You decide you want to hire a garden designer and then the stress hits: How does one do such a thing? What about budget? And what happens when something goes wrong? Relax! We got this!

Terraced Garden
Photo by Suzanne Strong courtesy of Viola Gardens

Ah, garden dreams. We all have them. You drive by someone’s front yard and gasp at how original, yet welcoming it is. Or you go to a friend’s garden party and get positively green with envy over their, well, greenery and the overall flow of the space. To achieve such greatness, you decide you need to hire a landscape designer. And then you realize you have no idea what to do next. 

Believe me, I feel you. When I decided to let the water-guzzling lawn in front of my new house die, I knew I’d need an expert to replace it with something fresh. After all, the garden hadn’t been re-thought since sometime around 1950—the endless line of red roses and weird walkway were dead giveaways. And while I love vegetable gardening and can design a raised bed, my site, frankly, was way beyond my skills. 

Enter Jessica Viola of Viola Gardens, in Los Angeles, California. I’d stalked her Instagram and visited her website, so I knew she was as passionate as I was about native and low-water plants, both of which are essential due to climate change. I also interviewed her once and found her as thoughtful as she was talented. So, I emailed her to ask if she would come take a look at my front yard, and she said yes. We threw around some ideas and I hired her just like that. I ended up with an incredible garden that, even before it’s fully grown in, is already one-of-a-kind and just right

But here’s the truth: This is not the way to find a garden designer, and I think it only worked out because I look at gardens and talk to designers all the time in order to do my job. 

So, don’t do what I did. Instead, read this article. Viola spills the tea on how to find the perfect firm, why communication is key, and why an unexpected problem can lead to an amazing idea. 

A playhouse is a good example of a wish-list item that should be discussed.

Photo by Alexander Tarrant courtesy of Viola Gardens

Jessica, what is the first thing a person should know when hiring a landscape designer? 

The decision to engage with a designer must be based on an affinity for their work, aesthetic, approach, philosophy, and personality. It’s a relationship—one that is sometimes long-term since developing landscape plans is a creative process that involves give and take from all. Everyone needs to get along well, communicate clearly, respect each other, and share in the vision for the project.

I typically take time to let people know my background and story so we are aligned from the get-go. That way they know what my strengths and areas of expertise are, what I can confidently deliver, the size of my team, and our process. 

[Prospective clients and designers should also talk about] rates and design fees and the anticipated timeline for design or builds given the scope of work discussed. We also discuss our system for building designs that are ecologically relevant, artistically curated, and financially viable. 

Garden with Terraced Steps

Photo by Suzanne Strong courtesy of Viola Gardens

And how do most people find a landscape designer? 

For many years we operated almost exclusively on referrals. Recently, in addition to referrals, people are finding me on Instagram or in articles about the work I’ve done. 

Okay so, say someone sees your Insta and looked at your website; is there any homework they should do before they reach out? 

It’s very helpful when potential clients have a description of their overall vision for the garden, take the initiative and send photos, have a clear idea of what they are hoping to achieve in terms of scope of work, have a budget in mind, and an ideal timeline. 

How detailed should their thoughts be? 

Details on specific aesthetics or design choices are less important in this initial phase. Instead, it’s good to know and communicate the broad strokes and to be open about resources and needs. Then we can work together to align choices, aesthetics, and decisions. 

Regenerative Plants
Favorite plants, colors, and textures should also be talked about.

Photo by Suzanne Strong courtesy of Viola Gardens

Let’s say you and the client have decided to work together and have agreed on a potential budget. What happens next? 

Once we have had the opportunity to meet onsite and delve into details in our first design meeting, we typically take all of those notes to generate the initial schematic design. At this stage, a client might come across a plant they love, or feel inspired to share ideas on even a texture, color, mood, or feeling—all of that is welcome. 

At the same time, there’s a level of trust that needs to be engaged at this stage. The client must trust that they have been heard and that their designer will implement their ideas and present options to them that reflect the creative process and communication so far. 

