Garden coaching

How to work with a garden designer for less money

We just wrapped up a phase one project with a homeowner and realized it was the perfect example of how to get the most of a garden designer for less money.

The homeowner has a large area in the back section of her backyard and wanted to turn it into a woodland wonderland. However, the client wanted to save money and cash flow by stretching out the project, as well as by doing some of the work herself.

Here is what it looked like on our first visit.

Easy. This is what we call a Garden Design/DIY/Coaching job (we just made that up).

Here is how we did it. First, we put the design down on paper. Here are those pieces.

The next step was to figure out what could the client do herself in order to save money. The design already called for four berms in order to transform the flat space into a more interesting landscape, so we ordered 10 yards of dirt and the homeowner wheelbarrowed it all to the back yard creating four big berms. That saved a good $1,500 in labor. The client also decided to do the final mulch, and to lay the top dressing down for the paths … saving another $1,000 or so.

After that decision, we looked at the available budget for the first phase and decided what would be the best bang for the buck. In consultation, we choose to look at what takes the longest to mature over the greatest amount of time and get started there, first. In other words, we put the bones of the garden in first.

The bones are those trees and shrubs that will perform the functions of screening, focal points and elevation. Because the budget didn’t call for bringing fully grown plants in by crane, we decided to go with shrubs in five gallon containers and trees in 10 gallon containers. All in all, the first order was roughly 100 plants in that category and these plants will grow to provide different heights, colors, textures, shapes and more.

Once we set aside the money for the bones, we saw we had enough to do another major project in the design. It made sense to install the 20-foot diameter bog garden. The client did not want to dig that out, and didn’t have the experience creating a sustainable wetland, so we installed it with 50 wonderful bog plants. Over a short amount of time they’ll grow (right now they are all the same heights, that will change), knit together, and be a unique conversation piece for visitors. Plus, it allows us to save money not having to irrigate that section as well.

Finally, we had enough money left to add in 50 more smaller plants to fill in some of the berms, plus start on a future seating area behind the bog. The homeowner also had twenty plants in other parts of her garden she wanted us to use, so we threaded those into phase one as well.


Here is where the relationship between client and garden designer gets fun. While we wait for phase two, we instructed the client to collect plants she likes and finds on sale, and every time she gets 15 or so, call us and we’ll come over to place them where they should go. Then, the client will dig them into the ground. Repeat. We do this for two reasons. One, we love to coach and help our clients do as much on their own and in the budget they can afford, but also, we want to maintain the integrity of the design and we are just pompous enough to believe we know best where each plant should go (lol).

And that is how we did phase one for $8,000, and how we empower the client to go forward. In Phase Two we will continue to build out the back of the space, bring in BIG boulders, plus likely either go forward with all of the hardscape, or if the client’s budget is still soft, we will focus on the middle section for planting combining our install team and the client’s own muscle.

Want to do something like this? Call Ken at 253-691-4495.

Garden design tips

Garden ideas for Tacoma and Olympia

We came back from the 2021 Portland Landscape Architecture + Design Tour with some great pictures to help you with some design choices in your own garden. We managed to see eight of the nine gardens on display (we had six hours to do it and some gardens were 30 minutes of more apart from each other). We were pretty excited to see as much as we did. Following are photos and notes of what we liked.

We not always a huge fan of modern design, because many folks make these gardens look more like a quilt or a grange’s county fair display. But this work by Fusion Landscape Design rooted their work to form a solid, strongly structured composition that had us standing across the street looking for the secrets that made this design work. We walked away convinced it was the repetition of miscanthas grass moving in perpendicular fashion and mirrored through the back gate, as well as the second tier of the front beds plus the steps down from the door forming the basic principals of the Golden Ratio, offset, by the front row of grass, closest to the street, split in a different geometry. The whole thing is a lovely movement rooted in classic shapes. We also loved how the designer took the age-old concrete steps that are a fixture of the neighborhood, which harkens back to the 1940’s, and repeated that style in the backyard, plus, whimsically, brought the line under the fence to the front. Here are three other photos from the garden …

Next …

This garden designed by Olivine Land showed us a couple things we found delightful. First, we loved the off-kilter facing half circle shapes formed in a rectangle side yard (try saying that ten times fast). This creates great movement and unpredictability plus runs counter to its location to the street that runs straight on both sides. Second, here is an awesome use of pampas grass in a layered bed … loved it!! Here are a couple other beds created by Land on this property …

And next …

How about a 60 foot putting green in your yard? The folks at GRO Outdoor Living put this bad boy on the third level of a retained backyard. Not only was that super cool, but check out the outdoor speakers.

Next …

Talk about an awesome focal point. Casa Smith Designs put this in a Lake Oswego home to provide a wonderful mid-break in the long view from the house and front patio down to the lake. Breaking up a long view to let the eyes rest for a moment is a key design concept. This fountain was perfectly set to the scale of the front yard and house which makes such a large one work (you can’t carry this off in a smaller space). The proportions of this focal point are spot on!!! Here is what we also like about this design. Check out the orange edging on the circle drive. The contrast to the other colors are stellar, but also complimentary to some of the orange colors in the other stone.

