture students from 1979 to 2005. In addition to his teaching duties he conducted horticultural research and served as first director of OSU’s Chadwick Arboretum and Learning Garden. Still’s acclaimed book, Manual of Herbaceous Ornamental Plants, was first published in 1980. Now in its fourth edition, it is a standard textbook for horticulture students. In addition, he has written numerous articles for horticultural publications and amassed an extensive archive of plant photographs, many of which have been published in books, magazines, catalogs, and on plant tags. For the last 27 years, Still has been the executive director of the Perennial Plant Association, a 1,400-member international organization for horticulturists, plant growers, researchers, and gardeners interested in propagating, growing, and promoting use of perennial plants. One of five founding members of the PPA, Still edits the organization’s quarterly journal and coordinates its annual symposium and trade show. He has also served in top leadership positions with many other national and regional organizations, including the Ohio Nursery & Landscape Association, the Garden Writers Association, and the American Horticultural Society. Still has received numerous awards, including the L.C. Chadwick Teaching Award from the American Nursery & Landscape Association in 2004 and the Garden Club of America’s Medal of Honor in 2008. In 2007, the Steven M. Still Garden in the Chadwick Arboretum was dedicated in Still’s honor.

MERITORIOUS SERVICE AWARD
Recognizes a past Board member or friend of the American Horticultural Society for outstanding service in support of the Society’s goals, mission, and activities. A retired registered nurse and longtime resident of Alexandria, Virginia, Betty Smalley has been a dedicated and very active volunteer at River Farm, the national headquarters of the American Horticultural Society, for more than 20 years. In addition to helping with outdoor activities such as weeding, planting bulbs and annuals, and deadheading, Smalley has been an important participant in the AHS Annual Seed Exchange program, filling seed packets and putting together orders from members in the winter months. She also regularly volunteers at the annual plant sale and other events and programs held at River Farm and has been a friend and mentor to countless other volunteers over the years. Always modest, Smalley says that in her years of volunteering, “I have received much more than I have given.”

B.Y. MORRISON COMMUNICATIONS AWARD
Recognizes effective and inspirational communication—through print, radio, television, and/or online media—that advances public interest and participation in horticulture. A well known author and photographer and a recognized authority on North American native plants, William Cullina is currently the director of horticulture and plant curator at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Maine. Cullina lectures on a variety of subjects to garden and professional groups and has contributed numerous articles and photographs to popular magazines and technical journals. He has been a guest on a number of garden television and radio shows, including Martha Stewart Living and the Victory Garden. He has written and contributed photographs to five highly regarded books published by Houghton Mifflin: Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada (2000), Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines (2002), Understanding Orchids (2004), Native Ferns, Moss, & Grasses (2008), and most recently, Understanding Perennials: A New Look at an Old Favorite (2009). Three of his books have received annual book awards from the American Horticultural Society. Other awards Cullina has received include the Walter F. Winkler Award for Distinguished Plantsmanship from the North American Rock Garden Society in 2005 and the Silver Medal from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 2002. Prior to moving to CMBG, Cullina worked as nursery director and head propagator at the New England Wild Flower Society in Framingham, Massachusetts, from 1995 to 2006.

FRANCES JONES POETKER AWARD
Recognizes significant contributions to floral design in publications, on the platform, and to the public. Jane Godshalk is a member of the faculty of Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, where she teaches floral design. She also lectures and teaches across the country, sharing her knowledge of horticulture and floral design with a focus on nature as inspiration and flower arranging as an art. Godshalk is an artistic judge for the Garden Club of America (GCA) and her floral designs have been featured in books and magazines, including a column on “Eco-Friendly Floral Design” for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Green Scene magazine. Among her numerous awards is the GCA Bonnlyn Martin Medal for “consistently innovative floral design.” She is active in the American Institute of Floral Designers and the World Association of Flower Arrangers, and has served on the boards of the GCA and the Philadelphia International Flower Show.

CATHERINE H. SWEENEY AWARD
Recognizes extraordinary and dedicated philanthropic support of the field of horticulture. In 2006, brothers William, Daniel, and Albert Nicholas made a lead gift of $2,150,000 to the Rockford Park District in Illinois for a centerpiece project to celebrate the District’s 100th anniversary in 2009. The gift is being used to create the Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens in Sinnissippi Park. Sinnissippi Park was the first land purchased by the District in 1909. The conservatory, which will become the third largest in Illinois when it is completed in spring 2011, will be a showcase for the community and a source of inspiration and education for generations to come. Like many children growing up in Rockford in the 1940s and 1950s, the brothers spent much of their time enjoying the outdoors near the site of the future conservatory. The brothers elected to support the district as a way to honor their parents, William and Ruby Nicholas, while at the same time enhancing the riverfront property located along the shores of the Rock River. The donation underscores their commitment to make Rockford a great place to live, work, and play, and ties in with their ongoing efforts to champion the benefits of plants and quality of life issues.