And what if the client’s wish list and the budget aren’t in sync? I know this was tough for me because you had so many great ideas for my space, from putting in fruit trees to adding a firepit, while I already wanted low-water plants along with natives for pollinators, a staircase railing, and a water feature

We typically generate budgets based on schematic design and use this tool as a metric to gauge revisions. As we move through design and budgeting, it’s important to maintain an open line of communication so we can work together to identify priorities and actualize best options for material selections, finalize revisions, and align the budget with the vision. 

Lush Garden

Photo by Suzanne Strong courtesy of Viola Gardens

I loved how you came up with creative ideas in terms of materials so I could do it all in the end. Can you tell me what other sorts of things a designer wants to know about their client, and how this can lead to the perfect garden space? 

[I love it when] clients are willing to share what colors they like, what inspires them when they consider their landscapes, and how they want to feel in their space. I want to know what they like to do with their time, how they dream of engaging in the garden, how they spend time as a family, if they like to entertain, and if they have key hobbies that we can create space for, from painting or yoga to cooking or growing vegetables. Maybe they want cut flowers, or multiple places to gather in small groups. Also, I like to know if there are animals or babies in the home, and whether they work from home or are not home often. All this helps me map out who they are and how they experience life in the garden in a personal way. 

Stucco Wall
The creative process should be enjoyable for all.

Photo by Suzanne Strong courtesy of Viola Gardens

Now let’s say something unexpected happens during install and the client doesn’t feel the design is quite there yet. How should they handle a situation like that? Also, it’s important for people to speak to the designer and their co-workers with respect, right? 

It goes without saying on all levels—client to designer, designer to client, and with all workers on a project—that mutual respect and clear communication is imperative. We ask clients to communicate directly with our project management team versus to the workers on site so we can maintain streamlined direction. Of course, the people building our gardens are bringing something personal of themselves to the construction of the garden and keeping all communication respectful and kind, on all levels, is a culture and belief that I try to cultivate on all of our builds. 

That said, the work needs to be impeccable and if a client notices something that isn’t aligned or working, trusting in the relationship they share with their designer, expressing their concern, and working through to the solution together is healthy and leads to creative opportunities that may have not been evident prior. 

Deanna's Wooden Fence

Deanna Kizis

This is what happened with my staircase railing! It was stressful to tell you after it was built that I didn’t think it was quite there, but I forced myself to do it. This led to an amazing inspiration of yours to add a wood pattern that made the railing much more custom and inspired than I ever thought it could be. 

In your case, when you emailed me about the rail and I was able to get there in the morning to assess so we could address it right away, it was super clear what you were seeing! I was completely on the same page.  

The way you communicated was respectful, acknowledging the issue and trusting us to come up with a solution that would work. In this way, because you were calm, I was able to talk to my crew and find out why they made the choices they did. When we talked through the problem as a team, [we] identified and leaned into solutions, and they were implemented with clarity. It turned out to be a wonderful accent in the garden. The problem is the solution and often the most innovative ideas are only discovered by leaning in. 

Finally—and importantly—what can you say about paying a living wage for the people who install, build, and maintain our gardens? 

Excellent topic. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to advocate for basic equalities when it comes to labor and landscape construction.  

As a collective, we believe in fair and living wages for our workers. We hire skilled, hard-working craftspeople who are multi-talented, highly experienced, and who extend their energy, labor, and creativity to bring the designs to life. Respect for the human beings who are working hard to construct projects, sometimes in challenging weather conditions, is essential. 

As such, we pay our co-workers and crew fairly and believe that equanimity in construction is important and essential. When people come to us looking for ‘cheap’ labor, we walk away. The basis of permaculture is caring for people and for the Earth. Advocating for regenerative, healthy landscapes and wanting them to be built with the skill of seasoned craftspeople, but not wanting to pay the people doing the work a living wage, is a subject that needs to be talked about and improved. 

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