Alison AplinPoor design – house & garden packages

As a landscape designer in SW Victoria, I was recently sent 3 ‘landscaping plans’ by one of Victoria’s developer/builder companies. The request from the purchasing manager was for us to quote for each site separately, the total cost for each being $4,000.

As a designer I was horrified at the plans. But I thought that I would keep my mind open and have a look at the, what I thought would be, newly built homes. Not only are they not even built, but the site has a drainage problem. The evidence of sedges growing on the vacant block is very suggestive that there will be a problem here, as are also the puddles of water. It is also on the lower side of the road.

My assumption on inspecting the site is that the soil is sand with a peat base. It could have clay also as lower subsoil. The sedges indicate that there is moisture retaining material in the lower strata.

The plans themselves are, in my opinion, appalling. Upon discussion with the purchasing manager, I was told that the plans had been done by a backroom person who obviously had a simple computer tool to enable a plan to be put together. Excuse me, but where is the evidence in any of these plans of horticultural or landscape design knowledge? Are these backroom people dictating the evolving garden style in Australia?

All too often homes are being sold with existing ‘gardens’ as home and garden packages. The same ignorant ‘designers’ are ‘leading the way’ in how the gardens of the future should look. No wonder we have so many cloned homes. Let’s have a look at each plan –

Plan 1 – Eucalypt

  1. No north indicator

  2. No scale

  3. No key correlation with plant names

  4. Manual drip line to front landscaping’ – am I thick, but which is the front area? Can I assume that it is at the bottom of the plan? How does the home relate to the street and where is the street name?

  5. Where are the taps for attachment to the drip line?

  6. Where on the plans is the fence to be erected i.e. which boundary, or is it all of them?

  7. I never import top soil, unless absolutely necessary. Is this imported soil supposed to correct the drainage problem? Just add more soil?

  8. Lilydale toppings have a pH of 9.5+ and needs to be used with absolute caution. Leaching into surrounding soil can have a damaging effect on plants, especially those of the Proteaceae family i.e. Grevilleas.

  9. As the site is poorly drained, the Eucalyptus caesia would be a disaster; it originates amongst granite outcrops in inner southern Western Australia where wind is not a major factor. The Banksia marginata would swamp the front yard and block light to the home and Hakeas are notorious for toppling in wind, and this area is coastal and very windy.

  10. The rest of the plants suggested are just the same-old, same-old. The placement of them on the plan is so uninspiring. I suppose I should give credit to the fact that they are not all grasses or flaxes and there is some effort at plant diversity.

Plan 2 – Lavandula

  1. to 8) remain the same

9) The Pyrus calleryana ‘Capital’ is a good choice for wetter conditions and do well in the area. But it is a fastigiate tree – why not use a deciduous tree with a canopy for shade? Maybe positioned over the ?driveway for visitor comfort in summer. A better choice would have been Pyrus betulaefolia ‘Dancer’ which is round headed and a smaller tree than the Manchurian Pear. It does well where I have used it locally.

10) Olea europaea prefer it dry so this selection would not thrive. And the Silver Birch [Betula pendula] also would not do well due to the proximity to the sea and the salt laden winds that prevail. The site is in a very exposed position.

11) The Lavandula angustifolia would definitely not enjoy the winter wet conditions. I never use lavender in client’s gardens because they are unreliable and short lived. The region experiences considerable humidity throughout the year, albeit it is quite cool. So lavender is a particularly bad choice, especially destined for irrigation with the rest of the garden.

Plan 3 – Magnolia

1) to 8) remain the same

  1. Magnolias have a very broad reaching root system, and even the so called dwarf forms i.e. Little Gem, still end up big, evergreen trees casting dense shade because of their leaf size. A bad choice for this site.

  2. The Lagerstroemia or Crepe Myrtle prefers a clay based soil. If there is clay present, then this may be an acceptable choice. But there is still the issue of strong, salt laden winds.

