Did I just offend this landscaper?
September 22, 2012 9:29 AM   Subscribe

What did I do that was inappropriate in my consultation with this gardener/ landscape designer?

This morning we had a meeting with a guy who does tree trimming and some landscaping. He had worked with the prior owners of our home for years and did some plantings in the back and front yards. We are planning to do additional extensive landscaping in the front yard (several thousand dollars, converting most of the front yard from lawn to trees/mulched beds/paths/terracing etc).

We had met with him once previously, but I was watching our toddler and my husband did most of the talking (I wasn't present for 99% of the meeting). He was hired to trim some trees and he did a fine job. At the first meeting he talked briefly about the front yard project. He said that most clients don't want to spend the money on a drawing of the design/plan. I said we would be happy to pay for a drawing. He said it was too expensive. I asked how much, he said $300. I said I would be happy to pay that for a good design. He said no, that it was not necessary and he would just come over with some rope and pots and we would figure it out.

Today he came over with the rope and pots and bricks. We talked for about 90 minutes. We talked about a bunch of different ideas. While I have a general idea of what I want I don't have the details worked out at all. I mean, I don't know how many plants, what kind of plants, the exact location of anything, the exact shape of anything. I know I want ornamental grasses, trees, curving shapes, maybe some terracing, a lot of different textures, etc. I wanted to work with him to create a beautiful plan for the yard. We started talking about different ideas and I thought it was going well. I thought it was going well. We kind of went back and forth with different ideas and I thought we were making progress. We talked about different materials for retaining walls. We talked about how much grass to keep. We talked about different kinds of plants. Eventually he got out the pots and charted out where he was planning to put the plants and it turned out that he was planning to basically put the plants in a straight line. I wanted curving organic shapes, and I said so. He rearranged things so that it was kind of a zig-zag line. This was also not what I wanted. He asked me to show him and so I blocked out some areas for different kinds of plants, just kind of making it up as I went along.

The meeting ended shortly thereafter when I asked if we could put a tree next to some tall ornamental grasses on one side of the yard. He said that the tree would make it too shady. I stood over where I was thinking about putting the tree and we talked about it for less than a minute. I don't remember exactly but I think I said something about where the shadow would go, and he said that you couldn't see the tree well enough if it was behind the grass, and I said that the tree would get a lot taller than the grass so I was not too worried about that. Then he decided to leave saying that this was too complex and that we should hire someone else. I was very surprised and I immediately apologized profusely and said that I don't want to be the difficult client he can't work with. I again offered to pay him for the time he's spending on the design process which I think is extremely important. He said that it sounds like I have a very specific idea of what I want and that I have a good eye and that I should essentially draw it myself and give him a call at that point and he would just do the planting, or that I should call someone else. Then he left.

I am very upset. I don't know what I did wrong, but I am afraid that I have offended him and behaved inappropriately. My husband is pretty conflict averse and not willing to talk to me about this. He says that my tone of voice and body language was completely normal (I wasn't yelling, I wasn't acting condescending, etc). He says I was talking too much and too critical of some of the landscaper's ideas and that he probably thought I would be a difficult person to work with. I need someone to help me understand what I did wrong and where the line is - I really thought it was normal and appropriate to discuss different ideas and to express opinions about things. I mean I would think that a consultation like this with a landscape designer would consist entirely of proposing different ideas and either agreeing that they are good or talking about what you don't like about them, and I don't know how I can do this without politely expressing opinions.

Do you typically just get their plan and take it or leave it? I would think that I could say "no, that's not what I want in my yard, can we do something a little curvier?" or "I want limestone instead of wood" or even "why can't we put a tree here, and are you really sure?" without offending him. It seems like with the show up with a rope kind of deal it should be even more OK to have discussion. So my question is, was I out of line? Should I hire someone else, or should I try to work with this guy? Will I drive away any landscape designer with this kind of behavior?
posted by steinwald to Human Relations (30 answers total)
Based on what you've described, I think the problem is the designer, not you. And I think that the problem is that he's not actually a designer, he's "a guy who does tree trimming and some landscaping." So he wasn't prepared to actually work with you on, you know, designing. You should forget him, chalk it up to just one of those misunderstandings, and hire someone who actually advertises as a landscape designer. Someone whose has made a career of designing and implementing landscaping, as opposed to a tree planting guy, will be delighted to work with you, especially given that you seem like a person who is really interested in getting this right and is willing to pay the money to do so.
posted by decathecting at 9:34 AM on September 22, 2012 [70 favorites]

