Planting Design Classes

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    Due to a lay off, I recently made the switch from a landscape architecture firm, to a design build company.  Since making the switch I realize my plant knowledge has suffered since graduating.


    With some free time coming up this winter, I’m looking for some online courses or something that I could do or take in order to increase my knowledge and expertise of planting design, and plant knowledge.


    Anyone have any courses that you know of, or have anything you could recommend I could do this winter to help expand my knowledge in this area?



    Theodore Tegen

    I would first try your local community college, if there is one nearby. Many of the community colleges near me offer two-year landscape design certificates.

    I would also look into your state nursery and landscape association (MNLA is Minnesota’s) for educational material.

    Aaron Thacker

    I went thorugh a similar change a year or so ago. I had been doing planting plans, but found I needed to expand a little for the residential market. I try to get out to nurseries and botanic gardens to better my plant id skills and to keep things creative, but the biggest coordination item for me has been developing my xcel bid sheet to have a core palette I can work with. I don’t think home owners/clients expect you to know everything, but they do expect you to know what you are proposing. If you have confidence in that it will make all the difference.

    I stick to my core palette, which is catagorized by sun/shade/water/etc., to keep the design process efficient and reliable. Warranty work will kill you faster than reusing the same plants on the next project. I mix things in as needed because I saw something I think would add more interest, but in the end I stick to what I know and build on it. Besides, if you have 15 trees, 25 shrubs, 10 grasses and 25 perennials, just for example, you have all sorts of combinations you can come up, not-to-mention you will be able to id them.

    What I did my first winter, when I had some down time, was look through plant catalogs, books, google image search for plants (or planting plans) and organize the plant list so that come spring you know what you want to use. I think a class might help, but if you are back in design-build, save your money and use your time to stoke your curiosity, it will work itself out. At least is did for me.

    Mike G

    If you’re working design / build your use of plants is often limited by what is available. For better or worse the use of common landscape plants is often very different than what you would use in a garden situation. To clarify landscape plants are your tried and true varieties that when used in the right places are more adaptable, more insect and disease resistant, less fickle about pruning methods; generally your ‘low-maintainence’ plants. These are the plants you want to know first. To keep things simple, and often profitable, in a design / build environment know the difference between landscape and garden. You can often find a lot of information from local nursery catalogs. Botanical gardens also often have useful professional classes if there is one in your area. I have found these organizations very helpful to me.

    steve phillips

    I don’t know where you live, but they probably have a county extension service in your area. Call them and talk to the hoticulturalist and ask them to send you some info. They usually have the latest plantlist that do well in the geographical area that you are working as well as any soil ammendments that you should be aware of. Also, don’t forget to just walk around and see for yourself which plants are working and which are not. I am sure that you can guess how long a plant has been in the ground just by looking at it. Also, if you see some good plant combinations, COPY them…it is the best form of flattery!

    Jonathan Smith, RLA

    My own experience has taught me that it’s more important to understand plant design theories, why combination look good together, than simply look for good plant combinations. Anyone can see that autumn joy sedum with fountain grass is a killer combo, but why?

    Try reading books by Piet Oudolf. Subscribe to Garden Design, Fine Gardening and Horticulture, magazines.

    There’s also a book called Professional Planting Design for Landscape Architects. Don’t know the author off hand.

    I know it’s easier to use the same old plants that you’ve always used like some below have suggested, but that mentality limits possibilities and makes design formulaic.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    I agree with Jonathan. Planting design theory is the place to start to be very effective in residential design. Understanding what you are doing with the plants to enhance experiences and aesthetics is going to affect the outcome of the project in much bigger ways than a plant list. Moreover, explaining why something that a homeowner wants does not work or why something that you suggest will be effective in a well articulated manner is much better than saying “I don’t like that” or “this will be great”. When you can do that, you will sell more design which will follow with more construction $ale$.

    It may be much better to limit your palette at first to maintain higher control on the outcome with plants that you are more familiar with. You can grow your plant palette into your designs with better results than the other way around.

    Don’t overlook the resources of your co-workers who are around a lot of plants every day, especially the maintenance guys who see what they turn into after a few years. It makes you more likable as the new guy if they see that you respect them. Coming in as a new guy with a job above some of the others can be pretty uncomfortable, so anything helps.


    I think Aaron has the right idea of visiting nurseries and botanical gardens. Nurseries will give you a good idea of what’s available and botanical gardens will allow you to see the mature sizes of some of these plants.

    Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia by Michael A Dirr is probably a “must have” in your book collection if you work in the Midwest or Northeastern part of the US. Use it as a reference, but be sure to develop your own opinion about individual plants over time.

    One of the best ways to learn your plants is to keep your eyes open. You can gain a lot of plant knowledge just by paying attention to them as you go about your daily activities, like visiting potential clients, zoos, restaurants etc. If you see a plant that interests you, but you can’t identify it, take a picture of it and look it up.

    Most importantly do not specify plants when you have no idea what their horticultural needs or characteristics are. Just because you see hundreds of Burning Bush planted under a low windows or rows of White Pine planted on 6’ centers doesn’t mean that you should do it. Start with your core plants and build your plant palette as you gain more knowledge.

    I think we’ve all made plant choices that we later regretted. At my first job out of school as a landscape designer I specified a cluster of ‘Sunburst’ Hypericum right next to a pool area. I got an angry call one day from a home owner saying that although the newly installed landscape was beautiful, I ruined her daughter’s pool party because the Hypericum had attracted thousands of bees and the girls were not interested in running a gauntlet of killer bees. Learn from your mistakes as well as others.

