Author: Caleb Melchior

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Show Secrets: Design Details from the 2019 Chelsea Flower Show

You’ve probably seen photos from Chelsea Flower Show. For a week in late May each year, the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in south London are filled with show gardens and horticultural exhibits. The Chelsea Flower Show is one of the most famous garden festivals in the world. It’s organized by the Royal Horticultural Society, the United Kingdom’s primary horticulture non-profit. The Royals usually open the show. The BBC broadcasts hours of coverage. Celebrities stand and talk to the cameras about their garden love. This year, Dame Judi Dench did a talk about dutch elm disease. Other shows might be more innovative or cosmopolitan, but Chelsea has prestige.

I’d been meaning to go for years. This spring, I finally got myself together, took a plane and a subway and a couple of cross-town buses, and went to Chelsea on press day.

Main Avenue | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Main Avenue | Photo: Caleb Melchior

You enter into the Main Avenue. London Planes (Platanus x acerifolia) planted both sides of a wide walk create a vast canopy, flickering rows of booths. The uniform shape and color of the booths offsets the diversity of products and display styles on offer. In one booth, you could purchase some of Rachel Dein’s delicate casts – snowdrops, crocus, species tulips in bas relief. Others, garden tools or furnishings. You can sign up for Gardens Illustrated or The English Gardener magazine. But I was here for gardens, not to shop.

The show features three types of gardens: show gardens, urban gardens, and artisan gardens. Show gardens are the largest (1300-2100 sq ft / 120-200 sq meters), usually designed by high-profile UK garden designers and landscape architects, sponsored by large companies and organizations. They’re located around the Grand Marquis – the central venue where specialty nurseries and horticulture companies set up floral displays. Urban gardens, at 800-1100 sq ft/72-100 sq meters, usually explore contemporary forms and materials. They’re located against the backdrop of the Royal Hospital’s renaissance courtyard. Artisan gardens (220-430 sq ft/20-40 sq meters) are located back in the Ranelagh Gardens, to the east of the primary show grounds. They’re surrounded by woodland and typically explore looser, more rustic design styles.

Gardens in all three categories are incredible accomplishments. Anyone who’s been involved with making a landscape – particularly on a deadline – would be impressed at the craft and skill evident in these gardens. As a designer who works primarily in the United States, I’m highly impressed with the quality and range of plants available for these show gardens. The materiality is stunning.

But, looking at these gardens, I realized that there’s an integral element of the landscape experience that I missed. You can’t walk through most of the gardens. They’re set up like dioramas, beautiful jewel boxes that you can observe from the outside. As a press day attendee, I was fortunate to be able to have clear views of most of the gardens and walk around them without having to shove through a crowd. But I still felt like someone looking into a shop window. The gardens felt more like objects than spatial experiences.

Andy Sturgeon | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Andy Sturgeon | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Different designers addressed this spatial challenge in different ways. Andy Sturgeon’s Woodland Garden for M&G, the 2019 Best in Show winner, used a highly graphic approach. Strong lines (like swift charcoal strokes in a drawing) of burnt wood ledge sculptures by Johnny Woodford set up an underlying layered structure to the garden’s space. Quirky corky trees rose between the ledges, creating green veils. Then, between the ledges burst forth an intricate groundcover layer of highly varied woodland plants.

Intermingling Tom Stuart Smith | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Intermingling Tom Stuart Smith | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Diffusion – incorporating small-flowered and small-leaved plants with wiry stems – seemed a common technique for bringing lightness and movement to counteract the flatness of these gardens. Tom Stuart-Smith’s Show Garden for RHS Bridgewater (one of the few that you could actually walk through) featured highly intricate intermingled planting in jewel tones: purple cow parsley, orange euphorbia, tangerine geum, blue siberian iris.

Chanteuse | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Chanteuse | Photo: Caleb Melchior

In the Savills and David Harber Show Garden, designer Andrew Duff used white-flowered cow parsley and golden buttercups at the front of the garden to create a diffuse edge – enhancing the more solid shrub blocks and water bodies behind.

Montessorri Garden | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Montessorri Garden | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Diffusion was used in smaller gardens as well. Jody Lidgard’s Montessori Centenary Children’s Garden, one of the urban gardens, intermingled brightly colored flowers to create a display that a pointillist painter would love.

Laser Cut Aluminum Garden | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Laser Cut Aluminum Garden | Photo: Caleb Melchior

In addition to diffuse planting, designers used intricate and complex surfaces within the gardens to achieve depth. The Manchester Garden by Exterior Architecture incorporated a hand cut carbon fibre sculpture, Morpheus by Lazerian Studio. Morpheus’ organic form contrasted beautifully with the historical architecture of the Royal Hospital (visible in the background).

Moss Garden | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Moss Garden | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Kazuyuki Ishihare’s Green Switch Artisan Garden featured two glass cubes overlooking a moss-and-rock pool. The intricate surface of the moss, each soft hummock individually placed, created a sense of intense fascination. I couldn’t stop looking at it.

