Methods of Plant Selection

by Katie Seidenwurm, ASLA

A plant combination: Pride of Madeira (Echium cadicans) and Orchid Rockrose (Cistus x purpureus) / Image: Katie Seidenwurm

As a landscape architect who focusses on residential design, one of my biggest challenges is guiding clients through the plant selection process. Each client comes to the project with different levels of knowledge and interest. I have had clients who are totally involved with the plants and have given me a list of specific plants that they want in their yard with placement ideas. On the other side, I have had clients proclaim that they know nothing about plants and just want something that “looks good and is low-maintenance … and by the way, I love the color purple.” Over the years, I have tried various methods with various degrees of success. Here, I describe some methods I have tried, and list the pros and cons of each. I would be very interested in feedback on this as I am always looking for new ideas.

Take client to a nursery to pick out plants.


  • Client gets to see plant for themselves.
  • We can see what plants are available at the nursery and in what quantity and condition.
  • Client feels good about plant selection, because he/she has seen the plants for themselves.


  • The plant is immature and in a pot. It’s hard to picture what it will look like installed and in a few years. I find myself motioning a lot to say, “Imagine this plant to be this high.”
  • Contractor may not be purchasing plants from that particular nusery.
  • If it’s winter, the plant selection is thin and the quality of the plants is often poor.
  • The nursery doesn’t have the plants that you were thinking of using in the design.

I have tried this method a few times. One time, I took a client to the nursery and they didn’t have what we were looking for. The nursery was large and one where you drive around to different areas for the various plants. The client got frustrated because we couldn’t’ find the plants that I had in mind, it was getting hot, and she was getting tired. I almost lost the client that day. I suppose, if I had called ahead and had the nursery pull the plants ahead of time, then we could have gone to one place and seen the plants.

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Damn The Torpedoes

image: James Hughes
image: James Hughes

Today I helped an architect friend of mine design the landscape for his recently remodeled midcentury ranch home. A few weeks ago, I also helped him construct a deck he had designed for the home’s front door. The deck was maybe the most interesting one I’ve seen in person. A long cantilever, intersecting volumes, slats, all the details one might expect from Mies van der Rohe. He did a great job of expressing the design language of the home, and I was excited to be a part of finishing up his vision, not to mention the enjoyment of working with a friend and frequent collaborator.

In my market, the opportunity to work on projects with an established and well-defined design language is rare. During the 1950’s-1960’s, modernism came roaring in to my city and many gems were designed and built here. Many of them still remain, albeit in increasing states of deterioration. We have Frank Lloyd Wright’s only built residence in Florida (Spring House), single-family homes designed by notable architects, and several fantastic Brutalist structures (the most prominent being the Wesley Foundation at Florida State University, which was sadly demolished earlier this year). Modernism came in fast, and then all but vanished just a quickly.

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image: James Hughes
image: James Hughes

That feeling when everything about the project is moving along smoothly, and then ‘Them’ show up. Them have their own ideas and opinions. Them have their own sets of rules and guidelines that must be given adherence. If only Them would stay out of this, the project would be a smashing success and everyone, including Them, would celebrate and admire. By ‘Them’, I of course mean HOA’s (Home Owners’ Associations).

HOA’s became prevalent out of the Post-War era in the rise of Suburbia. It was the Eisenhower-an period of America. A 5-star general in the White House, and over 8 million Veterans returning to civilian life. Suburbs sprang up to house the millions of returning Veterans and their families, with communities modeled from base housing. Efficient, clean, and above all else – uniform in appearance and function. It was a simple time of mass prosperity and bright futures. So naturally, in the mindset of that post-war culture, local governance was needed to maintain the order and aesthetic of these newly created communities. Right now, if you surveyed every single professional in residential service, I would bet that the issue of HOA’s comes up for the majority.

Navigating clients, city/county ordinances, State law, contractors, and the ilk are sometimes enough to give you heart palpitations (I speak from actual experience). Throw in the local HOA demigod clipboard-wielding neighbor and you have a recipe for… well, early retirement.  However, HOA’s are a reality which we must face.

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3 Thoughts on Outdoor Kitchen Design

Keeping it simple. This outdoor kitchen tucked into a corner of a rooftop outdoor living area in Fargo, ND features only the appliances needed to serve the outdoor dining and living rooms. Image: Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet
Keeping it simple. This outdoor kitchen tucked into a corner of a rooftop outdoor living area in Fargo, ND features only the appliances needed to serve the outdoor dining and living rooms.
image: Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet

With Eric Groft, FASLA, principal at Oehme, van Sweden, and Russ Cletta, principal at Russ Cletta Design Studio

They can be big or small, simple or complex; they can tax to the very limit your understanding of design principles, and they can even be something completely foreign. Get it right and you’ve created a beautiful stage for a homeowner’s best memories. Get it wrong and, well, you know.