Hire someone else. He did not listen well, and you might have been disappointed with the results. Your request for a plan was not unreasonable.
posted by seawallrunner at 9:35 AM on September 22, 2012

Back-and-forth discussion is normal for any service of this kind, and his behavior doesn't sound reasonable or professional. He's practically begging you to find someone else to take on this job. I think you'd both be happier if you interviewed other providers.
posted by mochapickle at 9:35 AM on September 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Sounds to me like the design that you want is a bit over his head - you need a real landscape architect, who has experience drawing blueprints for terraced, complex designs and working with clients who have opinions. I think he felt overwhelmed and out of his league.
posted by amaire at 9:36 AM on September 22, 2012 [18 favorites]

Hire a landscape architect for a plan of this size. Not sure about the laws in your state, but in a lot of places anyone can be a "designer."

Someone with the skill and expertise you want does not trim trees as a side gig. (It will be expensive.)

I'm sorry about your crappy interaction. A lot of this stuff is confusing. (I've been there, oh, I have.)
posted by purpleclover at 9:38 AM on September 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

You didn't do anything wrong. He isn't really the kind of designer you need; it's that simple.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:40 AM on September 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

He didn't want to do the job, felt he had to in order to keep in your good books, tried to do it, then discovered it was too complex for him and backed out. You didn't do anything wrong, he didn't do anything wrong, you should both be happy this ended before anyone started work and it turned into a disaster. Hire this guy for tree-trimmings and basic "I want you to plant this thing here" and find someone whose full-time job is actually to be a landscape designer. (My parents did that when they redesigned the backyard -- the hired both an architect to place everything, and a designer to buy all the plants and plant them, and it was not inexpensive, but one of the decisions they are happiest with.)
posted by jeather at 9:40 AM on September 22, 2012 [20 favorites]

There is nothing abnormal about the interaction as you described it. It sounds like what you want to do is a little advanced compared to what he does, and he recognized that. (Which is kind of awesome, because a lot of people will be all yeah, sure, anything you want and then make a total mess of it.) If he doesn't have the crew, equipment, or savvy to implement the design you want, that doesn't make you a bad person - it just makes you a person who needs a different kind of service which he can't provide.

You've probably taken this interaction far more personally than he did.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:41 AM on September 22, 2012 [7 favorites]

I think he simply recognized that this was more than he was able to do or wanted to do and instead of wasting anymore of his and your time, he stated the obvious and moved on. No worries. Get a plan and hire him to execute if you still trust and like him.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:44 AM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

It sounds like he just has this personality quirk where he is too passive to just say so right away when he doesn't want to do something or doesn't think he's capable of it, and just avoids it passively as long as possible. I think that is what created the weirdness here, not your behavior at all.
posted by cairdeas at 9:47 AM on September 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

You did nothing wrong, or heck, even unusual. amaire and others have nailed it. Landscape design is a different animal from landscape maintenance, and it sounds like he's very much more a maintenance guy.

Are there good plant nurseries in your area? They often offer (sometimes excellent) design services at reasonable cost.
posted by vers at 9:49 AM on September 22, 2012

[My husband] says I was talking too much and too critical of some of the landscaper's ideas and that he probably thought I would be a difficult person to work with.

It doesn't sound that way to me. Part of the process of working with a designer is navigating the tricky space of having a general sense of what you want but lacking the expertise to realize the vision. You offered to pay the designer's stated flat rate for a drawing so that you and your designer could work out a clear picture of your expectations, and your landscape designer--for some unknown reason--didn't want to do the drawing. Then, your landscape designer got huffy when you expressed that you the work he was doing wasn't what you wanted (which he would have known very clearly, before he laid out any plants/pots/materials, had he done the drawing in the first place).

