What should I expect when hiring a garden designer?

– Posted in: Garden Design

Today I’m going to detail my design process in hopes of giving those readers who may be interested in hiring a professional garden designer some insight into the process. This information may be helpful to other designers as well. Keep in mind, this is just how my business operates. I have refined this business model over several years to accommodate my small operation. Your experience will likely vary.

Residential - before

Residential - before

Most often, new clients contact me via telephone and have often been referred by an existing client. I will generally ask several questions to ‘qualify’ the potential client. I typically mention the range for design fees and project costs in this first conversation. Being straightforward is essential for me: it saves valuable time and energy. Before doing that, I spent many hours working on projects that never came to fruition.

Once I decide to proceed with a client, I schedule a preliminary consultation on site. This is typically an hour-long visit and a tour of the property. It’s a time to identify landscape opportunities and evaluate client ideas. I encourage clients to do some homework before this meeting. I suggest pulling photos from books and magazines that represent styles, plant materials, etc. that they like. It’s important to consider dislikes as well: colors, flowers, fragrance, etc.

The preliminary consultation is also a time to determine if we mutually agree that a working relationship would be beneficial. I cannot stress enough the importance of trusting your instincts! I know from past experience that when I questioned the ‘fit’ with a particular client and went against my gut, I later felt I had somehow compromised my professional integrity. Let’s face it: not everyone values the creative process in the same way. A good working relationship between designer and client is essential to the success of a design.

From the client’s perspective, if you have not been referred to the designer, ask to see examples of his or work and check references. Even after seeing examples of their work, if you are in the least bit hesitant about commissioning a design, trust your instincts and hold off on making a decision until you are convinced either way. This designer may not be a good ‘fit’ with you.

Residential - with structural elements in place

Residential - with structural elements in place

I charge a fee for a preliminary consultation. It is a part of the qualifying process to make certain the potential client is serious about a project. Following the consultation, I prepare a written estimate for design services. The client is asked to sign a Design Agreement and submit a 50% retainer to start the design. I have become quite protective of my creative output in recent years, so among other things, the Agreement addresses ownership of the plans, ideas, and information generated during the design process. Additionally, it protects the design intent and a significant revenue stream by indicating that landscape design services are provided only to clients who intend to contract with me for installation and implementation.

If you are a designer, do you use a Design Agreement? If you are a potential client, how do you feel about signing a Design Agreement that favors the designer you are hiring and protects their creative output?

Once the Agreement and retainer are received, I schedule a completion date to present the design (typically some weeks to months out) and return to the site for further analysis, measurements, and photographs. Keep in mind that it is always helpful when the client provides a detailed site plan. It saves a great deal of time locating details, like terrain, property lines, buildings, utilities, existing plant materials, etc. More often than not, however, I am on site taking detailed measurements by hand. With this information, I prepare a base plan. The base plan is a to-scale drawing of the project area. It is the basis for further design sketches and drawings.


DynaSCAPE Landscape Design Software

Until recently I worked with fade-out vellum and pencil. Fade-out vellum is essentially graph paper in which the grid disappears when photocopied. You can imagine how time consuming it is to make changes to a design by hand. So, in December I decided to make my life a little easier and I purchased DynaSCAPE Landscape Design Software. I am still in the learning phase and I’ll post more on the software at a later date when I am better versed on the topic. I will tell you the features and output are impressive!”

With the base plan complete, I return to the site, often multiple times, to conceptualize a general design. It is helpful for me to do this in person, rather than referencing photos. In a previous post, I mentioned the best ideas come to me as I lie in bed at night with my eyes closed, visualizing the site. I suppose the ability to do this comes from spending a significant amount of time on site. As a designer, what works for you? Do you rely more on photos than time spent on site?

In the studio, I use tracing paper to sketch over the plan and work out the location of key structural plants, bed lines, hardscape elements, etc. When I am satisfied with the rough sketch, I meet with the client to confirm their comfort with the direction of the design. At this point, herbaceous plantings (perennials, annuals) are represented with photos. They are detailed in the final conceptual plan. The design development and client review process may take several revisions depending on the size of project.


Residential- Post planting, season one

Using feedback from the client reviews, I draft a final conceptual plan and return to present my detailed vision for the site. Visual aids and samples are invaluable at this stage. Following client approval of the plan, I begin the process of estimating costs to implement the design. 

I want to reiterate, this is my design process, and it has been relatively successful for me. There are other ways to go about this. If you are a client looking to hire a designer, ask for some clarity around what to expect as you proceed. If you are a designer, I am interested in how your design process varies from what I have outlined above.

Adam Woodruff

Adam Woodruff

Adam Woodruff has practiced garden design since 1995. He trained as a Botanist at Eastern Illinois University. Woodruff attributes his unique design aesthetic, naturalism with a twist, to early college exposures to a diverse range of plants and environments (collecting trips in local prairies, field excursions to bogs in Canada and treks through forests of the Northeast). He also maintained the campus greenhouse, where he fell in love with tropicals. In recent years, influences on his designs include travels abroad to Europe, Asia and the Yucatan peninsula as well as observation of the work of great plantsmen such as Piet Oudolf and Roy Diblik. Woodruff’s designs often combine grasses, prairie natives and perennials with lush tropical foliage and seasonal blooms. This harmonious blending of plant material that is not conventionally grouped together is the ‘twist’ that makes his style unique.
Adam Woodruff

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Mike Butler March 3, 2009, 12:22 am

I have not designed gardens for other for a few years, but you have outlined a good process. I do recommend using a computer program, in anticipation of customer input. Most clients will want to make changes or see alternatives, regardless of how great the original plan is.

