Mary GrayMistakes

“A man’s mistakes are his portals of discovery.” – James Joyce Then again, Joyce was a man of ideas. I’m sure no contractor ever said to a client: “Oh, that retaining wall I put in last fall is collapsing now? But of course! How could something so bourgeois hold back the anarchy of our modern age?? Don’t you see?? It was futile from its inception!!!”

manhattan wall collapse

Anyway, it only took me a few minutes to compile a long list of mistakes that I have made over the course of my study of landscape design. Here are just a few:

1. Giving landscape design advice to people who didn’t ask for it. You might think that this would be obvious, but when you’re a new landscape design student all super-excited about what you’re learning, like I was, sometimes you can go a bit overboard.

Exposure to any outdoor environment would trigger my critiquing impulse, and I would start to mentally re-design every space I entered. Didn’t matter whether it was a friend’s backyard, the planters outside the Mexican restaurant, or the National Mall — all were fair game.

Sometimes my ideas did not stay politely in my head, like they were supposed to, and to my dismay my friends and family did not respond with the awe and gratitude that I imagined they would. Instead I would get, “Hm, interesting.” or “Okay, maybe.” or, in the case of my dad when he caught me staring for the umpteenth time into his backyard: ”What now?”
A Corollary to this: Turns out most folks don’t care about the Latin names of plants, either. So no need to announce to your friends that that’s an Ilex cornuta growing there by the McDonald’s Drive-Thru.

2. Drawing crape myrtles that look like unexploded mines or medieval maces. crapemyrtlepicBehold:

I drew this for my first landscape design class — Landscape Graphics. I’m not sure whether this crape myrtle is more likely to detonate or float away into the heavens. Laegerstromia x ‘Nuclear Mushroom Cloud’

3. Buying pots that are too small. This was a lesson I learned pretty early on: bigger is better when it comes to pots. I only own a few large containers, and I winced a little at what they cost, but I have never regretted buying any of them. They have become nice, substantial features of my landscape. Plus, most of what I have planted in them survives the winter because of the larger soil volume. Little pots look cute in groups, but big pots are real players. I can actually grow a tree in a pot? Amazing!

I’m not a real purist about the material either — I have a couple of large, glazed terracotta pots ($$$), but I have fiberglass and plastic, too. I have not been excommunicated from the landscape design community for having plastic pots (so far).

4. Thinking I could have one of those Piet Oudolfesque kind of grassy landscapes for my very own. This was the image that made me fall in love:


For a Principles of Design class, I traced over this image multiple times — once to show line, once for value, once for texture, etc. In doing so, I became smitten with this landscape (Pensthorpe in Norfolk, England) and with its creator. My mistake was in thinking that I could replicate such a landscape in my own shady (key word there – SHADY) backyard. It took me a few years to accept that I would never have Sunlight Illuminating Glorious Sweeps of Grasses in my garden. Luckily there are other beautiful arrangements of plants (Weak Sunlight Illuminating Dry Shade Groundcovers???), although violins still play a bittersweet tune in my head whenever I look at this image.

5. Thinking that designing for real clients would be as fun as designing for hypothetical clients. I love doing design for people who don’t really exist! They have so much money, and they are open to anything!!! Contrast this with designing for real people who actually own the land that you want to mess with — dang it can be a real bummer!! Why can’t this couple see that they need an enormous stone labyrinth here, not a patio!!! What? I have to make phone calls? I have to collect bids? There’s a budget? You mean I don’t get to sit here and draw freakishly bulbous crape myrtle trees all day?

Sadly, this is just a small sampling of the mistakes I have made since stepping into the world of landscape design. I have a whole other list of Gardening mistakes (top of the list: the time I lovingly transplanted what turned out to be Horseweed) but that is for another posting.
In the meantime, may my mistakes be your “portals of discovery.”

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3 thoughts on “Mistakes

  1. Mary,
    Thanks for your brave and entertaining post! Your designer’s chart, and all the rest, gives us lay people a cheerful insight to the reality of creative people in many fields.
    May your successes always keep you buoyant,

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