You want a landscape designer who is willing to work to your specifications. This landscape designer either doesn't have the skill level or the appropriate professionalism (or both) to do so.

You did nothing wrong, you just need to find a new landscape designer. When a design professional gets upset because you express your preferences, that's an indicator of a lack of professionalism on the designer's part, not an indicator of your being overly critical or a difficult customer.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:51 AM on September 22, 2012

You did nothing wrong. Neither did he. He sounds like he wanted to do it, wanted the job and to make you happy, but as it went along, he realized it was above his skill set. He still tried, but in the end the fact that he bowed out was the best for both of you.

The one clue that you missed was that he wouldn't draw up a design. He probably didn't know how, so he avoided it.

The fact that he didn't say yes and turn your yard into a disaster is a good thing. For both sides.
posted by Vaike at 10:02 AM on September 22, 2012 [9 favorites]

I am not a landscape designer, but I am an architectural designer, and I can tell you that you didn't do anything wrong. What you've described is not an unusual discussion to have during a client meeting. The above commenters are right: this guy didn't want the job, and didn't know what he was doing. Find an actual landscape designer.
posted by Specklet at 10:19 AM on September 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

We did a huge landscaping project last summer. The landscaper and I walked around our yard for an hour or so, talking about what I wanted. He then submitted a drawing. I made extensive notes on the drawing, we talked again, and he adjusted the plan. I made more changes and he adjusted again. I believe the fourth drawing was our final plan. The landscaper treated this as absolutely normal, as they did not want to start until we were all sure of what we needed to do.

I agree that your guy probably realized he was in over his head and backed out. It sounds as if he was polite when he left, but his tone of voice would make a difference. When he said you had a good eye and should do the plan yourself, did he sound irritated or sarcastic? Or just matter-of-fact?
posted by raisingsand at 10:23 AM on September 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

and are you really sure
That part is kinda offensive. You hire a professional for their knowledge and experience, when you argue with their expert opinion, its like you're saying you know more than they do. They should be able to explain their reasoning clearly so that you can understand why the thing you're asking for is a bad idea though (fwiw, I have no idea whether a tree where you wanted one is a good idea or not but I do know some plants don't thrive in the shade, so maybe that was the problem and he wasn't expressing it clearly?).

You should have been looking for someone else as soon as he refused to do you a design. If you offer someone a large sum of money to do something and they still refuse, likely its because they don't want to job or don't have the skills. Some people enjoy the whole design process and work well with clients, some people are just gardeners. Does he call himself a landscape designer/architect? Sounds like he's just a gardener. He's been trying to tell you all along that he's not your man, he probably doesn't want to lose the maintenance job he currently has but he doesn't have the skills or the patience for the design process.

It doesn't sound like you offended/upset him, he just didn't have the time/patience to go through the design process how you wanted, especially if you were negative about his ideas (even if they were contrary to what you'd told him he wanted). I know first-hand how frustrating it can be working with a client that doesn't really know what they want but everything you suggest is wrong. Either hire someone else to draw up the plans or do as he suggests and draw them yourself. (I bet you could get your hands on a free trial of landscaping software easily enough)
posted by missmagenta at 10:40 AM on September 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

You seem like a nice person who doesn't want to offend people. That's great, but you should be prepared to put that part of yourself aside when dealing with people working on your property. You got lucky with this guy; he realized he was in over his head and walked away before he butchered your yard. Think about the next time you might want to remodel and the person you've hired doesn't really understand what you want and goes ahead with it anyway! You did nothing wrong by expressing what you wanted to see and asking questions about whether it was feasible. That's what should happen in a client-designer meeting. If anyone in your area has the kind of yard you'd like to have for your own, ask them if they have a recommendation for their landscaper.
posted by asciident at 10:41 AM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Simple - You made the mistake of trying to use a gardener/lawncare guy as a landscaper/designer.

