Excerpted from “Become a Landscape Company Owner” by Janet Hartin (fabjob.com)

Diminishing resources and client demands have made Sustainable Landscapes extremely important. Water-wise (or Xeriscape) native plant material, BMPs or best management practices and water-efficient irrigation systems are crucial components of sustainability.


Being able to fulfill your customer’s needs in a way that is compatible and complimentary to the surrounding environment is crucial to the overall success of the landscape. A shady back yard on the north side of the house requires different plants than a south-facing front yard. Also, the location of utility lines (above and below ground) and buildings need to be considered. Trees reaching 30 feet or taller should never be planted under utility lines and large trees should be at least 25 feet from homes and other structure (roots need space). Even with these restrictions, there are many possibilities for any given area than there are designers in your city. Plants come in all sizes, forms, textures and colors, and your biggest problem will likely be narrowing the list down rather than running out of choices. (In the rare instance where there is no compatible plant for a certain location, there are numerous hardscape solutions.)

If you tasked with designing a landscape yourself, make sure you listen carefully to your customer’s desires. A major factor is balancing beauty with intended use and function. Ask them questions about their overall goals. Do they want privacy? Shade? An entertainment or recreation area? Plants that attract birds? Fall color? The level of maintenance a home-owner is willing to perform themselves or pay you to perform is a major factor in plant selection as well. It can make or break the long-term success of the landscape. One homeowner might dream of a backyard play area in a turf setting, while another client may desire low-maintenance native plants. Ask your customer to draw a rough plan of their initial ideas and to jot down any particular plants they have in mind. They may know exactly what plants they want but aren’t sure where to put them. Or, they may want a major front or backyard overhaul but aren’t sure what plants to chose.

In many cases a backyard landscape will incorporate the use of one or more focal-point specimen trees, along with shrubs, groundcovers, turf and garden plants. A properly placed tree can add beauty and reduce interior energy use, which is good for the environment and good for your customer’s wallet. Illuminating the tree with well-placed lighting extends its beauty into the night. Besides planting trees based on flower color, think about including trees with interesting branching structure and bark characteristics, too. The form a majestic oak takes in January in cold climates can be breathtaking.

A common mistake that beginners make is to overcomplicate a landscape, making it appear cluttered and disorganized. Often, less is more. Dynamic statements can be made with very simple designs. Although varying plant shapes and forms adds interest and contrast to the overall design, remember not to overdo it. Interspersing round, spreading plants with narrower upright types can be very appealing. So can mixing evergreen and deciduous plants (there’s nothing quite like a vibrant display of fall color in New England). Just don’t end up with a hodgepodge. Repeating a few effective patterns within a single theme adds unity and order, and is more appealing than a random approach. For example, planting a flowerbed with a single hue of each of several species, placed according to height and form, can dramatically improve the look and feel of the overall landscape. When designing flower beds, also remember that adding splashes of color by planting varieties that bloom in sequence rather than all at once adds interest and gives your customers reasons to appreciate your work all summer long.


Janet S. Hartin has served as environmental horticulturist for University of California Cooperative Extension in San Bernardino and Los Angeles Counties since 1984. The emphasis of her job is to develop and extend objective research-based information on all aspects of landscape horticulture to public and private landscapers and other “green industry” decision makers. Hartin specializes in sustainable landscaping issues such as irrigation scheduling, greenwaste management, and integrated pest management of woody plants and turfgrass. Hartin received her B.S. and M.S. degrees from the University of Minnesota.