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The Coastal Gardener: Landscape design comes with many details

I saw the small group in the distance. There were three of them; one was clearly a designer of some sort, while the other two were homeowners, listening attentively.

In our business, we see this scene every day. A landscape designer, often with a rolled-up blueprint under one arm, walking from plant to plant, motioning with their arms and talking with their clients.

We usually leave them pretty much to themselves, other than perhaps to help them find a plant or two that they wish to see. The clients already have a knowledgeable person guiding them in their needs, there's not much more that we can offer.

Nonetheless, wanting to be helpful, I stopped by to say hello and make sure that everything was going well with the trio.

I knew there were problems from the start, after I overheard the first sentence from the designer, "Let's find a short plant with grey leaves to put in front of these."

"Is everyone doing OK here?" I asked.

The designer was warm, charming and articulate. She had a friendly personality and I could see why these homeowners were attracted to her.

In the aisle, the designer had created a miniature landscape of sorts, plants pulled together from throughout the nursery. At a glance, it was a pleasing collection, with nice contrasts and varying textures; any untutored homeowner would be pleased.

To my gesture for assistance, the designer replied, "We need something to go in front of these."

Then, with the sentence scarcely complete she pointed and asked, "What about these?"

She left us for a moment, then returned with a few small plants known as licorice plants, or botanically as Helichrysum. She arranged them in front of several heartleaf bergenia and declared the design complete.

She thanked me and I responded, "Good luck with your new garden."

Sadly, these two naive homeowners will need more than luck.

I later discovered that the designer guiding all of the decisions was a successful and well-respected interior designer who had also agreed to design their garden space.

In a recent national magazine article I read, "There is not much difference between interior designing and landscape designing, except that interior designing deals with your interior or your indoors; while landscaping deals with designing your exterior or your outdoors. More often than not, landscape designing is confused with interior designing. It's because there is only a minor difference between the two."

How tragic the results if anyone were to follow this misguided and erroneous statement. A garden designed by someone trained only on interior elements might not be sustainable.

Interior designs and landscape designs both create solutions to achieve a better living environment for the occupants. Solutions in both spaces should be functional, enhance the quality of life and culture of the occupants, and of course be aesthetically attractive.

But, unlike interiors, which are for the most part static, plants are anything but.

Plants grow, plants change their appearance seasonally. Plants are particular about being in the sun or the shade and different plants need different soils, different watering regimens, different fertilizers. Plants may be prone to an insect or disease and may need special pruning or training to achieve a desired appearance. Interior design and garden design are distinct skills.

Here, in a nursery aisle was a designer making plant suggestions for a garden; a garden that grows, that changes, that has weather and seasons and climate. Here was a garden being designed as if the plants were pillows on a couch, with no concern and no knowledge of the organisms. A game of musical chairs, with living plants as the participants.

Little did this designer or her inexperienced clients know that in one year the tiny licorice plant before them would grow to be 2-feet high and 4-feet wide and swallow the smaller bergenia. The licorice plants would yearn for sunshine while the bergenia would withdraw to the shade.

Licorice plants are low water, bergenia are high water. But there were two dozen other plants laid out in the miniature aisle garden, unknowing participants in a future tangle and death scene of near hideous dimensions.

Designing a garden is far more than choosing colors and arranging forms. It is about growing, living and dying. It is about continual change and about an appreciation and respect for nature and all its demands.

If you want some design advice for your garden, consult a landscape designer.

RON VANDERHOFF is the nursery manager at Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar.

Ask Ron

When should I prune my camellia? It is getting too large for the space it is in?

Mary, Huntington Beach

Great question. Prune Camellias in the two or three months immediately after they finish blooming. For most camellias that is about now. Pruning any later in the season may interfere with the development of next year's flowers.

ASK RON your toughest gardening questions, and the expert nursery staff at Roger's Gardens will come up with an answer. Please include your name, phone number and city, and limit queries to 30 words or fewer. E-mail stumpthegardener@rogersgardens.com, or write to Plant Talk at Roger's Gardens, 2301 San Joaquin Hills Road, Corona del Mar, CA 92625.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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