  3. The last 2 plants featured, the Yucca elephantipes and Cordyline ‘Red Star’ have been used in every second garden in this estate. People are just copying each others’ bad mistakes when it comes to garden design. The Yucca in particular gets quite large in maturity, especially at the base and has become so boring when used en masse. I grew it in my garden in Mintaro, South Australia where it grew into a large, fine specimen. But it was juxtaposed with plants like Wigandia caracasana which has large, hairy leaves providing a magnificent contrast to the spikiness of the yucca. And both of these plants were grown in very well drained soil with a limestone base and thrived.

Not only are the homes in the housing estate a collection of ugly, characterless boxes, but the gardens are all the same. Where is the individuality? Fortunately when clients approach landscape designers, they are usually looking for something different – they want their property to stand apart.

The budget allowed is mean. The building site is absolutely covered in weeds. There will be a considerable weed problem come time to do the landscaping. This alone, with the eradication of the weeds, would eat considerably into the $4,000 per home budget when done properly. Lilydale topping is also very expensive in SW Victoria because of the cost of cartage.

Jarrah edging? This is a very expensive timber for edging gardens. The budget certainly wouldn’t allow for this to be used. And the shape outline in the plans that is curved in one area would be very time consuming to edge with timber within the budget. What do they think the hourly rate of a professional landscaper is – $5 per hour?

We also use coarse mulch and not fine. It has been found that the fine mulch does not allow penetration of moisture as well as the coarser material. The area concerned in SW Victoria receives significant winter rainfall but has a relatively long, dryish summer.

The requisition for the landscape quotation came from Geelong, Victoria. Has the purchasing manager even been to the site in far SW Victoria? Much of the region experiences wetlands that hold water well into late spring. Are they aware of the drainage issues?

James Beattie’s post ‘Lamenting the dwindling garden’ draws attention to the fact that backyards are shrinking in suburbia. When garden planning is dictated by the developers’ whim as to the style and plant use, then we really have a problem ahead of us, for those consumed with sustainable advancement. These shrinking gardens need so much more thought put into them as to how every square metre is used.

As a matter of principal I don’t want to be involved with these sites. The price offered for the landscaping component per property is far too low for any self-respecting Landscape Design business to even consider participation; the whole process so far has been substandard; I think it would be prudent for us to decline involvement.

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Alison Aplin

About Alison Aplin

Alison is a passionate, multi award winning sustainable landscape designer, Horticulturist and arborist. She has been the owner and designer of 2 Ecotourism gardens that have both won significant awards. Her writing is based on knowledge, empirical learning which is essential to sustainable ethic, and a questioning mind leading to much research. Her articles are often controversial - with a disclaimer that she is responsible for the written matter, and not Garden Drum. A deeply caring person about the natural environment, Alison's writing endeavours to explain why sustainable landscapes are so important. Without people like her, they will be lost and gardens will become merely concrete

10 thoughts on “Poor design – house & garden packages

  1. Sometimes I get the feeling that plants are viewed as garden ornaments… you know, non-living, like statues, or vases, curtains or umbrellas, completely separate from the environment in which they’re expected to, well, *live*. Excellent post, Alison.

    • Thanks Helen for your comments. Yes I agree with you that some people think that you just stick any plant in the ground, why even bother to dig the hole! and away it goes. Good garden design is such a bigger picture. There is no actual design evident in any of the plans at all.

  2. These are absolutely AWFUL – the very opposite of good design. They are not site specific and they’re not tailored to a client’s needs & wishes. No doubt there is a council and a sales department requirement for ‘instant landscaping’ driving this rubbish, when the new home owners would be better off doing it slowly themselves over a period of years. Instead they can spend their time & effort removing one-by-one each plant as it inevitably fails. 50mm of new top soil over the site soil, and they’re going to plant a 300mm advanced plant into that? Run a mile, Alison, run a mile!

    • HI Catherine
      I suppose that I am lucky that I am a good marketer of my business and am able to separate my business from the others. I know and value our differences and the fact that we have a high ethic base. So I have no qualms telling these big building companies that we have principles and because of this, would never consider being involved with their substandard demands. I feel that if there were more ‘landscapers’ who were ethically inclined that these cheap and nasty plans would disappear. While there will always be someone to do this sort of work, then they will continue.
      I agree that it would be far better to leave the site clean and tidy and let home owners do their own thing with the garden.

