From Learning About Landscape Design

by Joelle Steele

Plant Logo

Everyone wants to save money in today's recessive economy. In making buying decisions, developers, like all good shoppers, are seeking ways to get the most for their dollars. To curb expenses and make cost-conscious buying decisions in landscaping and interiorscaping, developers should give their fullest attention to the design stage.


The design is the foundation for every project and is the most lengthy phase of the entire process. Whether it is for a new center or a renovation, and whether it is a large or small project, an interior or exterior landscape or both, the design is the most important consideration as it determines not only the appearance and health of the plants, but all of the costs for the installation and maintenance of the project as well.

Because the design is so important, it is also important to hire a qualified design professional, either a landscape architect or an experienced landscape or interiorscape designer. Countless dollars are wasted by clients who hire the wrong designer. Select your design professional based on reputation, professional status, portfolio, related experience, and especially, references. With the latter, go look at their work in person. Never assume that a designer, even a landscape architect, is qualified to do your design until you have checked him or her out thoroughly. For example, some landscape architects are highly skilled at designing interiorscapes while others have no practical experience in this area outside the halls of academia. They may design projects that look great on paper but are expensive or impractical to install and maintain. In such a case it may be advisable to hire an experienced interiorscape designer on a consulting basis throughout the design stage.

Contract Kingdom Advertisement


Before the first meeting with the design professional, try to establish a realistic budget. Trying to do a design without a budget wastes valuable time and money and usually results in repeated and costly re-designs. Decide early on whether you want to lease plants, or buy them. If you opt for leasing, find out how some of the local contractors calculate these rates. There is no specific standard for lease pricing in the interiorscape industry and what could look like a terrific deal on the surface may be wrought with potential problems. For example, what happens if you are not happy with the way the plants look and the contractor refuses to make amends? Do you have an easy, though possibly expensive recourse, such as having all the plants removed and new ones installed by a different contractor?


Having the design done first and then putting it out to bid results in substantial savings which are not always obvious but are there nevertheless. Getting estimates from contractors for both design and installation only results in the accumulation of a hodge-podge of indecipherable proposals. Making an educated buying decision based on these submissions is like comparing apples to oranges. It is unlikely that any two will be in the same price range and even if two are for the exact same dollar amount you can be sure that the price is all they have in common.

When you think design it's easy to get caught up in the aesthetic aspects. But, horticultural designs also impact on the life and longevity of the project. Maintaining design integrity over time translates into long-range, repetitive costs. To minimize these expenses, the following design elements should be carefully considered:

Theme. That great new look will ultimately become dated and require a revamp. If the plants, and containers in particular, are so closely linked with that look, (in style, color, or both), that they cannot be used in another design application, they too will have to be replaced

Containers. The selection of planters involves three considerations: style, size, and durability. Some manufacturers make similar styles with significant differences in cost. Inexpensive metallic finish and high-gloss color plastic planters can easily be substituted for real brass and ceramic. Durability is determined by the composition of the planter, the planting method used, and the placement. For example, with terra cotta you can buy fine, cheap, or faux (plastic). Outdoors, cheap clay cracks, chips, and erodes; most faux is not sturdy enough; and, you may be limited to fine clay. Indoors, the selection is determined by the planting method and placement. If plants are direct-planted, real clay is not the best choice as the dry air and the inability to fully leach away soil salts causes the pots to take on a whitish pallor. They may also leak. Faux is the better choice in this case. If the plants are staged (double-potted), any container is fine.

Planters in high-traffic areas such as food courts and theater entrances get splashed and kicked. If made of a porous material that can't be easily cleaned, they look unattractive immediately. As for size, plants grow and need to be potted up. Buying a smaller size for a fast-growing plant in a well-lit area results in the need for a new container(s) very soon.

Plants. Live plants look best. Hands down. But, they are perishable, and in the case of outdoor plantings, are subject to seasonal change in certain parts of the country. Among some of the more costly items and configurations are the following:

• vines that hang or are in difficult to access areas, particularly those that shed or are prone to disease such as grape ivy, or those that are highly susceptible to insects, such as spider plants

• trees that shed, flower, berry, or have large but shallow root systems, such as Jacarandas, coral trees, fruit or any deciduous tree

• fast growing, very tall trees, such as Eucalyptus, that require special equipment (cherry pickers) or a skilled arborist to trim and prune them

• turfgrass, particularly those varieties that require lots of water, frequent mowing, reseeding in trafficked areas, or that impinge upon sprinkler heads

• plants whose lighting requirements do not match the available light levels; for example, Ficus trees in hot southwestern, unfiltered windows rather than the same plants set back ten to twenty feet or under a two- or three-story skylight

• outdoor growing patterns brought indoors such as English ivy trained to grow up the trunk of a Ficus or philodendron-type vines spread out over lattice work

• sprawling plants such as kentia or rhapis palms placed near doorways or in heavily trafficked areas where they are subject to drafts or battering

• rotating color in the form of short-lived flowering plants such as chrysanthemums, unless they are in subirrigation planters

Faux Plants. Artificial foliage, (silks and acrylics), or preserved plants are indoor options. The differences in looks and cost are considerable and they are usually more expensive than a live plant. While they require some skill in assembly and must be professionally cleaned, they are excellent choices in very low light, in hard-to-reach areas, or in spaces that are well above eye level so that their artificiality cannot be detected.