    Steve Mercer

    Well I think I would try to attend some nursery trade shows like CENTS in Columbus, OH. This will enable you to see new varieties of plants that are entering the market. It will also give you a better idea of what is available. Just because you spec something in a design does not mean it is available for sale in the industry. So much of learning about plant material cannot be found in a class or a book. They are good places to start but true knowledge of plant material comes from observation. Vistiing arboretums older churches and especially cemetaries in your area an observing the size AND age of the plants. You need to do this in all four seasons as plants reveal their best attributes at differnent times of the year. This will help your designs to become more sustainable. Managing space in a design is as important as the features you add to it. The one area I think most landscape Architect programs fail their students in is plant knowledge. I liken it to sending a carpenter to the job-site without a hammer.


    The CENTS show in Columbus is an excellent suggestion Steve. If you’re a nuts and bolts kind of person they usually have excellent equipment displays and demonstrations as well. I feel knowing the methods and technology in landscape construction will make you a better designer. This will lessen the chance of a contractor feeding you a bunch of bs.

    I have one more suggestion. Be careful with the advice you get from some nursery retailers, remember they are in the business of selling plants. The sketchy (or unknowing) ones won’t tell you the negative aspects of a plant. These are the guys that will never tell you the actual mature sizes, the susceptibility to pest and diseases or the aggressiveness of plants. I think some of this comes from the fact that they only know what a plant does in optimum nursery conditions. The best nursery folks are the ones that have test plots (or gardens) and study the performance of the plants they have sold over the years in real landscape conditions.

    Good Luck!

    Steve Mercer

    One can never trust infomation on new varieties from anyone! This is because some of these varieties are less than 10 years old they have not even had a chance to be observed as a fully mature tree. Until then one can only speculate on the mature size and shape of the plant. It is a good place to observe new varieties that are beginning to show up in the trade. Armed with that info you can use this as a starting point to investigate these plants further. I will say that some vaireties are more thourghly tested than others. Many varieties being released by the National Arboretum have been tested 15 years or more. Remember why the call them nurserymen… They grow young plants… i.e. baby plants. Thats where the term comes from. So many of the growers are so focused on their day to day operations that they never see what the end product looks like. You have to understand the type of information being presented to you. A better place to understand the negative aspects of these cultivars are at the arboretums. They normally plant the plants and let them be. So you are better able to see what their natural shapes and sizes are. Talk to the arboretum personnel if the particular plant you are interested in has problems they will usually tell you what they are. Any one who is a Designer should used Arboretums as their “Masters study program” It is as important to study there as it is to go and observe other landsape designers mature designs.


    Les Ballard

    Here in the Uk you could ring the local agricultural college or even the Royal Horticultural Society and ask their advice. I assume you have something similar. A lot of the courses have students making a garden area but it always seems to me it starts with a list of about 200 plants’ latin names you learn by heart and this stands you in good stead for the furure. Knowing what your local lot are talking about seems a good precursor if nothing else. Plant disease knowledge is becoming more important now and a trip to the garden centre to read the words on the packets of remedies over a coffee or 6 would do you no harm. Then google them to see if others use the same thing. Meanwhile, in the coming season, I strongly recommend you beware the less appealing characteristics of the ilex in your halls while embracing the traditions associated with your Viscum. .

    Matthew Geldin

    there’s actually some landscape stuff on iTunes U. I haven’t really delved into it, but it might be an easy place to start. i second the Piet Oudolf books and magazine subscriptions. visit local gardens and make some sketches or take some photos, or both. study the designs that work. if you’re in california, check out books by bob perry. his planting palettes are a great spring board.

    Tanya Olson

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned taking Master Gardener classes (for plants, not design, in my opinion). I don’t know if they offer classes online, but usually there is a local instructor….

    Steve Mercer

    Hi Aaron,

    You mention warranty work… How about taking time to understand the site you are designing for? It won’t help your warranty claim issues if you are not designing for what a site will allow you to plant. Doesn’t do you any good to plan those lovely Blue Spruces when they are to be located in poorly drained site. It is not just about using the same old plant palate over and over again. It is about choosing plants that perform the best in the site you are designing for. The more time you take to thoroughly understand you site and pick you plants accordingly the less warranty claims you will be paying out. You must also take into consideration you surrounding landscapes. If you are standing on the corner of a property and you can count two dozen River Birches in the landscapes surrounding you it would probably be a good idea to leave the River Birches out of your palate for this landscape project.

    One of the functions of Agricultural Extension has is to steer the public away from potential problems. If extension is not recommending American Dogwoods, They may be making that recommendation not based on the viability of American Dogwoods in your area but rather the fact that there is a high concentration of American Dogwoods in this particular area. They are trying to steer the general public away from potential disasters. (What would happen if suddenly all the dogwoods in the area got infected with Anthracnose and died?) It is more of a guide to say that particular species of plants are being over planted and is meant to encourage Designers to use fewer of those plants in their designs. If you are planning on using a plant that is not on the recommended list, you need to find out what the issue is with that particular plant. Obviously you would not want to be specifying Ash trees in an area that is or is in eminent danger of being infected by Emerald Ash Borers. If however the problem is just overpopulation you can still use a plant that is on that list just more sparingly.

    Diversity is one of the ways Mother Nature combats disease. We all would do better to take a page from this book. Yes it is more work to specify plants from a much wider palette. But in the end you are helping your clients fight off disease over the life of the installed landscape. The more successful we make our clients with the designs we build for them, the more work will come our way.


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