Visions: Design for the times

Good landscape design can help ease the pain of bad economic times. In fact, landscape designer Tara Dillard believes homeowners will turn to their outdoor living spaces for refuge, inspiration and serenity. “Attitudes have changed, and landscapes are considered something that enriches your life versus something to mark off the list as ‘done,'” she says. “Beautiful landscapes not only increase property value but also separate us from the chaos of the world. The money and effort for a beautiful landscape versus an average landscape are the same.”

TLC: How has your business adjusted to the economic downturn?
TD: The landscape industry was already in a major downturn in Georgia due to drought, water restrictions, water bans and higher water prices. Responding to the new template requires continually pushing the benefits of a landscape for property value and drought tolerance. In addition, marketing must include green buzzwords such as “organic,” “low maintenance” and “sustainable.” My business has expanded to include design, installation, lecturing and writing. With fewer install customers I’ve been increasing visibility in other areas to draw new customers to projects. While we’re working with a leaner staff, we are still installing and providing maintenance. But no matter how you look at it, things are tight.

TLC: Are clients interested in more budget-conscious plans?
TD: Budget considerations rank at the top of the list followed by water conservation and organic concerns.

TLC: How do you coordinate the exterior with the home decor?
TD: The landscape should flow with the interior of the client’s home. It shouldn’t look like one type of personality lives inside and another outside. It’s best to have less in your landscape and add to your plan gradually than to try to add without a coordinated plan.

TLC: What kind of home/landscape trends do you see for 2009?
TD: We’ll continue to see strong demand for outdoor kitchens, pergolas with ceiling fans and living room areas placed near the kitchen and family room of the home. Money spent in these areas increases property value and expedites home sales.

TLC: How can landscapers stay competitive in down economic times?
TD: Small companies should focus on doing for customers what they can’t do for themselves. Many customers are too time-strapped to maintain their property. Keep maintenance customers satisfied. Offer other services they typically can’t perform themselves. If you don’t do hardscaping, take classes in construction. Market talents such as building with wood, concrete or stone or doing electrical work. Use photos and captions with your marketing. Before and after photos are very effective sales tools. There’s still money to be made in the landscape business, but the business model will evolve.

TLC: Will sustainability continue to be a buzz word?
TD: I like the current buzz words like “sustainability” and “green.” They make you examine your priorities. For me it means planting deciduous trees to save on heating and cooling, not planting grass and not using chemicals. Sustainability is unique to each gardener.

TLC: What are the biggest landscaping mistakes you see?
TD: Planting perennials first. With the first winter you’ll see the disaster. Plant trees and evergreen shrubs first, then deciduous shrubs, groundcovers and perennials. It’s human nature, as a new gardener, to plant flowers first. The second most common mistake I see is planting without amending the soil. Most homes in new subdivisions have terrible soil. Planting perennials in terrible soil keeps me in business.

TLC: What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in landscaping?
TD: Independent garden centers have diminished in number in response to super-size retailers. During the recession of the early 1980s, more people were do-it-yourself gardeners. Fewer people have been letting their landscape maintenance company go during this recession. The amount of time people have available to devote to landscaping is significantly less. Cable TV garden shows have educated homeowners. They are more knowledgeable about what they want and don’t want. Inspiration before perspiration is crucial.

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Landscapers use a variety of attachments for doing everything from snow removal to jobsite cleanup, and regardless of how often they are used, every landscaper has a favorite attachment.
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