Why Landscape Design for Plant Collectors is So Haaaaaaaaard (and How to Make a Cohesive Collection)

One can break landscape design clients into general categories. There are the “I don’t care whatever you want” types; the ones who are excited about the project and invested in the result but only really care about what I think is important to their yard; and then there are the plant collectors. You might think that plant collectors would be the easiest client because they’re so excited and love what I love, right? Not necessarily, because plant collectors are collectors.

starwars collection
source: kotaku.com

Maybe those of you who are less geeky than I am don’t have friends like this, but I have friends who are hardcore collectors. One of my friends is into everything Disney. Another friend is into everything Star Wars. And one of my past clients collects movie props. The common thread among these friends is that being a collector means that they simply must have that new Disney figurine, or that Han Solo in carbonite that just showed up on eBay. Except for the uber-rich, these are still collections that fit in a reasonable amount of space. Not so with plant collectors!

"I know I signed the design contract a week ago but I got bored and found these. Can you work these in too?"
“I know I signed the design contract a week ago but I got bored and found these. Can you work these in too?”

Your classic plant collector cannot pass up a plant swap or garden center sale. Your classic plant collector will pop in their fav garden center every weekend, you know, “just in case anything new came in.” If the staff at the garden center calls you by name, you’re probably a plant collector. And these folks rarely leave empty-handed. Here’s where the trouble starts, because those plants aren’t going to do well sitting in their pots for weeks and weeks. They need to go in the ground NOW but it’s ok, it’s just temporary, the collector will move things around later. When they’re done buying plants for a bit.

Riiiiiiiight.

In many cases, the spouse or partner of the collector insists that they call me. Like a college girlfriend freaked out by all the anime posters in her beau’s dorm room, the partner knows this looks a little weird and needs some help. The collector begrudgingly reaches out to me for help because word on the street is that I get plant geeks, and I might just be one myself. We set the initial consultation, and when I show up it’s everything I feared. But there’s always cool stuff for me to work with.

MozartQuotezart

That may or may not be a real Mozart quote. I found it online so who knows. But the idea is sound. In cohesive design, everything can’t be the focal point. Rhythm and repetition can move the eye around but without unity it’s all still crazy. If you want to know why plant collectors can be challenging clients, here’s why plant collectors choose their botanical booty:

  • foliage color (collectors love yellows, reds, and blues)
  • leaf shape
  • riotous blooms in colors that would confuse even the most hardcore Deadhead
  • crazy conifers and weeping evergreens

Imagine a living room with no furniture but 843 throw pillows, each one a different color, some with fringe, some with tassels, some with bells, and even one or two dozen with strobe lights and speakers that play the Woohoo song. This is often what I walk into. Luckily, I’ve done enough of these that I have a plan.

1. Budget for a really detailed site analysis

As I lay out in my discussion of the landscape design process, I estimate how long the various portions of the process will take me and that is factored into the design fee. My assistant and I recently measured a plant collector’s garden and the two of us invested a total of 8 hours just to measure and inventory everything and then draw a landscape plan of existing conditions. But, to get it right we have to know what we have to work with.

2. Accept that it all has to go somewhere on the property

Maybe the collector client searched everywhere for that hakonechloa that looks like Celtic runes under a blacklight, or maybe the peonies came from his grampa’s farm that’s no longer in the family. Unless I’m explicitly told “I don’t care about that xxxxx, it can go” I assume that the client has a story, memory, or association for every plant he or she owns.

Paeonia-Mixed-Peonies

3. Make three categories and work from there

The three categories are trees, unifying shrubs, and everything else. I would say that in about half the cases, when I work with plant collectors there are no unifying shrubs. What are these? They’re typically evergreen shrubs like hollies, laurels, or boxwood. I often get pushback from collectors on these because they’re soooooooo boring, Dave. And yes, compared to those neon chartreuse heucherella, they are. That’s the point. A fuchsia chair gets lost against a pink and orange paisley wallpaper, but it leaps out in front of a gray wall. So I place my trees, I create massing with my unifying shrubs, and then I start grouping everything else.

4. Find a common thread for how to group everything else

This is different for every plant collection. If there are a bunch of weird dwarf conifers and sedums, we can do a rockery. If we have lots of colorful foliage we can throw in some dark green plants to set them off. If the collector is a bloom fanatic, let’s group to get something blooming for as much of the year as possible. There’s always a way to tie it all together.

5. Leave room for future plant purchases

The only time a plant collector stops adding to her collection is when she’s six feet underground. Go ahead, tell me you’re done with plant acquisitions. I know better. You’ll be at the farmer’s market and spot a little 2.5″ pot of lime basil and hey, I wonder what a lime basil mojito would be like? I should buy that, it’s only one plant, and… my, that’s a nice full rosemary plant! Yep. Again, I’m one of you. You can’t fool me. So I always leave room. I try to give guidelines for what should go in a given space (leaf color, bloom time, etc) but at the end of the day it’s not my garden.

Plants4Sale

To be clear, I’m not saying plant collectors aren’t fun clients. They’re generally a blast, and I love geeking out over oddball cultivars with passionate hardcore hort peeps. But it’s far from easy turning chaos into cohesion.

If you’re looking for a landscape design solution to your crazy plant collection and you’re in northern Virginia, DC, or Maryland, call me at 703-679-8550 to set up a consultation. We’ll gush over the plants you’ve acquired along the way and then I’ll help you showcase your collection.

 

 

Dave Marciniak is a landscape designer and speaker. He lives in Culpeper, Virginia and can be found via his website and on Twitter.

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