Not the same thing at all, though the confusion likely comes about from the fact that most people don't want "real" landscaping, they want a handful of flower beds scattered around the yard, perhaps a few hostas ringing their trees. Your gardener can handle that, and even give helpful feedback about what will likely die within a year, as long as you can do most of the aesthetic work.

He probably does what he does very well, but what he does, doesn't include art and architecture. Not his fault (except insofar as not realizing you wanted "real" landscaping when you started talking about drawing up formal plans), and not your fault (except, likewise, in not noticing how much he balked at the idea of drawing up formal plans). You may well want to take him up on his offer to do the installation of your plants, after you work with a proper designer to decide what plants you want, and where. But get that taken care of first, by an appropriate expert in that field.

Despite our society's tendency to call every janitor a "sanitation engineer", most of 'em don't design catalytic depolymerization plants - They just go around picking up the garbage and vacuuming the rugs.
posted by pla at 10:51 AM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

You should stop worrying about this guy. He doesn't want to work the way you want to work. He's been saying this in a more-or-less passive aggressive way (trying to talk you out of the idea that you wanted a drawn-out design when what is obviously the truth is that he will not produce one because he does not want to work that way. He does not want to work with an exact plan and he does not want to be closely directed. Who cares why. He has the right to work the way he wants to work and you have the right to work the way you want to work. And basically that was all he was saying to you.

You certainly don't owe him an apology and he doesn't really owe you one either. The communication was poor but hey it happens, you only wasted a couple of hours. There are many, many landscape options out there. Call many and make it clear from the outset you want a detailed drawn plan and you are happy to pay for this extra work. The response you are looking for is absolutely, no problem. You should be looking at multiple examples of past jobs to find someone who is doing the sort of layout you want. The last time I paid for landscape work I probably paid about a thousand bucks more than I "had to" to get exactly what I wanted and it was worth every penny.
posted by nanojath at 10:55 AM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think the consensus is right, that it just wasn't a good fit.

But the part about the tree next to the tall grasses sounds like it is a recipe for disaster. I don't think tall grasses will grow next to trees. Since he seems to think this too, he has no way to solve your problem: if he installs the plants as you specify, they will not thrive. So disappoint you now, or disappoint you later were his only options.
posted by gjc at 10:56 AM on September 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

I don't even think that this was neccessarily out of his league... just that you have different styles. The same type of problem could happen with a more advanced professional, and does (when a friend and I and his mother were designing a house, she (the mother) hired a high-end, expensive professional with a degree who simply was incapable of understanding what we wanted. This professional just wasn't accustomed to that kind of design).

Instead of spending a lot of money on a "higher up" professional, and risk having the same thing happen, why not look around at peoples' properties that you like, and find out who did the design? Some landscapers with less formal education are great at that stuff. Some aren't. Just keep trying until you find someone you mesh with.
posted by windykites at 11:11 AM on September 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

I want to echo Specklet and raisingsand. Seven or eight years ago I had someone design a balcony garden for me, and the process on both sides was very much as described here. Discussions about look and feel, colours, shapes, how much maintenance I wanted to do, lots of back and forth. And then drawings, some more back and forth, more drawings and then final decisions before any purchases were made. The designer wasn't a landscape architect, but she was very clear that her job was to design something, and the job was aesthetic as well as horticultural.
posted by looli at 11:54 AM on September 22, 2012

A landscaper is to a very real degree a very specialist designer. There are two types of designers and two types of clients. A lot of clients just want to give you their problem, walk away, come back, and pay you for a job well done. Other clients want a really collaborative process. It is essential that the client and the designer be well matched in this way. The fact that you wanted to work collaboratively and he didn't doesn't make either of you wrong, it just means he was correct to suggest you find someone else.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:15 PM on September 22, 2012

I am a landscape architect; I have a bachelors in biology & visual arts with a masters in landscape architecture; I also have certifications in sustainable/green design. In my company, all we do is design and planning. This is a pretty complicated process that requires knowledge of a lot of different subject areas (horticulture is just one), never mind that most home improvement stores/sites want anyone to believe they can do it on their own.