Each year ASLA surveys its residential landscape architects for the latest design trends, and each year outdoor kitchens come out as one of the most important design elements. With this in mind, we interviewed Eric Groft of Oehme, van Sweden in Washington, DC and Russ Cletta of Russ Cletta Design Studio in Venice, CA to get their top three thoughts on what it takes to design an outdoor kitchen that will delight homeowners for many years.

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When to Say No to a Client

image:  James Hughes
image: James Hughes

I’m going to be painfully honest with you- I am very good at making prospective clients angry. It’s a skill I have developed over the years of countless consultations. At first it bothered me, making me question my people skills and client relations. But as time passed I came to realize that in actuality the quality of my clients was rising significantly, and my relationship with those clients was stronger and more fruitful. The basis for this ‘skill’ was in my learning to utilize the word ‘No.’ It’s like magic. I consider it one of the best tools I possess in the professional toolbox. So if you don’t mind, I would like to take a few minutes of your time discussing what I believe is the most positive word in a designer’s lexicon – No.

When I first broke out on my own I took every job and commission that came my way. Back then, it was quite literally a matter of sink or swim and every dollar counted. Many of those early projects were challenging. More than a few of them were less than profitable, yet all of them were valuable lessons and opportunities for me to grow professionally and establish my reputation. I’m also not ashamed to admit (now) that some of those early projects never made it into my portfolio. At the time, I had a family to feed and a mortgage to pay. If Mrs. Smith wanted a Greek column in the garden at her Tudor home, who was I to question? And if Mrs. Smith felt my time was only worth so much, as long as it put a few more dollars in the family checking account, I was (begrudgingly) ok with it. Those were the days of survival. That being said, I’m going to skip past the great recession days, where most of us had to take whatever we could get and fast forward to talk about the here and now.

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Navigating Troubled Waters

image: James Hughes
image: James Hughes

This month, James Hughes joins me as Co-Chair of the Residential Landscape Architecture Professional Practice Network. James and I met, albeit virtually, after a letter I sent to our members about issues the Residential PPN hoped to address in the coming year. As you will soon realize, James has a sophisticated and seasoned approach to managing Trouble Clients. He also brings energy and creativity to the PPN. This November in Denver, James will lead the Annual Residential PPN Meeting and I hope many of our members can attend so we can set the agenda for more topics to investigate. James is the principal of his own firm, James Hughes Landscaping, in Tallahassee, Florida.
–Jennifer Horn, ASLA, Residential Landscape Architecture PPN Co-Chair

If you’ve been in the business for more than 5 minutes, then chances are they’ve already made you question your passion and commitment. We’re talking about Trouble Clients. These are the clients that can never seem to be happy. As soon as you’ve addressed one issue and resolved it, they immediately shift to something else that makes them less than satisfied. Maybe they micromanage you, or perhaps look for technicalities they feel keep them from paying your invoices. Whatever the situation, Trouble Clients are a very real thing, and dealing with them is truly a skill set any professional should possess. While client satisfaction is most definitely a high priority, there is a fine line between pleasing a client and protecting your reputation and sanity. I’ve spoken about Trouble Clients with several professionals, and have come up with a few suggestions on how to navigate these troubled waters.

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Residential Design at ASLA 2013

Rough Point, one of the stops on a Saturday Field Session in Newport, Rhode Island image: Rick Laferriere
Rough Point, one of the mansions that will be visited during a field session focusing on Newport, Rhode Island
image: Rick Laferriere

With the ASLA Annual Meeting only weeks away, it’s time for a glance at the events with a particular emphasis on residential design:

On Friday, November 15, there are two great field sessions. Thomas Elmore, ASLA and Jennifer Judge, ASLA have planned visits to two of Newport, Rhode Island’s treasures, The Elms and Rough Point. See two of Rhode Island’s most beloved mansions and get a sense of high, high-end residential design from years past.

On a more contemporary note, Keith LeBlanc and his team are hosting a day-long excursion to some of his most beautiful private gardens. Tour the residences with Keith and understand how the artisanship of highly-detailed residential landscape design persists today.

As residential designers, a detailed and sophisticated grasp of plants is key. Learn how to get the most mileage and best performance from your horticultural selections by attending Sunday, November 17’s session, “Effective Strategies for Horticultural Sustainability in Planting Design” with Patrick Cullina and W. Gary Smith, ASLA.