Moving on to the next house …

Bethany Rydmark :: Landscapes tackled a small backyard for homeowners looking to mix a Mediterranean feel with Scandinavian influences, calling it Puglia surrounded by coastal Denmark. The paths are a nod to Danish runes with sharp angles and natural stone (incredibly unique and well executed) while the plants are for a drier climate packed with grasses and sun loving perennials and shrubs (and a few ferns in the shady spots). It’s a lovely balance. Here is more …

Also from Rydmark …

This Beverton home is a combo of formal and informal that is solidly rooted in the space offering a balanced left and right but not a 100% mirror on both sides … which is what makes it so well designed. There is just enough formal structure to make us feel safe and comfortable in the space, but entertained by the whimsy at the same time. We are also huge fans of sitting spaces further inside a garden to move the homeowner into the entire space and not just an observer from inside or the main deck. The garden also features a nice cutting garden with fountain …

And now for something a little different …

This is not a garden installation by a designer … it is a designers garden that has been curated for 18 years. Which is so cool it was included on the tour because for many of us designers, we cut our teeth in our own spaces where we’ve had the benefit of years to work the space. This garden in Clackamas by 4 Seasons Gardens is a delightful peak into an Asian-themed space that has been tinkered with by a professional for decades. The layers, hardscapes, dry creek bed, art and more bring all of the key elements of design into a classroom. This is a study in texture, color, shape, scale, and so much more. A treasure!!

The homeowner in this north Portland home says they wanted a drought-resistant garden with a beach theme, and the designers at LEVER Architecture accomplished that in spades. Working around the sides and back of the house are vignettes of beachy grasses with dark railings and burndt orange screens. The effect is marvelous. On the shady side the grass gets more lush, as seen here …

Garden design tips

We added an ideabook on Houzz

See our post on layered gardens … here

Garden Travel

Gnome Walk in Maple Valley

Want to do this in your garden? This half-mile walk in Maple Valley features hundreds of gnomes of all shapes and sizes. The kids will love it. You may even want to include it in your garden!! Click here for the address.

Garden design tips

3-D mock ups

One of the great things about designing gardens is showing clients what there gardens can become using 3-D pictures and drawings. This really helps a homeowner imagine the options. We use Vectorworks for our CAD system but also add other elements via Canva to build out a bigger picture. Below are some examples of these.

Garden Travel

Flowers of Europe

Despite this being the second summer with Covid, Europe still beckons. And what better way to go maskless than to be outside amongst the flowers. These are cities along the Rhine, and they are bursting with city flowers. Enjoy!

Layered Gardens

A layered garden

Here are some before and after photos of a project in Steilacoom. The client wanted a fully layered garden which was super fun to create.

Books, Podcasts and More

Garden Devotionals

Want to get closer to God in your garden? Check out my new podcast of favorite garden devotionals. Go HERE

Garden design tips Garden Health

Benefits of an informal garden

The number of anecdotal studies pointing to natural, green space as not only calming, but physically healing, is abundant in scientific, religious and metaphysical papers, articles, books, videos and even Ted Talks over the past 30 years (though discussed for millennia). 

In more recent years, scientists have studied brain waves in controlled research to support those claims.  Less, however, has been studied on what “types” of gardens are more restorative to our mind and body … until recently.  In 2016, a group of researchers provided evidence to what many designers already guessed – informal gardens, those mimicking the “natural world,” are more restorative than formal spaces.

“Conceptually, gardens are often considered to be restorative spaces and to contain an abundance of natural elements, though there is great variability in how gardens are designed that might impact their restorative potential” stated authors in a study titled Designed Natural Spaces: Informal Gardens Are Perceived to Be More Restorative than Formal Gardens, by Twedt, Rainey, Proffitt, in Frontiers in Psychology, 2016. “Participants perceived informal gardens to have greater restorative potential than formal gardens. In addition, gardens that were more visually appealing and more natural-looking were perceived to have greater restorative potential than less visually appealing and less natural gardens.”

You can take these words to heart in your garden designs in the following ways.

1. Keep paths wavy and adjacent to free-flowing, less manicured plants.

2. Look for ways to have a “local” feel with trees and native flowers you see in natural areas close to your home.

3. Keep your outside less paved over with sitting places surrounded by nature.

4. Choose plants that attract wildlife.

5. Avoid the tendency to make everything centered. Align the design in terms of the Golden Ratio and Fibonacci sequence. Google these terms and learn more about them.

6. Don’t deadhead and cut everything to the ground the minute they look dead or ragged. Give nature her due – allow the beauty of seed heads and more to add to the complexity of the garden space, especially over the winter.

You will be amazed at what an informal garden can do for you and your guests. As the study suggests …

“These … green spaces (are) intended to provide relief from stress and to foster cognitive restoration.” (Twedt, Rainey, Proffitt)

Garden design tips

Great Bluestone for aggregate side by side … go “off color”

Most people would call aggregate patios grey. But take a closer look. Most likely there is a ton of brown and blue rock in there too – not to mention yellow, white and more. So when wanting to design with a complimentary rock, I love the Pennsylvania Bluestone “off color.” This is perfect for steps leading off an aggregate patio, for example.

The off color Bluestone has a more natural look – and it really picks up what else is happening in and around the aggregate patio. With all of the browns in the dirt, stems and more, I like a little brown in my Bluestone.

Some people also choose the off color for their patio. Take a look here for an example. I’d go for this look any time you want a little informality in the garden, as well as garden designs that are wooded.

Pennsylvania Bluestone is a popular hardscape for gardeners – especially the all blue rock. Pure Bluestone is popular for both formal and modern gardens.