  3. A really interesting post – thanks Alison. Is there any way that professional designers might be able to lobby developers to take a different approach? If there is a notional “garden budget” for each house, then maybe portions of it could be allocated to plot preparation by the developer (weed eradication and soil preparation – standards to be specified!), a garden consultation for each client by a professional garden designer, and a contribution towards the purchase of plants (perhaps in the form of vouchers). The “garden consultation” would not be a complete design and planting plan, but tailored advice to each client, taking into account their needs and resources, and perhaps suggestions as to suitable plants and materials. Obviously the client would not get a complete garden when they moved in, and would have to spend additional money on it, but they would at least get a properly prepared plot and some practical and financial help towards making their own individual garden. I suppose this is all impossibly utopian, but maybe developers might take it seriously if someone pointed out to them that people buying houses with ready-made but sub-standard gardens would have a case for claiming that they had been a sold defective product and were entitled to compensation!

    • Hi Alison
      I like your suggetions. I think that it is definitely worth consideration about the consultation for the home owners in lieu of the substandard garden. I might actually take the suggestion up.
      I feel that something needs to be done to stifle this trend before it becomes too commonplace.

  4. This is a deeply concerning issue because there are so many levels to the problem. The house and land packages are a disgrace, but without legislation to force the standards up we will only see it get worse. There is no real policy in place for truly sustainable development so the greedy can get away with poor quality. However , my fear is that the bigger issue is that people do not have the same regard for gardens that they once did and see the landscaping as being of little consequense. I had the misfortune of beginning a garden for a couple who did not want the landscape package that came with the house because they did not see any value in it. Fair enough too since it was even more basic than the plans you showed. However when it really came down down to it they just thought that $6000.00 was too much to spend on a garden and what they wanted was to copy the garden directly opposite them. Somebody built that garden for them though, so we can take the moral high ground but there will always be someone who just wants the cash. I wonder if as an industry we really do enough to educate the public about the role of the garden in a warming climate, the dollar value of trees as a carbon sink and in reducing power consumption and the health and social benefits of green life. I don’t blame you for walking away Allison, I did the same, but we need to get the message out that your experience and knowledge are valuable and in fact essential to a healthy urban environment of the future.

  5. Hi Simon
    I am one of these cranky garden designers [because I am old enough to be] who kindly reminds clients about ‘intellectual knowledge’ and the fact that this costs money. It is also another great way of separating ourselves from our competition. I promote our knowledge and achievements regularly. This is why I can comfortably walk away from issues such as the poor designs shown. But I did get very rattled when first sent the tendering request.
    As a business, we choose not to be involved in the tendering process. The greed that drives these processes means that because we do things properly, we would never be competitive. In order to make a profit with these jobs I am sure that the landscapers who get the work would have to cut many corners which then trashes the business name.
    As Catherine stated, walk away, which is exactly what we have done.
    Like you, I am getting heartily sick of people copying others’ work, often also of poor quality. Where has the individuality gone? The homes are boring and the gardens are boring!

  6. As a qualified horticulturist and licensed landscaper. I have come across situations like this too many times to remember. It is interesting to note that its not only confined to south-east Queensland. You cannot landscape a new home for $4,000, it is impossible other than turf everywhere and one tree. Maybe, just maybe you can break wages.

    I’m working in the training field now but in the past I have walked away from many jobs like this. However in this economic climate there are guys who have had to drop their usual high standards just to put a shovel in the ground and bread on the table. Most Builders/ Developers (there are the exceptions that do value quality landscaping) are the worst for bleeding the penny dry. They would be charging their client double that budget and if there are no takers will happily get their labourers to landscape it because “anyone can do it… right?” that is why all these estates share the same drab appearance. Landscaping is a horribly undervalued skill, made worse by “do it yourself promos” from a certain large hardware chain and incorrect planting advice from a pretty magazine..

    • Anthony, I agree entirely with what you have written. As a landscape designer who takes pride in her ability to ‘get it right’ it is so disappointing to see the direction that this great industry is heading. There really needs to be some way of regulating the industry so that these rogues are held to account for their total lack of ethic. But where does one start?

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