Over the past few years, the words “preservation,” “sustainability” and “conservation” have crept into the urban and suburban gardener’s vernacular. To some, this means commonsense good stewardship, to others it conjures up dreadful scenes of weedy vistas dotted with scraggly trees. Surely there must be a reasonable way to incorporate ecological balance into an outstanding garden design while staying on speaking terms with the neighbors. There is—but you might need a landscape architect to pull it off.

Homeowners avoid hiring landscape architects for various reasons. To the uninitiated or misinformed, they are ultraexpensive outdoor interior decorators whose only objective is to stick you with an elaborate irrigation system that comes with incomprehensible programming instructions. And, after the final bill is settled, you’re left tending mystery plants with unpronounceable botanical names.

Why such a skewed perception? While covering the Clemson Extension Master Gardener volunteer desk every Thursday afternoon for more than 10 years, I became privy to the not always hunky-dory business relationships between homeowners and landscape architects. Some would rather throw in the trowel and continue to put up with imperfect yards than hire one. Others believed they could save money by employing the brother-in-law of the guy who cuts their grass to dig a pond and put in walkways.

So I’m here to set the record straight. Master gardeners are not landscape architects. The latter are college educated, licensed professionals trained in the intellectual and technical spirit of da Vinci and Palladio, Michaux and Roebling. Think of them as Renaissance men and women who earn combined degrees in architecture, plant science and engineering.

Like other regulated professions, by law landscape architects cannot publically present themselves as such without meeting specific criteria and standards. State licensure agencies and the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards determine who is allowed to engage in business. In general, eligible candidates must possess an accredited college degree in landscape architecture, work for a minimum of two years with a licensed firm and pass the rigorous Landscape Architect Registration Examination.


So how do you know if you need a landscape architect, and how in the world can you successfully work with one when you barely know the difference between a live oak and a bald cypress—much less their scientific names?

First, consider why landscape design changes are needed. Sometimes a simple aesthetic correction, such as remediating a moisture-retaining low spot, becomes urgent after torrential rains turn the area into a mosquito-breeding swamp. Perhaps a recent episode of phenomenal flooding has caused a sudden appreciation for proper site grading. Or maybe your landscape dilemma is simply a question of hardscape versus runoff: Would a concrete driveway mitigate ponding after heavy rains, or would it redirect the overspill to another inappropriate location?

Once specific landscape concerns are settled on, consider style. While some gardeners are nonchalant about the aura of controlled chaos found in cottage gardens, others are only comfortable with the symmetric formalities found in classical designs. No matter the choice— and pushing conventional boundaries is certainly acceptable, if not encouraged—Thomas Angell, principal landscape architect at Verdant Enterprises ( in Savannah, Georgia, insists that it’s important to communicate those personal choices while researching and interviewing prospective landscape architects, because matching style and philosophy are imperative. This alleviates potential impasses or misunderstandings once the project is underway. In any case, you should feel that your chosen landscape architect understands your preferences and doesn’t talk above your head.

Angell, whose client base extends up and down the Carolina and Georgia coasts, warns homeowners to keep in mind that the scope of the work should justify the expense. In other words, asking a landscape architect to design a couple of small flowerbeds is rather like hiring the Juilliard String Quartet to play pop music at your next oyster roast. “The smaller the job, the more disproportionate the fees,” says Angell. However, in most instances “it is usually still worth having a landscape architect spell out the content, budget, sequence of work and expectation of a quality result.”

If custom hardscape solutions such as decks, patios, walkways, walls or arbors are a consideration, it’s equally important to understand that each of these skills demands a lot of experience and expertise, so expect considerable variation among firms. And when environmental mitigation is a primary factor, one early question to ask is what level of site mapping and analysis the firm will provide. This is important because most commissions of any size begin with a registered land survey. In addition to creating sophisticated grading plans, many landscape architects can calculate storm water volumes as well as velocities.

After earnest investigation and interviews, it’s a good idea to visit several of each firm’s existing projects and look carefully at the caliber of the plans they have posted on the company website. Finally, it goes without saying that you should ask for and read references and insist that all lists of plants include common names.

If you consider the challenges of your site, the scope of the project and the architect’s own style and experience, you’ll come out with the landscape of your dreams!

PJ Gartin is a freelance garden writer who lives in Charleston.