Standing Out

Looking for a way to provide an additional service to your clients and fatten your checkbook at the same time? One of the best value-added profit centers is landscape assessment. Why? It requires little investment, just a few common tools and virtually no inventory. Essentially, the product to be sold is years of experience and the ability to communicate possibilities to clients.

As with most landscape projects and services, a sit-down discussion with your client is the best place to start. At this point, fight the urge to start spouting off idea after idea for the client. This is the time to listen to the client. Find out what they enjoy about a landscape. Do they like to sit and watch traffic? If so, a small patio with perennial border facing the street might be just the ticket. If they have children, ask about their activities. Do the kids play soccer, or are they the “sit in the solarium and read War and Peace” type? Again, this will dictate possible planting options and hardscape solutions to facilitate these activities. Commercial clients may be more concerned with traffic control and accent on entryways. The list of wants and needs you'll develop from this process is called a program statement.

Overall, the key to landscape assessment is keeping an open mind and not being jaded by previous client objections or bad experiences. Begin by walking the property (with or without the client), clipboard in hand, inventorying the assets and problems; make notes about how to enhance the valuable features and renovate the problem areas. There are advantages to being with the client when you look things over. He or she can provide you valuable information about traffic flow, vandalism occurrences, utility easements and other hidden nuances that the average landscaper would not be privy to. On the other hand, he or she might get in your way while you're trying to be creative and sort out the important issues. After all, most of us would prefer not getting bogged down with trivia like the hairstyle of the letter carrier who comes on Wednesdays and trying to remember if it was 1985 or 1987 when the car crashed into the maple tree. In most cases, a preliminary quick walk-through by you followed by a tour with the client will serve best in terms of site assessment.nt.


In addition to practicality for a two-pass approach is the actual benefit of site inventory and analysis. During the inventory, you'll identify problem areas as well as the assets of an area. A copy of the property plat or survey is quite useful during inventory. Use a piece of tracing paper and lay it over the plat. This helps you take more accurate notes and document potential concerns or opportunities for features. You may want to photograph the area for future reference and comparison. If the finished design turns out well, you may want to use the before-and-after photos to sell a similar job to other customers. Also, use a tape measure to determine the exact location of trees, sheds, etc.

Next, you'll perform the analysis: an evaluation of the importance of each specific condition. For example: the soils, neighboring views and existing buildings may be only a slight concern, but the slope and prevailing winds may be serious contentions. Make note of these. In addition to being a tool for addressing landscape problems, the inventory and analysis help to gain a “sense of place” or context in the landscape space, providing you with a better understanding of the client and the scope of potential improvements.


Each property is different, with unique needs in the landscape; yet there are several common areas that are ripe for renovation in most landscapes. They include the co-mingling of turf and ornamentals, improper spacing, scattered ornamentals, scale, slopes and the use of color.


The most common problem of a new account is the mixing of turf and ornamentals. In fact, you can almost always spot a “do-it-yourself” project this way. In general, turf should be separated from ornamental plants. The two plant types have drastically differing moisture and fertility requirements. A well-conceived design strives to group plants according to similar needs. Plants out of place are subjected to deficiencies or excesses simply due to location. Ornamental plants placed in the middle of turf swards are usually overfertilized and overwatered. Similarly, narrow strips of turf along ornamental beds are difficult to mow, fertilize and irrigate, and tend to receive less care than they require. Instead, design beds for efficient machine use and place plants within beds whenever possible, minimizing scattered elements.

The aesthetic side of this separation is mass/void. When ornamentals are massed together, the planting beds become more unified and make a stronger statement. Scattering ornamentals throughout a turf area dilutes their impact in the landscape. Turf becomes the void that the ornamentals are displayed against, focusing attention on them or nearby hardscape elements. Grouping ornamentals can help you accent entryways and other important functional components of the property, if your design statement calls for that.


Yes, Virginia, plants do grow to the size on the label. Another common problem you may identify in the site inventory is plants that have been installed too close to one another. If Japanese barberry is planted 2 feet apart, there is immediate impact; a finished look to a brand new planting. Unfortunately, Japanese barberry can easily grow to 6 feet tall by 4 feet wide, and in just a few years, the planting is overgrown and likely to be diseased due to inadequate airflow through the stems.

The opposite of tight spacing is the scenario with scattered ornamentals. If the Japanese barberries were planted 10 feet apart and not connected to one another by means of a mulch bed or groundcover planting, they become extended over a wide area and distracting in the landscape. Strive to follow the planting guidelines in terms of size and shape. In many existing landscapes, improper spacing will be a red flag on your inventory.