Reflecting on the show, the thing that I keep coming back to is the difference between my expectations and the actual experience of being there. Seeing photography of previous shows, my brain had interpolated an immersive spatial experience – an experience that the show didn’t deliver. This gap between expectations and experience reminded me of past visits to other high-profile landscape architecture projects that didn’t live up to the images.

Representation is always a challenge for landscape architecture and landscape architects. Visiting Chelsea – such a glorious temporary spectacle – made me wonder if sometimes the most meaningful landscapes are those we build only in our minds.


Lead Image: Driftwood Garden | Photo: Caleb Melchior

Portfolio Secrets for New Landscape Architects and Designers

A design portfolio, especially for the young and less experienced designer, is an intimidating document to create. We’ve all heard rumors of older students with silver bullet portfolios that secure them endless job offers from prestigious firms. Who doesn’t want to be fought over for employment?

Schwemmer Portfolio

Schwemmer Portfolio

Schwemmer Portfolio

These three spreads from Ashley Schwemmer’s student portfolio demonstrate how to use multiple types of graphics to build a compelling story about a project. Schwemmer is a currently a landscape architect with West8 based in New York City.

The ideal portfolio represents the breadth of your skills and abilities. It demonstrates that you can communicate verbally and visually. It proves that you can think critically. That’s a lot of pressure on one document, which you preferably want to keep to no more than 10-12 spreads (5MB).

Design portfolios are useful tools. They demonstrate prospective employees’ aesthetic sensibilities, problem solving skills, communication styles, and technical abilities. But no 12-spread document can fully represent a person. There is no silver bullet portfolio.

After working with hiring teams at several different types of firms, I’ve been on both the creating and reviewing sides of the portfolio. Here are some considerations that can help you feel confident that the document appropriately represents you to potential employers.

  • Make sure the document is easy to view. Many offices receive hundreds of portfolios for each job posting. The portfolios that will be remembered are those that are graphically clear and compelling. Make sure each spread reads at a quick glance. Format for easy viewing on small phone screens. Your knowledge of graphic and typographic design, layout, page structure, and hierarchy is reflected in your portfolio. Plan for good contrast so everything reads on a small phone screen or printed out in grayscale. You want to draw attention to the work itself, not to a complicated graphics scheme. Avoid complicated keys and labels.
  • Minimize text. You’re a designer. Keep descriptions short. Demonstrate problem solving and critical thinking through graphics. No one is going to spend thirty minutes reading your description of a bioswale planting.
  • Show design thinking. Pretty graphics are only part of the story. Tell the story of your processes through sketches leading to more refined graphics. Captions that include information about what tools/programs you used to create specific graphics and a rough estimate of the time it took you to create the graphic can be useful to a potential employer.
  • Demonstrate multi-scalar thinking. Use different types of drawings (exports from 3D models, concept sketches, photomontages, plans, sections, etc) together to show that you’re accustomed to thinking through design problems at multiple scales and in varying degrees of precision.
This spread from Ryan Albracht’s professional portfolio demonstrates design thinking at multiple scales, with a plan relating to construction details and exports from a 3D model. Albracht is a 3D visualization specialist with McAdams in Durham, North Carolina.

This spread from Ryan Albracht’s professional portfolio demonstrates design thinking at multiple scales, with a plan relating to construction details and exports from a 3D model. Albracht is a 3D visualization specialist with McAdams in Durham, North Carolina.

  • Use space wisely. You have 10-12 spreads to capture a potential employer’s attention. Don’t waste it. One of the most useless sections I’ve seen in a lot of design portfolios is a photography section. If you’ve made it through design school, you can probably compose a successful image. Use this space to demonstrate a unique skill.
  • Tie everything visually together as much as possible. Your portfolio, resume, website, and social media should read as a coherent experience that supports your expertise and areas of interest as a designer.
  • Demonstrate unique knowledge & skill. Design is all about application of specialized knowledge and skill. It’s hard to spend much time developing new skills when you’re in the middle of a busy design practice. As a younger designer, you probably have skills (particularly in technology and social media) that may add capabilities to a firm – enabling them to offer new services and take on new types of projects. Demonstrate the design research techniques that you’ve learned in school and show how to apply them in design projects. If you have statistics knowledge that informed a project, demonstrate that. If you know some neat tricks and tips, show them in your portfolio. If you have experience in fine art, list competitions and exhibitions. Show off your fluency with different media.
This spread from Elizabeth Levkulich’s student portfolio demonstrates explorations of mixed-media drawing in a Jon Hunt’s Poetic Image studio at Kansas State University. Levkulich is a landscape designer with TBG Partners in Dallas, Texas. 

This spread from Elizabeth Levkulich’s student portfolio demonstrates explorations of mixed-media drawing in a Jon Hunt’s Poetic Image studio at Kansas State University. Levkulich is a landscape designer with TBG Partners in Dallas, Texas.