On that note, as a residential designer, establishing collaborative working relationships with experts in the nursery trade is vital for learning about current cultivars, and rediscovered species and sourcing excellent specimen material. This topic is covered in detail on Monday, November 18’s session, “Planting: Unlocking Creativity Through New Avenues of Designer/Grower Collaboration.” Speakers include nursery owners Chet Halka and Theodore Kiefer as well as Edmund Hollander, FASLA and Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA.

On the business side of things, check out “The One-Man Show” on Sunday, November 17. Mike Heacox, ASLA, Chris Thompson, ASLA, Duane Christopher, ASLA and Annette Heacox, ASLA discuss the agony and ecstasy of micro business management.

And don’t forget about the PPN Networking Reception on Friday, November 15 at 5:15pm and the Residential Landscape Architecture PPN Meeting on Sunday, November 17 at 4pm–I look forward to seeing you there!

by Jennifer Horn, Chair of the Residential Landscape Architecture PPN

Pointers for Beginning a Residential Design Business

image: Jan Johnsen
image: Jan Johnsen

As co-chair of the Residential PPN, we are tasked with finding talented landscape architects to contribute to this blog.  As a new-ish business owner (my firm is still in its toddler years; established in 2009), I could only hope that my friend Jan Johnsen would be willing to share her thoughts on starting up a new residential design business.  Jan and I met in 2005 when we both began teaching at Columbia University’s Landscape Design program.  Her design studios are a perennial favorite of students, particularly as the program often engages individuals with dreams of beginning their own firms.  Jan owns and operates her own firm, writes a beautiful blog called Serenity in the Garden, and has a book being published in 2014 by St. Lynn’s press focused on creating gardens for inspiration and reflection.  Jan’s thoughts below on beginning a firm are relevant not just to newbies, but also serve as a wonderful reminder of what is most important to operating a mature firm as well.
– Jennifer Horn, RLA, ASLA

Residential landscape design is one of the most fulfilling – and demanding – professions I know of.  Fraught with all sorts of pitfalls, transforming someone’s property is a very personal and uplifting endeavor. I find it to be all consuming but in a wonderful sort of way. Does this sound like a two edged sword? It is as if I am saying ‘come, but stay away’ at the same time.  Well, that is true. As in everything, there are 2 sides to the story and residential landscape design is definitely a ‘both sides, now’ undertaking.

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Difficult Summer for Wisconsin Green Industry

My lawn has been a light golden-brown for over a month now
My lawn has been a light golden-brown for over a month now
image: Jay Gehler

In Wisconsin, like much of the US, the weather is making headlines – way too hot and way too dry. When was the last significant rainfall, maybe in late April?  Weatherman report the rainfall level is seven inches below average. That coupled with the extreme summer heat has significantly impacted the Green Industry in the Upper Midwest.

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Rethinking the Lawn

image: Walnut Ridge Grounds Care
image: Walnut Ridge Grounds Care

Water for landscape and lawn use may not be as critical an issue in other parts of the country as it is in the Western states, but the use of fertilizers and pesticides, electricity or gas to mow, and labor to care for lawns are universal issues. If you’re thinking of retrofitting an existing lawn, your options for design are many, but you still have the starting point of: “What to do to get rid of this big green carpet?”

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Marketing Your Services to Maximize Your Exposure

Jewel Box Front Garden

Unfortunately, marketing is a necessary evil in our business, as in most others. Many landscape architects like me, have no training in marketing, even though we think we know how to advertise our services. But here is an example of how the right kind of marketing from the right kind of professionals can get your business noticed by the potential clients. I have learned that it is important to work with professional marketing companies.

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To vegetable or not to vegetable…Citizens revolt!

Front Yard Vegetable Garden
Front Yard Vegetable Garden
image: The Agitator

You can’t have a lifestyle trend such as urban farming or edible frontyards without some controversy. Did you know that there really are many cities and towns with old bylaws or zoning codes that prohibit a person from actually eating any food they grow in their own yard!  While some cities such as San Francisco, New York, Baltimore, Seattle and Detroit have begun to change laws and policy in support of urban agriculture, and as this trend continues to thrive because of food safety and security issues, the growing foodie locavore movement and urban hipster cred, many citizens in other cities and towns have been threatend with jail time or fines for planting a garden or organic farm on their own property.

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Residential Landscape Architecture and Sustainability

Landscape Architects, Ltd., Alexandria, VA
ASLA Honor Award Lily Lake Residence Dalton, PA Michael Vergason Landscape Architects, Ltd., Alexandria, VA
image: ASLA

A well designed residential landscape can not only create beautiful vistas from within the house and comfortable rooms for outdoor living, but can also significantly increase the real estate value of a home and neighborhood. But wait there’s more! Did you know that carefully placed plants can also significantly reduce your homes heating and cooling energy needs?  Provide food for your family and friends?

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