Mike. Thanks for your comments. I agree, using design software makes adjustments easy and saves time. The output is very clean and professional!


Nicole March 3, 2009, 11:05 am

One of my best friends is an architect and I often give her legal advice on the process of dealing with clients as well as her contracts. What you have described is quite similar to her approach, refined over time, esp to mention the range for design fees and project costs up front as well as to charge for a concept plan. That saves her lots of time, lost opportunities and aggravation. Recently someone wanted her to reduce an already discounted 3,000 fee for a renovation-I mean, if you can pay 250,000 for the renovation you can’t pay for the design?

She has had people building million dollar houses who told her they think two thousand dollars is an appropriate fee!

Hi Nicole. Thanks for your comments. I have found that being direct, very early in conversations with potential clients, about ownership of creative ideas generated in the design process, fee structure, etc. to be the best policy. I am interested in working with clients to create outdoor environment they love, not just install traditional landscapes. From previous experience, when cost was the driving force in hiring a designer the potential client likely did not value my creative ability and unique vision for their project.


carolyngail March 3, 2009, 3:13 pm

Sounds like a good plan to me, Adam. Another great design tool is the digital camera which I use a lot . I print out the photos and sketch my ideas so that the client can visualize the plan in 3D. This also saves time and money for those on a strict budget who don’t want a fancy drawing. I always ask clients if they want the architectural drawing for big bucks or the simple plan for a few.

I rarely do contracts unless the client insists since my specialty is small urban gardens . Most of my clients are already familiar with my designs as they usually come from recommendations of friends or family.

I do a story board sometimes too but my clients like to go with me to the garden center to see the plants I recommend.

As Nicole pointed out some clients have just completed a major renovation and left very little in the budget for the garden design and they expect the designer to make it gorgeous on a shoe string. I give them an educated guess on what the project will cost upfront and encourage them to get 2 or more bids for comparison.

I’ve been fortunate in having all my garden installations approved of by my clients. A designer I know who worked for a large firm installed her client-approved design only to have the client come home , view the finished product, and dislike it so much she insisted to have it immediately removed and paid a lot to do so. I felt so bad for the designer.

So I can’t stress enough how important it is that clients can visualize what the design will look like once installed.

Carolyn. Thanks for sharing your comments and experience! I agree, helping the client visualize the final product is critical. A polished design, along with photos, story boards, trips to the garden center and public gardens help convey a designer’s vision to the client.

As I mentioned, I think it is important to trust one’s instincts when first meeting a new client. As garden designers, we are challenge to interpret our client’s needs and expectations (which they are often unable to articulate clearly) and translate them into masterful creations. This involves trust on the part of the client.

I am sorry for your friend. I wonder if she had an inkling early in the design process that the client would be difficult to please.

Finally, I’ll address Nicole’s point and your follow up regarding shoe string budgets following building or renovation. I encourage all clients to invest in a master plan and prioritize the installation as budgets allow. The beauty of developing a garden is just that, it develops over time.


Michelle March 3, 2009, 6:01 pm

Your process sounds very similar to mine and to other landscape designers in my peer group.
In regards to what you call ‘The Design Agreement’ , I call ‘ The Contract for Services’. Same thing different wording.
My contract was put together for me by a business consultant years ago and is a hybrid of the ASLA contract.
It has been revised over the years for the greater benefit to the client and me, the designer.
I don’t feel the contract favors the designer , it is a mutually beneficial business contract that protects and serves all parties involved .

I have an additional phase in the design development process, it is code compliance research that includes the investigation of the governing agency ordinances, codes and review processes .

Thanks for taking the time to describe your process.


Michelle. Thanks for your comments. I did a fair amount of research online and used a consultant and attorney to create the current Agreement. I like the idea of adding code compliance. Great suggestion!

By the way, I visited your site. Your work is lovely! I spent Christmas in Sonoma, CA. I envy your plant palette!


Mr. Roundtree March 9, 2009, 10:25 pm

Thanks so much for being transparent, for allowing others to see your method. I’ve been landscaping over 20 yrs, yet I know there’s so much to learn. Don’t get weary in well doing.

Mr. Roundtree. Thanks for your comments!


Keith Fleming March 23, 2009, 1:15 pm

What a wonderful post for a new gardener (professional) to read. I wonder if anyone would be willing to share their design agreement/contract for services? I have been thinking of using one, but the versions I have seen are too daunting. The AIGA: association of design professionals offers a 56 page document detailing how to write an agreement for services. The contracts for landscape architects also seem a bit much for simple garden work and design. Might someone know if there is anything available short of having a lawyer draft one?
Thanks so much.

Keith. Sorry for the delayed response. The money and time spent working with a consultant and attorney to create agreements specific to my business was well spent. I recall searching the internet for several examples, then working with professionals to tailor documents based on my needs. Good luck to you!


Rojer whieldon July 20, 2016, 3:55 am

Hello Adam, I am a client using the services of a garden designer for the first time. My problem is I don’t know what to expect from the designer in terms of being present on site and guiding/advising etc and options. in an email she wrote the fee covers scoping the land and coming up with a hardscape design plan and then a planting scheme. What if I don’t like the design/plan – nothing was mentioned about how many options I would be given or could ask for, what is the norm here? How many site visits can I expect before any planting takes place? The actual planting is not included in the fee of 1,500 Euros. I wish she had a written document outlining the process exactly and what time is available from her etc. Now I feel that if I ask these questions now we are into the process she will see me as challenging and rapport might be lost.

Fran Sorin July 20, 2016, 7:55 am

Roger Whieldon.

Adam no longer writes for GGW. You can find him on Facebook though. ALl the best- Fran

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