  • Demonstrate hands on experience. Hands-on experience with landscape maintenance, retail horticulture, construction, graphic design, research methods, and business administration can be highly useful to landscape architecture firms. Demonstrate how real-world experience supports your creative practice.
  • Customize some of your portfolio. Keep a major block of your portfolio ready to go, but customize a few pages for firms that you’re particularly interested in. Do research and you’ll get a feel for the firm’s aesthetic – both in graphics and built work. Read staff bios – you’ll often get a sense for the type of language that firm appreciates. Google around to find out about new projects they’ve obtained and what they’re working on – you may have skills that enable a firm to take on new types of projects and offer new products.
  • Have a personal professional website. This doesn’t have to be fancy. It can be a wordpress site that just includes the material from your portfolio. Keep adding to it over time, even in practice. You’ll find that it’s highly useful to have an online place where you can demonstrate expertise.
  • Make it easy to contact and find you.

5 Top Planting Design Resources for New Landscape Architects

Clients and employers often complain that landscape architects, particularly young designers, are failing at planting design. Previous articles on Land8 have identified planting design as a challenging area for the profession in several other articles, including “Why Do Some Graduate Landscape Architects Have a Poor Understanding of Planting?” and “Garden Designers & Landscape Architects: Resolving the Identity Crisis”.

Planting design is a complex and time consuming aspect of practice. In the horticulture community, individuals devote their entire careers to understanding how to grow specific plants. Landscape architects don’t have that luxury. We are expected to have a thorough understanding of regionally appropriate plants, as well as the ability to specify them appropriately and provide direction for planting and maintenance. We need to quickly and efficiently create high quality planting plans and specifications. This requires a substantial body of knowledge and experience.

To fulfill this challenge, we need to draw on all of our resources to be able to fulfill our employers’ and clients’ expectations. As a start, here are five resources that will help you get better at planting design today:

1. Public Gardens

Public gardens are your top local resource for seeing what plants grow well in what situations in your area. Go, take a look at what’s growing – whether as a studio tour or a leisurely weekend trip. Introduce yourself to the horticulture staff. Find out their areas of expertise and current research interests. They probably have a designated help desk where you can ask specific plant-related questions.

Explore their online resources as well. Many public gardens have extensive resources that you can access from the comfort of your desk. Try Missouri Botanical Garden’s PlantFinder Database and Chicago Botanical Garden’s Plant Trials Evaluation Notes.

Regional botanical gardens, such as these Plant Family beds at Kew, Richmond, UK, are a fantastic resource for designers to see plants growing in specific physical situations.

Regional botanical gardens, such as these Plant Family beds at Kew, Richmond, UK, are a fantastic resource for designers to see plants growing in specific physical situations | Photo: Caleb Melchior

2. University Extension Resources

Looking for evidence-based information? University extension publications have it. They aren’t just for your country cousins. University Extension fact sheets are especially useful when you need information on specific plants or horticultural and agricultural practices. Best of all? They’re free. University of Florida and Cornell both have exceptional landscape-related online resources.

3. Trade Organizations

Throughout the United States, plant propagators, growers and nursery-people unite through regional trade organizations. Attending their conferences and nursery tours will enable you to understand what plants are available in your area, along with typical sizes and seasonal differences. Go talk to these nursery-people – a good relationship with potential sources will help smooth over project challenges. For a start, try the Washington State Nursery & Landscape Association or the Louisiana Nursery & Landscape Association.

Contemporary naturalistic plantings, such as these mixes at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Statford, UK, often have wide plant palettes that can be difficult to manage both in design and construction processes. Softwares for planting design management and plant sourcing can make these complex processes more efficient and profitable.

Contemporary naturalistic plantings, such as these mixes at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Statford, UK, often have wide plant palettes that can be difficult to manage both in design and construction processes. Softwares for planting design management and plant sourcing can make these complex processes more efficient and profitable. | Photo: Caleb Melchoir

4. Planting Design Management Software

The most comprehensive and widely available planting design management software in the United States is LandFX, an AutoCAD add-on. Using LandFX, designers can place plants as objects connected to a database. Once the design is complete, plant counts and schedules are generated automatically. This enables designers to quickly create plant lists with a high degree of accuracy and efficiency. Vectorworks, used more widely internationally, has these capabilities built-in.

5. Plant Sourcing Databases

You can specify the most wonderful plants imaginable, but if they are not available, you will be receiving endless calls from contractors and complaints from clients. Using plant sourcing databases, landscape architects can understand what plants are readily available – and at appropriate sizes – in their region. PlantAnt is one of the largest sourcing assistance sites, showing the inventories of hundreds of nurseries across the continental United States. It’s free, but many of the nurseries do not update their databases very often. The Plantium is a newer, more visually-oriented resource. To date, it only covers the Northeast and Midwest of the United States. In Europe, the RHS Plant Finder can help with some nursery sourcing, but it focuses on retail rather than wholesale sources. Any of these databases are only as good as the data that is fed into them, so it is often useful to use them as a general guide rather the gospel truth.

While planting design is one of the most challenging aspects of landscape architecture practice, it can be one of the most transformative elements of a project. Utilize these resources and we can start to erase the common complaint that landscape architects don’t understand plants.


Lead Image: At Beth Chatto’s Dry Garden in Colchester, UK, a sophisticated knowledge of plants supported transformation of a parking lot into a multi-sensory experience | Photo: Caleb Melchoir

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