Since there is a finite amount of buildable land on the East End, existing properties, especially those prime properties within the villages and along the beaches, tend to change ownership pretty regularly. The houses are either torn down or renovated and the landscaping is modified or ripped out and replaced.Then there’s the rest of us. Maybe we’ll have a house or two in our lifetimes and we’re forever tweaking the landscape.
But once in a while, we build a new home or need to do a major landscape renovation and we need help. Not in the vegetable garden, not necessarily in the annual and perennial gardens, but with the entire landscape. There’s the grading, the placement of walkways and driveways, the drainage, the choosing and placement of major trees and shrubs. Who helps with this?
Well, there are lots of options. You can rely on your landscape architect, landscape contractor, landscape designer, or landscape artist.
There are some great people in each category and that makes the choice even more difficult. But there are also some very sound reasons for choosing one over the others, and some of those reasons are logical and legal.
One of the first consultations I can remember doing in Southampton was more than 35 years ago on a First Neck Lane property in the village. Like many similar properties, it had changed hands numerous times over the years (eight times since).
The owners were very unhappy with the landscape.
They hired a local landscape architect to design the plantings on the property. At the time he was doing a majority of the design work in town. He walked the walk, talked the talk and was well connected socially and politically. For many, he seemed to be a logical choice if you wanted to keep up with the Joneses and Smiths.
But within three short years, the property owners found that they had to transplant and replant nearly the entire landscape. Why? Well instead of working with the clients and giving them something that would grow in, they got one of the Hamptons infamous “instant landscapes.”
When the job was finished, as per the LA’s plan, it looked like it had been in place for years. The problem though was that the landscape architect never explained that in a few short years the trees, shrubs and perennial beds would be crowded, overgrown and in need of reworking yet again.
I’ve seen this happen over and over and over again out here. It seems to be something of a Hamptons phenom, where everyone finds it so critical to be the best, look the best and set the trend, or at least be part of it. Plants don’t work that way though. They are rarely static and for the most part are forever changing.
The right landscape design professional is aware of this. He or she works with this reality and should be able tell you if your choices are inappropriate or if you are throwing money away because you’ll have to redo everything in a few years because of lack of foresight, ingenuity and creativity.
So, if you are not the couple next door who needs to keep up with every new plant and every change taking place along the lane, how do you find a design professional who will work with you and understand your needs as well as the fact that this is your property for the long term, not just the next couple of years? Well, that is indeed an excellent question.
First, let’s talk about landscape architects. Like all professionals there are good ones, not so great ones and some that fall somewhere in the middle. And yes, there are indeed some really great ones.
For someone to be, and not just claim to be, a landscape architect in New York they have to have completed a fairly rigorous education curriculum and earned a degree. Then they have to pass a state licensing exam (that isn’t easy) and meet other requirements.
If they are not licensed but still claiming to be an LA, you should certainly ask why. If they blow you off with “I just didn’t take the exam” or “I really didn’t think I needed a license to do the kind of work I do,” your response should be skeptical at the very least.
As a result of being granted a state license in landscape architecture, this person also carries professional liability insurance and is permitted by law to perform certain functions in the designing of your landscape that a landscape contractor or garden designer can’t perform. Most important is that they can prepare and stamp plans that can include certain land and drainage functions that an unlicensed person cannot do. These plans are accepted for filing by most planning boards, zoning boards and in some situations other governmental agencies as well.
A landscape architect’s training and experience also gives him or her the background knowledge of plant materials and hardscape materials that result in appropriate materials being used in the many challenging situations that occur on our properties and in our gardens. But, I’ve found that some LAs are lacking in their knowledge of garden design and plant combinations. To make up for this, the better landscape architectural firms have garden designers on staff, who can provide planning and support in the areas where the LA’s talents need to be augmented.
If you’re considering hiring a landscape architect for the first time, check their credentials. Ask to see their portfolio and ask if they have won any awards or commendations or if their work has been written about. You can also ask to visit properties that they have done work on and ask for a personal viewing.
But not all land work and garden creation needs to be done by an LA. In many cases, you can find and use a very capable landscape designer.
Designers can be self-taught or can come through one of many garden design programs and schools, some of which provide certification. In my experience, the best garden designers have gained experience not only in the classroom but by getting their hands dirty, and they have traveled to see how design work is practiced and executed in other areas.
Many landscape designers have a wonderful sense for color harmonies. They understand the relationship between plant structures and how to blend plant materials—such as annuals, perennials, tender tropicals, vines, bushes and shrubs—into a coherent garden scheme that suits, and hopefully dazzles, you.
Many local landscape designers will not only plan but execute the plan. They design, plant and maintain gardens. They know local and out-of-town growers, and they have their secret sources. They read about gardens present and past and they travel to see how it’s done beyond this Island of Long.
Some, like my favorite designer, Hitch Lyman, have a background in horticulture and are artists in their own rights. Hitch is a remarkable repository of horticultural knowledge and is an artist as well. When he blends the two, his gardens are simply outrageous and lasting.
Beware, however, of the garden charlatan who claims to be a garden artist but in fact has done little other than dabble with plants and has no training, no experience and nothing to show other than an artistic sketch. Most of all, find someone to work with who you trust, who understands your needs and who can legally perform the work that you need to have done or documented. And of course, keep growing.