November 22, 2008

Garden Design: Working with a Professional

By Freda Cameron


What is the process of working with a professional garden designer? I asked this question at a local garden center that has been in business for over 55 years.

Cathy Dickinson-Hearp grew up in a family of garden experts and is happy to share the story of her heritage. In 1952, her grandparents started Dickinson Garden Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Cathy’s father took over the business from her grandfather. After receiving his business degree at Appalachian State University, Cathy’s brother returned to Dickinson Garden Center. The Dickinson family not only sells plants and garden supplies, but provides design and installation services.

Cathy is the garden and landscape designer, having joined the family business six or seven years ago. She has a degree in biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Before joining the business, Cathy went back to school to obtain a degree in horticulture and landscape design at NC State University in Raleigh. While Cathy grew up hearing the names of plants, she felt that having an in-depth knowledge of horticulture was a requirement for running the design service.

There are several levels of garden service provided by Dickinson Garden Center: consultation, garden or landscape design, and installation.

The consulation service, sometimes referred to as a "yard doctor call" is where Cathy visits the gardens to help with plant maladies and assess the condition of the landscape. Another example is providing experienced gardeners with new design ideas. Cathy also provides consultation when a client moves into a new house and needs someone to identify the plants, and explain how to care for the plants.

The next level is the design service. Cathy charges for an initial consultation, then an hourly rate for studio design work.

The garden center offers installation, with or without the design service.

The full-service design clients are primarily homeowners without gardening experience. These clients seek consultation, design and installation.

When it comes to explaining garden design to non-gardeners, Cathy uses the analogy of building and decorating a house. First, you construct the walls and basic structure, and then you add the details. The “walls” for a garden design can be outdoor spaces, or rooms, with the basic shrubs, trees and structures. According to Cathy, the fun part is in the details, using perennials, as the garden is being created.

Cathy says that most people have an idea of what they like when they see it, but have a difficult time trying to describe the inspiration. Cathy's approach to determining the vision of the client is to listen and communicate. There is a lot of back-and-forth communication during the design process that allows Cathy to understand what will appeal to her clients.

Before meeting with the client, she asks them to collect pictures, if possible, of design ideas from pictures or magazines. Cathy begins the consultation by walking around the property to identify priorities as well as issues that need to be addressed. These issues may be drainage problems, a need for privacy, or dealing with deer. In this area, deer seem to always be one of the issues. Cathy also assesses the light conditions for determining the need for shade or sun plants.

If her client doesn’t know plants, Cathy sends photos and information about how the plant will be used in the garden. Cathy has moved away from drawing designs by hand at a drafting table and now utilizes a computer program. There are times when the client needs a presentation packet of materials and drawings to obtain approval by zoning or homeowner's associations. Using the computer makes the drawing easier, and faster, when there are revisions to the design.

For Cathy, the real excitement is during the installation of the gardens. She takes a hands-on approach to her designs and loves to be there to tweak the final design to make sure it pleases her clients.

With her experience in garden design and retail, I just had to ask Cathy to list her favorite plants. Are there any new varieties that she thinks will be exciting for gardeners? One flowering shrub, she and her father predict, will be a big hit this spring. It is a new, dwarf gardenia “Crown Jewel” PPAF that is a patented hybrid of 'Kleim’s Hardy.' The new double-bloom gardenia was developed by Oakmont Nursery in Chatham County. Phillip Dark, the Oakmont owner, bred the gardenia with assistance from Michael Dirr.

Other plants on Cathy’s favorite list include:
  • Liatris – nice backdrop plant with hardy, nice foliage for perennial gardens; deer resistant
  • Baptisia – native; ‘Carolina Moonlight’ (yellow); interesting foliage; deer resistant
  • Helleborus – cool season blooms; long bloom; deer resistant
  • Heuchera – ‘Citronelle’ is a nice yellow; sell-out quickly; great for all year interest
  • Asclepias – attracts butterflies; late to emerge; deer resistant
  • Pyracantha – berries; deer resistant
  • Spirea ‘Shirobana’ - blooms in summer
  • Daphne odora ‘Marginata’– variegated foliage; needs good drainage, filtered sunlight; deer resistant
  • Pieris ‘Little Heath’ dwarf variegated; deer resistant
  • Buddleia ‘Blue Chip’ PPAF – dwarf, blue blooms; deer resistant
While everyone wants colorful flowers, Cathy recommends incorporating beautiful foliage plants to carry the garden through all seasons. She says that when a perennial begins to fade, a companion plant with great foliage will keep the garden looking good.

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Defining Your Home, Garden & Travel

Home, garden and travel tips by Freda Cameron

Freelance travel writer. My current fiction writing projects include a completed manuscript and several works in progress.

By the way, my name is pronounced fred-ah, not freed-ah. Thank you.

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