TEACHING AWARD
Given to an individual whose ability to share his or her horticultural knowledge with others has contributed to a better public understanding of the plant world and its important influence on society. Robert Herman’s career spans more than three decades and two continents, with extensive experience in both horticulture and education. Currently he is an instructor and acting coordinator of the horticulture program at Naugatuck Valley Community College (NVCC) in Waterbury, Connecticut, where he involves students in campus and community projects. Prior to NVCC, Herman worked at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, where he started the Master Gardener Program, trained and mentored volunteers, coordinated the adult education program, and was responsible for all interpretive signage. He has also taught for the University of Massachusetts and at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Earlier in his career, while working at a perennial plant nursery in Germany, Herman trained German apprentice horticulturists and created an internship program for Americans. He also worked as director of horticulture at White Flower Farm, where he started an internship to introduce young Europeans to American horticulture. In 2009, Herman received a national award for Teaching Excellence from the University of Texas.

URBAN BEAUTIFICATION AWARD
Given to an individual, institution, or company for significant contributions to urban horticulture and the beautification of American cities. An all-volunteer community organization formed in 2004 in Roslindale, a neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, Roslindale Green & Clean (RG&C) was developed by a group of residents whose goal was to create green, visible, attractive, and pleasant oases within the town’s busy urban center. With the help of the City of Boston and other neighborhood groups, six projects have been completed and more are planned as the organization grows. A small but dedicated group of volunteers maintains the sites throughout the growing season. Through special events like the Green Garden Exchange—an educational program that offers participants practical information on plant selection and gardening techniques they can apply in their own gardens—and a planned 2010 Roslindale Garden Tour, RG&C continues to raise community interest and participation in enhancing Roslindale’s public spaces. Above: Maggie Redfern and Diane Carter Duggan

2010 AHS BOOK AWARD WINNERS
Four gardening books published in 2009 have been awarded the American Horticultural Society’s annual Book Award. An additional book received the AHS Citation of Merit.

The winning books, listed below, were selected by the 2010 Book Award Committee chaired by Marty Ross, a regional contributor for Better Homes & Gardens and writer for Universal Press Syndicate who lives in Kansas City, Missouri, and in Hayes, Virginia. Other committee members were Scott Calhoun, a garden designer and author based in Tucson, Arizona; Jane Glasby, associate librarian for the Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture in San Francisco, California; Doug Green, a garden writer and online media entrepreneur based in Stella, Ontario; Doreen Howard of Roscoe, Illinois, a former garden editor for Woman’s Day who writes for various garden publications; Irene Virag, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer for Newsday who lives in Fort Salonga, New York; and William Welch, a professor and Extension specialist at Texas A&M University and author of several garden books. The awards are based on qualities such as writing style, authority, accuracy, graphic design, and physical quality.

The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf—Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York
“With a well-written and compelling narrative, Andrea Wulf sheds light on a band of 18th century plant-lovers—English and American—who changed the world of gardening,” says Irene Virag. “This book is an important contribution to our horticultural heritage,” notes William Welch. “Lest you fear the book is set in staid drawing rooms filled with rattling tea cups and powdered wigs, the text is peppered with tales of English playboys on high seas plant adventures, Tahitian orgies, and glimpses into Benjamin Franklin’s passion for horticulture,” says Scott Calhoun.

Parks, Plants, and People by Lynden B. Miller—W. W. Norton & Company, New York, New York
“In an age where public and common spaces are threatened by underfunding and privatization, Lynden Miller makes a clear case for their continued importance in our lives,” says Jane Glasby. “Though this intriguing narrative about the demise and restoration of some of America’s best-known urban parks and gardens is New York-centered, the general principles apply anywhere,” says Scott Calhoun. “The author offers a lot of great design and planting observations that worked in these public projects, but also would be beautiful in home gardens,” says Marty Ross. Above: Lynden Miller, right

The Explorer’s Garden by Daniel J. Hinkley—Timber Press, Portland, Oregon
“This book is a wonderful education in the form of a book,” says Marty Ross. “It offers an opportunity to learn about rare and interesting plants, see them beautifully photographed, and read the fascinating stories about collecting them,” says William Welch. “I particularly liked the propagation and hardiness comments Hinkley provided with each plant, and I wound up with a way-too-large must-grow list after reading it,” says Doug Green.

Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart—Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
“I love Stewart’s criteria for inclusion of a plant in this book…..a body count! The histories of various “perps” are entertaining, educational, and spell-binding,” notes Doreen Howard. “The book contains stories well told, and I love the illustrations, which are appropriately macabre,” says Jane Glasby. “Stewart has uncovered a treasure trove of great plant stories, and relates them with a sense of humor,” says Irene Virag.

Citation of Special Merit
The AHS Book Award is given to publishers for a single book published in a specific year. However, this year a Citation of Special Merit is being awarded in recognition of a regularly revised reference that has made significant contributions to horticultural literature over time.

Manual of Woody Landscape Plants by Michael Dirr—Stipes Publishing L. L. C., Champaign, Illinois
First published in 1975, this volume has become an essential reference for horticulture students, professionals, and home gardeners. The most recent 6th edition (2009) covers more than 2,000 taxa of trees and shrubs. “Dirr’s updated edition, the culmination of a life’s work of observations and experience, is a delight,” says Marty Ross. “His book is a friendly, opinionated masterwork, and a reference I couldn’t do without.”

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In bloom at Green Spring Gardens

12 06 2010

Ah, yes, this is the life—lost myself for a few hours this afternoon at my favorite garden—and I still didn’t cover everything that was blooming. Kudos to the staff and the volunteers who make this place such a treasure (and an escape for this photographer, too!).

© Cindy Dyer. All rights reserved.






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