Planter Beds. These are not usually problematic outdoors unless they are very narrow or small with grates, planted with trees that have large and shallow root systems. Indoors, planter beds can be very expensive to maintain if not constructed with drains. Cutting corners by omitting drains means filling planters with rock for drainage. This generally creates maintenance problems, and their accompanying expense, later on. Drains can be avoided by staging plants rather than direct planting. But, once again, the expense is a trade off. You may not be building a drain, but you will be building a platform for plants inside the planter and paying for the installation and upkeep of decorative top-dressing to hide the staging.

Irrigation. All plants need water, but the type of water available, its source location, and the method of application are all cost variables. Outdoors, automated sprinkler and drip systems are a must in almost every part of the country. If not properly designed, installed, and most importantly, maintained, they can waste thousands of gallons of water. Maintenance crews usually come when the system is off and do not always catch heads that are broken and watering the sidewalks. In drought-stricken areas such as California, landscapes should be xeriscaped with drought-tolerant native plants.

Indoors, water can be saved with subirrigation planters. These high-tech devices reduce run-off from hand-watering and allow the plant continuous access to water, whenever needed in whatever quantity is required. This cuts replacement costs since losses due to watering irregularities are reduced.

Water quality can affect the health of plants and, in some instances, the condition of decorative containers. Water that is hard, fluoridated, chlorinated, or softened (by cation-exchange process), damages plants and shows up in foliar spots and darkened leaf tips, as well as a gradual plant weakening.

As a last note, access to water at various sites throughout the project is more expensive initially, but can be more than justified by the reduced maintenance labor costs.


Once you have a completed design, it is time to hire a licensed (particularly in California, Arizona, and Washington) contractor to install the project. Choose the contractors that you want to submit bids early in the design stage so that there is adequate time for the submission and award of bids prior to the ordering of materials. This is particularly important if your design calls for specimen trees, large quantities of a particular plant, or custom-color containers. Waiting until the last minute to award a bid and then expecting everything to be installed immediately usually results in contractors having to cut some very important corners in the process, usually sacrificing on acclimatization, leaching, or pest control which will all come back to haunt you during the maintenance process.

When making a decision on a contractor there is a temptation to award bids based on the lowest price. For your own protection, remember, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is. Many contractors are desperate to get a job in these hard economic times and they will do a job for peanuts. They can do many things to make a job look good, at first. For example, they can substitute 5' for 6' plants and prop them up, however precariously, to the specified height or they can install cheap, unacclimated, underdeveloped plants. Have your design professional supervise the installation from start to finish and use the same criteria for selecting a contractor as for selecting the design professional — get references and check them out in person. It will save you money every time.


Maintenance begins immediately after the installation so hire the right contractor well in advance. Do not wait until the last minute to get a maintenance contractor or assume that the firm that installed the project is qualified to maintain it. They may be, they might not be. The size of a company has little to do with competency in most cases. Sometimes a smaller company does a better job with greater reliability. Again, check references and make sure that the company you select is licensed for pest control by your local agriculture department.

When it comes to saving money on the maintenance, it pays to find out exactly what you are getting for that monthly rate. Selecting your maintenance contractor based on another of those too-good-to-be-true prices may lead to unanticipated costs down the line. For example, some companies charge a flat monthly rate that covers everything — the monthly service, guarantee, (plant loss "insurance"), pest control, pruning and trimming, etc. Other companies charge for the monthly service and guarantee and then bill additional for everything else. Read the maintenance proposal carefully to avoid unexpected costs.


Find out exactly how plant replacements are handled. What happens if a plant replacement is in dispute? Who pays and how much? How is liability determined? Is this outlined in the contract? Are periodic refurbishments going to be necessary because of known design flaws that are necessary to maintain a certain look? How are seasonal plantings, annuals, and rotating color handled? Are they done by the maintenance contractor or another contractor? Is there a fixed budget and automatic installations at specified times or must proposals be submitted?

Whether you have an outside maintenance service or an in-house staff of horticulturists, stay on top of quality control. Outside services should have a QC program, but having your designer stop by quarterly will help eliminate potential losses of plants or design integrity. With an in-house staff, have a reputable contractor come in monthly to make sure everything is running smoothly.

Changing maintenance contractors is very expensive. The more frequently you change them, the more expensive it gets. It takes awhile for a new contractor to get on top of things, and when there has been frequent turnover it is progressively more difficult to adequately maintain a project because so many hands have been involved and there is no consistent paperwork detailing what has been done on a plant-by-plant basis. Hire carefully from the beginning and make every attempt to establish and sustain an open and regular communication between your agents and representatives and the maintenance contractor.


Every center and mall benefits from the beautiful interior and exterior landscapes that make shopping a pleasurable experience. To insure that design integrity is maintained at a cost you can afford, remember to give your utmost attention to the design phase and to be highly selective in hiring your designers and contractors. Exercising these preventative measures will save you money — and a lot of headaches.

This article last updated: 11/04/2010.