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What is it like to be a landscape designer?

November 25, 2015 Dave Marciniak 0 Comments

This week I did something terrifying and lived to tell about it: I spoke to several marauding groups of middle school kids. The fine folks at Marsteller Middle School in Bristow asked me to come be a part of their career day. It sounded like a fun time, so I said sure, I’d come. It was actually a lot of fun, and I met some bright kids who I really enjoyed talking with.


The way they set up the event was each professional was at his or her own table. Groups of kids moved from table to table that interested them at timed intervals for an event that was very similar to speed networking, if you’ve ever done that. The teachers gave them a list of interview questions, and many of the kids also asked their own questions. If you’re considering a career in landscape design, or if you’re my neighbor and you’re unsure just what I do all day, you may find the answers to these questions interesting.

How did you become interested in this kind of work?

Secret confession time: I never planned on being a landscape designer. At various points in my childhood I wanted to be a naturalist and a writer, but anything remotely related to yardwork – which I hated – wasn’t anywhere near being on my radar. I realized in college that I was actually pretty good at the artistic side of the business and I worked on that for a bit after college. In my late 20s I studied interior design for a couple of years but decided to apply those skills to the outdoors. I went full time as a landscape designer in 2004 and really haven’t looked back.

What three (3) characteristics should someone in your profession have?

Creativity – because without it, your projects are boring and uninspired.

You have to love working with people because this business is 100% about learning what people want, what they need, and how you can solve their problems and bring their dreams to them.

Flexibility/Resilience – my military friends love the phrase “no plan survives first contact”. When it’s the height of the season and you’re running in six different directions at once, your plan for your day is out the window by 9 am.

What do you do during a typical day?

Or as I’m sure my neighbors wonder: “What DO you do???”


What I do varies on what’s going on. If I have jobs in progress, a day might  involve loading plans and other materials in the Mighty Landscape Subaru and heading out to the site. There, I check in with the client, check in with the crew, and make sure that everything is going the way it should. I may also run around and meet with vendors, pick out materials, and meet with new clients.

If I’m in the office it’s not all about drawing and designing. There’s email – there’s ALWAYS email – plus writing blog posts,  invoicing, writing proposals, paying bills, returning phone calls, strategic planning, and all kinds of stuff. I don’t get bored.

What is acceptable dress?

On an office day? Fuzzy pajama pants, slippers, and a hoodie. If I have a Skype consult scheduled, I’ll throw on a dress shirt but know that I’m still wearing fleece pants with monkeys on them. If I’m out and about, I wear work clothes if I’m getting dirty, nice clothes if I’m not.

What special training, schooling, and/or experience is required?

As I told the kids, there are two ways to become a landscape designer:

Path 1: Go to college and major in a field like landscape design, landscape architecture, landscape construction, or horticulture. After college, work for a firm that will teach you a lot. Suck a lot at first and eventually get better.

Path 2: start at the bottom and learn everything you can. Move up the ladder but stay in the field and out of the office. Take night classes in design of any sort. If you don’t have design opportunities at work, freelance. Suck a lot at first and eventually get better.

I took Path 2. I’m happy with everything I learned along the way, but Path 1 probably means a lot less time moving large quantities of stone and coming home covered in mud and chicken manure.

What school subjects/activities were helpful for you?

In hindsight? Almost all of them except gym class. Eff Mr. Greco and his stupid class.

Math – I hated math. Still sort of do, but I use a lot of it. I seem to be finding for X a lot.
English – I do a lot of writing and speaking
Science – plants are biology. Concrete is chemistry. Decks and porches are physics.
History – we’re in Virginia. Historical styles and context actually play a sizable role.
Spanish – my Spanish is atrocious but it gets the job done. Mostly.

What previous jobs have you held?

I’ve held a LOT of jobs, especially in this field. Notable ones would be senior landscaper at the Salk Institute, 911 dispatcher in college, and my one night as a line cook that showed me that while being a skilled home cook is fun, my career doesn’t lie in the kitchen.

What are your hours of work? Are they flexible?

As I told the kids, the great thing is that you can control your income in large part based on how much and how hard you’re willing to work. Winter, you work standard eight hour days with plenty of flexibility. Come spring, though, 5 am to 10-11 pm isn’t unheard from home

Do you commute?

To get to my office, I walk out my bedroom door, turn right, walk 12 feet, and turn right. It’s pretty sweet. But there are pitfalls…

What opportunities are there for advancement in your field?

Unless you’re in a small town, the opportunities are vast and wide open. As long as you’re not afraid to work.

What do you like most about your job?

The people. I solve problems for a living, and I also surprise and delight clients. Nearly every design is met with “I never would have thought of that.” Also, the people in the landscape industry are wonderful and everyone has a fascinating story.

What do you like least about your job?

Mornings. It’s important to get up and out in the morning, especially with a crew, but I’d rather do the bulk of my work between 9 pm and 3 am.

If you could live your life over again, would you choose this line of work?

Way to hit me with a crazy deep and potentially depressing question, kids! In all seriousness, though…

I might have taken a different (smarter) path to get here, and my focus might be a little different, but for the most part – yeah, I’d do it again. I get to meet a lot of people, and I get to help a lot of homeowners get a result they never even knew was possible. I get to help landscape contractors sell more effectively and achieve successes they didn’t think were within their reach. I get to design unique projects, I get to choose which contractors I want to work with, and I get to bring my dog to work. It’s a pretty great gig.



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