Goldilocks was unhappy until she found the porridge that was “just right.” The same is true for the scale of landscape plants. On the corner of commercial buildings and residences, sharp corners can be harsh to the eye. Properly sited, multi-stemmed shrubs and trees can soften these lines and make the landscape more pleasing. Of course, they need to be in scale with the structure. In general, the mature height should be about ⅔ of the height of the roofline to be in proper scale. Plants lower in mature height than this will fail to soften the vertical edge; plants larger than this will dwarf the structure.


Gentle slopes are desirable because a two- to three-percent drop-off facilitates water movement away from buildings, yet generally allows for water movement downward through the water profile. When the degree of slope is four percent or greater, problems commonly arise in several areas of landscape maintenance. There are four undesirable outcomes associated with a severe slope:

  • Uneven water distribution

    Following rainfall and irrigation events, plants at the top of the slope don't get enough water, while plants at the bottom of the slope get too much. Both results create an unhealthy growing situation for plant roots. Overly dry roots will slough off, while soggy roots will soon develop root rot.

  • Hard to mow

    It is difficult to mow slopes safely. Sometimes mowing them is even outright dangerous. On some slopes, there is an increased risk of overturning the mower, leading to injury of the operator and damage to the mower. At the very least, there is difficulty in steering because more weight is being felt by the downward wheel. The steering problem can result in excessively worn turf, as the wheel crushes turf plants during turning.

  • Hard to fertilize

    On slopes, there is a greater potential for fertilizer to move. Moderate to heavy rainfall can cause the particles to tumble down the slope, causing too much to be absorbed on the down side, with too little on the top. As with poor water distribution, this is problematic, with fertilizer burn in one area as well as a lack of nutrients in others as the result.

  • Hard to mulch

    Just as fertilizer, herbicides and water are prone to tumbling down the slope, mulch has a hard time staying put as well.

The first step in conquering problems with slopes is deciding whether to keep turfgrass on the slope or to change the plant material. When you come right down to the crux of the matter, all of the possible solutions are steeped in the heart of sustainable landscape design. After all, the last step of the design process is to thoroughly evaluate how well the plan is working after a season of growth. If you've identified problems with a slope for any or all of the above reasons, it's time to create a new planting design.

The simplest design solution is to leave the slope alone and just replace the existing turf with groundcovers or ornamental grasses. There are hundreds of choices, depending on your locale. For more information on these plants, check out The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses by John Greenlee, The American Horticultural Society Flower Finder by Jacqueline Heriteau and Ortho's All About Groundcovers and Groundcovers of the Midwest by Tom Voigt.

If keeping the turf makes sense, consider re-grading or installing terraces and retaining walls. Of course, changing management strategies can also be helpful when you're dealing with slopes. Delayed irrigation starts, aeration and topdressing, plant growth regulators, watering techniques and changing to a “no mow” species of turfgrass such as fine fescue or buffalograss have merit, and you should consider them in the overall scheme of landscape assessment.


Color is one of the most important aspects of a landscape. Get your clients excited about a new landscape by recommending some classic color combinations — simple and understated — to provide the overt eye candy that everyone loves. However, it is possible to overuse and misuse color. This is, of course, somewhat subjective; but I've found that the best approach is to keep it simple. Using more than three colors in a small space usually results in visual overload and confusion in the landscape.

The most important thing is to plan for it. Good color combinations are born in the design phase, not “sort of somewhere along the line” as you're tossing plants into the flowerbeds. While devising the program statement and chatting with clients about the need for privacy and the views toward the other neighboring properties from the deck, make sure you ask them about their favorite colors. Next to fragrance, color is one of the strongest connections to long-term memory and landscape preference that we have. It's quite easy to overlook the enjoyment that your client experienced while spending summers at Grandma's place, making hiding forts in the lilacs and picking shasta daisies for the dinner table.

A more practical approach to choosing colors for your designs might be to start with a dominant plant or group of plants (either the client's idea or yours) and then soften it, enhance it or complement it with other colors. For example, many lilies sport several friendly hues, such as pink, white and dark rose. A large-scale planting of single-hued gomphrena and chrysanthemums expand and replicate the effect on a broader scale, filling the landscape with an effective combination of color.

Finally, remember that all categories of plants can provide color, including annuals, perennials, groundcovers, trees, shrubs, bulbs, grasses and vines.


After you've completed the site assessment and developed a clear, concise program statement, walk through the property with the client, explaining what you see as the assets and challenges of the landscape. You may want to hire a landscape designer to sketch out some landscape fixes. These don't need to be elaborate; just a couple of quick ideas on tracing paper will suffice. Prioritize the various areas of the landscape, in case the client wants to renovate one area at a time. Have a general idea of what it might cost the client to install the plants themselves and how much you would charge. These are good options to discuss after the second meeting with your customer.

John C. Fech is an extension horticulture specialist with the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension (Lincoln, Neb.).

* The author would like to acknowledge the contributions of Kathleen Cue, landscape designer and horticulturist, to this article.

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