I have lately been finding that some of my clients are reluctant to commit to the cost of a design plan without knowing the landscape costs associated with their design. It’s an understandable reluctance, I think. I am not, after all, in the business of selling people pipe dreams. Dreams, yes. Pipe dreams, no. It seems, therefore, prudent to me to be concerned about what you’re getting into and why (why, by the way, is the real important question, which I think we should all ask a bit more). I think it’s essentially a matter of trust and this is a difficult thing for some people to commit to, understandably.
The real problem, however, is that landscape designers do not generally have any idea what they’re going to discover during the design process, what features might look best in your landscape (and their associated costs), until they actually begin creating your particular design. I certainly don’t. It’s a bit of a catch-22. Though sometimes I can visually imagine certain elements as early as the initial site consultation, or on a subsequent visit, those ideas often change or even become discarded in favor of more enlightened ideas during the design phase, as I believe they should. Ideas evolve. Landscape costs come after the ideas are formed, in other words, and there are many ways to adjust landscape costs to fit a particular budget (more on that below).
The other thing that I think many folks miss is the true purpose and advantage of hiring a landscape designer. Essentially, I believe, it’s to get ideas. This is important. The purpose is not to get a quote for a new landscape (though you will likely get one), or even an exact plan for your new landscape (you will get that, too)—it’s first and foremost to get ideas about what is possible, what you might do, what a particular and knowledgeable landscape design professional would do, for example, if it was his or her yard that needed work and they had a certain budget to do it with.
The reason I mention this is because no one is telling anyone that they have to do everything that is on a particular landscape design. It’s your yard and your budget. Landscape plans are ideas on paper, suggestions. You can do some of it now, some later. You can have a professional install retaining walls and a patio and you can plant the trees and shrubs, if you desire. You can decide to do none of it (unless you signed a design/build contract) or all of it. What’s crucial, though, is that a design plan allows you to visualize these landscape ideas and makes you ask yourself important questions about the way you live and what kind of life you’d like to create for yourself and your family. People change and landscape designs can change, too, or should.
One thing that I recommend for folks who are new to hiring a landscape designer is to be honest and straightforward about your budget, or actually budgets (both your immediate and long-term budgets). These are two separate things, mind you—what you are willing to spend now (why you called a landscape designer in the first place) and what you believe you are able to commit to over a longer period of time (the next 3-5 years, say, or longer). A realistic, estimated budget range for your landscaping needs can save you and your landscape designer a lot of wasted time and energy. Your unique landscape design, then, can be tailored to match your budget and long-term goals. In the landscape design field, I’ve heard this approach called a number of things (“design to budget”, “design to fit”, etc.) and it’s a practical way to approach the landscape design and eventual implementation without giving you something that is unrealistic and unaffordable, i.e. a pipe dream. It’s hard to imagine folks who have an unlimited budget, but of course, there are those, too.
I found this from the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) website and am reprinting it here:
There is extensive documentation of the value that intelligent, thoughtful landscape design can add to your home. Well designed, installed and maintained landscaping can substantially increase the overall value of your home. A budgeting rule of thumb for a complete landscape installation or renovation is five to ten percent of the total value of your home, including the land. Therefore, if you own a $550,000 home, plan to spend between $27,500-$55,500 for a basic, functional landscape that will return up to 200 percent in value. Unusual materials, mature specimen plantings, or elaborate hardscape will add to this figure.
The most successful landscape projects start with a realistic budget. Don’t hesitate to share your budget with the landscape designer. A professional landscape designer can help strike a balance between special materials and cost-conscious choices to create a beautiful space that meets your functional, aesthetic, and budget preferences before you ask contractors for bids.
I am notoriously bad at “guessing” landscape costs and, of course, folks ask me to do this all the time prior to signing a design contract. Truthfully, from experience, I tend to agree with the quote above—I think it’s reasonable to expect (if you have a landscape company install the landscape) you should spend at least 10% of the value of your home and land value on landscaping in order to recoup your investment and have a well-designed and aesthetically-beautiful landscape. With that said, landscapes that truly stand out usually spend 15-20% of this value. What materials you choose to landscape with (there are many material options for walls, patios, decks, etc., and the cost differences can be staggering) and what size plants you install (immediate screen?) will create a wide range of landscape costs.
As the APLD quote above mentions, if you are willing to spend a little more, you can often add features or elements that are truly unique and will help transform your garden into a unique and beautiful space. I always include several unique elements in every design (whether it’s in the budget or not)—things that the homeowners might not have otherwise thought about and which could be a possibility some day. They are only ideas, after all, they don’t actually hurt you. This might be something like a small pond or a water feature, the use of an unusual material choice, or a garden object, but also might be an arresting arrangement of container plants, a vertical garden, or the integration of a recycled material that is currently available locally. Very often, it’s these unique elements that define the garden space and they are worth the extra cost, in my opinion. You will appreciate the unique elements every day as well as add to the value of your home.