“There’s definitely a misconception that what looks like a welcoming outdoor space, with loose, relaxed planting, hasn’t required a lot of thought,” observes New York-based landscape designer Grace Fuller Marroquin. “But creating beautiful plant communities and compositions, which give context to the architecture, takes more planning than you might imagine.”
Fuller Marroquin established her East Coast garden design practice five years ago and she’s not afraid to be honest if she feels clients are not on board with her aesthetic, or don’t fully appreciate the design process.
“Sometimes one tree in a particular location can bring a totally different scale and perspective to a space. But there’s a lot of research and planning behind the decision to plant that single tree,” she says.
“As garden designers and landscape architects, we have to wait three to five years, at a minimum, to see our work come to fruition, and I often remind my clients that creating a garden together is like any good romantic relationship: it requires a certain amount of patience.”
Beautiful outdoor spaces that sustain flora and fauna, support human well-being, and enhance the natural environment have never been more important. And bringing professional garden designers on board is crucial to achieving optimum results—particularly as the emphasis shifts away from paths, walls, and paving to more naturalistic planting effects.
“We all have this human idea that we have to conquer everything; that we have to manipulate it, and hedge it, and make it perfect,” says Fuller Marroquin.
“Instead, I try to ease my clients into a different way of thinking. Sure, we’re planting gardens here, so none of this placement is natural. But we can try to mimic the experience of nature, plant native species, and enable our gardens to stand the test of time.”
Turning Over a New Leaf
Like any creative process, you should love your landscape architect’s previous work. But be open-minded, too: an urban aesthetic can be adapted to the country, and vice versa.
In Europe, Stefano Marinaz has applied his ‘planting-first’ ethos to a number of contradictory spaces—from a timber barn in a rural setting to a rooftop space in a repurposed city center gasholder.
“The gardens we design celebrate the beauty of plants and highlight the importance of ecology and biodiversity,” says Marinaz.
“We create peaceful, harmonious, and uncluttered gardens by selecting only a few hard-landscaping materials and combining them with a restricted palette of unusual but reliable plants. We always include some surprises in our planting plans.”
Landscape architects and garden designers bring new perspectives and explore unexpected ideas, but the brief always begins with you.
“How do you want to live? What does your dream outdoor experience look like? How do you host? These are all questions I ask,” says Fuller Marroquin. “Gardens require informed decision-making because, unlike interior design, we don’t install a project and walk away. Dialogue is important because it’s a long-term investment.”
Marinaz likes to get under the skin of his clients, looking at the style of the house inside and out, understanding who will use the outdoor space, and even asking about favorite vacation destinations. Knowing how long a client plans to live at that property also influences the plants he chooses: does he need to create impact now rather than later?
Putting Down Roots
In Melbourne, Australia, award-winning landscape architect Nathan Burkett dissects his clients’ needs: “Our mission is to deliver exceptional outdoor spaces that our clients can enjoy for many years to come. Every project is treated as a bespoke design, and we’re not constrained to any formula or style.”
Burkett starts with the practical elements—the architecture, the topography, other buildings on the site—then moves on to a client’s personality and way of life.
“Some of our clients want their garden to portray a level of success and affluence; others prefer something more understated or relaxed. It’s important for clients to think about how they intend to use their space, and take lifestyle considerations into account. They should also consider significant fixed elements from the outset—a swimming pool or outdoor kitchen, for example.”
The gardens we design celebrate the beauty of plants—Stefano Marinaz
As with the interior of your home, how your garden is designed will be hugely influenced by your budget. “We always prefer to have an upfront conversation about budget to ensure both parties are on the same page,” notes Burkett.
“But unfortunately, we always go last,” adds Fuller Marroquin. “With construction, the budget is so often blown out of the water that the landscape architect may have to compromise as a result.”
Clients can find the process of visualizing a planted landscape more challenging than, say, an interior scheme, so you have to trust your garden designers.
“It’s so important to invest quality time in the initial brainstorming session,” says Marinaz. “We never ‘copy and paste’ designs and, although we try to convey our vision as much as possible during the design process, there has to be a degree of faith and freedom from the client. If the client is too controlling, the end result risks being mediocre.”
“Go into the process with an open mind,” advises Burkett. “Yes, you may have a well-defined idea, but if it’s unlikely to work on your site, be open to the ideas and experience of the landscape architect. Our Brunswick project was a great example of being given a lot of freedom, and our clients were delighted with the garden we delivered. But if a client is very passionate about their project, and engages us with a clear sense of direction, we’re happy to encourage their collaboration because ultimately, we want them to be excited about their garden and enjoy it for years to come.”
Remember, too, that gardens evolve. “As they grow and develop they may need a little tweak here and there,” says Burkett. “New gardens always come with a certain amount of unpredictability.”
For Fuller Marroquin, confident decision-making is essential. “It’s always helpful when clients make decisions with a whole heart,” she says. “If you’re on the fence about something, it’s likely you’ll end up wanting to change that part of the design further down the line.”
While outdoor spaces can, in theory, be envisaged by garden designers remotely, nothing beats the on-site experience. So many uncontrollable elements influence how a landscape is designed—climate, aspect, and soil structure, as well as surrounding vegetation and a plot’s scale.
There is also the intangible ‘spirit of place’, which is hard to capture in photographs or in a Zoom meeting.
The Great Outdoors
“I like an on-site meeting whenever possible,” says English garden designer David Bracher. “This enables me to really listen to what is needed to design the right garden.”
The design process generally follows a number of key stages, explains Marinaz. “Our initial consultation, where we visit the property, is like a brainstorming workshop with the client. We discuss all the aspects the client is interested in: planting types, hard landscaping materials, the feel of the garden, furniture, lighting, decorative accessories, and so on.
“After the initial consultation, we prepare the client brief, which summarizes everything we have discussed. Following that, we have three more design and construction stages: the masterplan; detailing and tendering; and overseeing the contractor in the making of the garden. Finally, once the garden is completed, we organize visits to check how the plot is establishing over time.”
With the creative process underway, it’s important to keep the lines of communication with your garden designers open and to confirm decisions in writing. “Everyone wants a ‘wow’ factor,” says Bracher. “Occasionally, ideas and decisions get lost in translation. A paper trail helps to remind everyone concerned what was asked for during the briefing session.”
The topic of care is one to discuss early in the process so it can be factored into the design—even low maintenance does not mean no maintenance.
“Careful use of hard landscaping, slow-growing ornamental trees, and smart use of ‘borrowed’ planting from neighboring properties can all help to create a landscape that is simpler to maintain,” says Bracher.
Sympathetic planting can help, too. “A naturalistic garden is much more forgiving when it comes to weeds,” says Marinaz. “And an unclipped hedge, within reason, requires less work from us and provides shelter for wildlife.”
Above all, embrace the collaborative process and be prepared to feel real passion and excitement for the end result.
“The beautiful thing about landscape design is that once a client gets into it, and becomes a part of the process, they educate themselves and they become more aware of what a garden can be,” says Fuller Marroquin. “It’s an amazing learning curve.”
Banner image: Alister Thorpe