I am inherently skeptical of hiring anyone to design AND install a landscape. There is a conflict of interest. A designer/contractor will want to design what he/she knows best using the plants/materials that he/she has in stock. At my firm you would pay 10x that amount for a typical residential plan that landscape contractors would then place bids on to install. *But* you would get a design within your budget that creates the exact space you want AND supports the functions you require from your landscape.

You get what you pay for. If the people you are working with can't handle your needs, find someone who can.
posted by Kronur at 12:27 PM on September 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

Everyone is right on here. And think about what it means to draw something up. If I were to do a drawing for you of this type, I would take accurate measurements of your property noting sun paths and shade structures. Then I would either draft it on the computer or draw it to scale on some grid paper. I'd want it to look nice in either format. Then I'd work collaboratively with you to settle the design with a few rounds of back and forth and refining the drawing. So, if I don't have the computer skills or the special papers or any inclination to measure your property and consider multiple aspects of the design PLUS collaborate...well, that's a lot to ask of someone. He's just not your guy for this. Though he may still be perfect for maintaining the new design once you are done.
posted by amanda at 12:31 PM on September 22, 2012

I know this is just echoing what everyone else has said but:

You did not do anything wrong. He literally does not think he can do the job. He thinks you should hire someone more skilled than he is, because he is not able to do what you asked him to do. "A guy who does tree trimming and some landscaping" is not qualified for this job. Compare asking a builder to design your house vs. asking an architect.

Your husband is probably not a good person to have this kind of discussion with in the future. Given what you have posted here, I don't think he is correct that you sounded like "a difficult person to work with".
posted by capricorn at 12:48 PM on September 22, 2012

I've worked with a number of designers on different projects. The way you've described the interaction, I think the guy just didn't want the job. I see no problem with "are you sure" in regard to the tree. It's normal to start out with vague requirements, and refine them as the discussion goes on. If you decide after an hour and a half that you really want a tree, then you might have to change some of the ideas you had 20 or 40 minutes ago. That's just part of the process. Shade in a garden isn't actually a probem...it's a condition that can be worked with.

I think the guy realized he wasn't the person for the job. Your back-and-forth with him about the drawing, his unimaginative layout, and the tree "problem" are good indications that you should find someone else for the job. The right person will be enthusiastic about your ideas and more interested in finding solutions when you suggest something that creates a challenge.
posted by wryly at 1:13 PM on September 22, 2012

I'm going with him-not-you! He wouldn't give you a design? Even when you offered to pay???! I've worked for several landscape companies & that's money in the bank, for the love of God! You take that request, you farm it out to someone with a drafting table & some landscape design experience & THEY do the consult, the drawing, supply the plant knowledge, then you do the planting & present a bill that includes the designer's fee plus your cut off the top.

You DO need someone else, he's absolutely right about that. Don't let his flouncing off shake you. You know you were being reasonable & he's not the only service provider in town I'm sure.

Can you imagine what he'll be like to work with if you succeed in begging & pleading him back?
posted by Ys at 1:32 PM on September 22, 2012

I'm a landscape designer/gardener (residential yardscaping). I've dealt with clients that were a pain in the ass.
You on the other would be what I consider reasonable.
I know. The last couple I worked for were freakin nightmares.
posted by ducktape at 3:02 PM on September 22, 2012

Thank you! I love Metafilter. Hearing this a lot of times really helped me to stop freaking out.

He was 100% nice about it, not huffy or unprofessional or sarcastic about anything. He's very nice. I would be happy to work with him in the future. It was just hard for me to believe that he would not want to do this work all of a sudden. He works for himself, and he does not call himself a designer. I think his card says something about tree maintenance. You all make a lot of sense.

Of course I was wrong about the tree, but I don't know anything about this stuff.

This afternoon I made an appointment with an actual designer at the local high end nursery that also does hardscaping and stuff. They have professionals who just do designs and they do nice computer drawings. They have a very impressive portfolio. I expect to spend a lot on this project and that is not a problem at all.
posted by steinwald at 3:18 PM on September 22, 2012

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