Life Hacks / Garden Help

Pat Abraham with consultant Lynn Chimera

Photos by kc kratt


It feels so great to get out in the yard to plant some flowers, rake some leaves, dig in the soil, or cut the grass—at least most of the time. But sometimes you just can’t do it. You don’t have time. Your back is damaged. There’s a family crisis. Or you know you just don’t have the eye for design or enough plant knowledge. You need help.  


What kind of help and where do you find it?

The trouble is that landscape and gardening help comes in many shapes and sizes and it is not easy to sort out what kind of help you need and then to find it. The matchmaking system is imperfect (as all matchmaking tends to be), but assessing your needs will help. Start by answering the following questions:


1. Do you generally like the landscape and gardens that you have?

If Yes: 

(a) Do you need help just a couple times a year with heavy work (edging, weeding, mulching) or seasonal clean-up? 

(b) Do you need help on an ongoing basis?

If No: 

(a) Do you want a complete renovation and new landscape?

(b) Do you want to keep most of what is there and just tweak it, adding or replacing some plants or beds?

(c) Do you just not know what to do?


2. Are you a gardener?

If Yes

(a) Can you handle what you have? Or do you anticipate life changes so that you won’t be able to do it all at a future time?

(b) Do you like your plants but not the design? (Or there’s no design?)

(c) Do you like the design but not the plants so much?

(d) Do you want help with the heavy work but not the flower/vegetable gardening?

If No

(a) Do you want to learn gardening?

(b) Do you know the “look” you want and would like to participate in choosing flowers, colors, and landscape plants—but have others install and care for it?

(c) Do you want professionals to interview you, design a landscape/garden suitable for your home, and (after approval) install it? Will you or they continue the care?

Once you know what you want, communicating with potential helpers and professionals gets easier. 

There’s a right-sized pro for any project—large, medium, or small.


Large landscape design—when an LA is needed

There is a difference between a landscape architect (LA) and a landscape designer, beginning with more years of education behind the LA degree. Dan Seiders, LA, of Joy Kuebler Landscape Architects ( explains when a project calls for an LA: “It’s a matter of the extent of the work. For a large property, if you’re significantly reconfiguring the site or reimagining the use of the overall land, you probably need an LA. Or when it involves site engineering—recontouring or grading the site, installing drainage systems or terracing—that’s where we are needed.”  


Sometimes you’ll hear a criticism, possibly even from horticulture industry professionals, that “Some LAs don’t know their plants.” Seiders laughs when I mention it and agrees with me that, as in all professions, some are better in one aspect of the field than others. In Western New York, we have two landscape architects in particular who are greatly respected in the horticulture community for ecologically sensitive and innovative landscapes and gardens. They are Joy Kuebler, who has created green roofs, rain gardens, school gardens, and native plant designs in private and public gardens all over the region, and Dean Gowan (senior landscape architect at Wendel Companies). Gowan has been instrumental in planning some of the new “green” improvements on the Buffalo waterfront and is the creative force behind many grand estate and public gardens in Buffalo, Washington, and beyond. These LAs do know their plants. (See more listings and information at the American Society of Landscape Architects website). 


Medium landscape design—without the LA

And if you don’t need or can’t afford an LA  but do need landscape design help? The new PlantWNY Guide lists landscape designers. Some have specialties and signature styles. Some offer great variety and sophistication in plant selection, including perennials and container plants—and some don’t. Some are great at hardscape and can plan paths, walls, patios, and figure out berms and drainage. Many are amazing for what they can do with a new space or an overgrown old one. I have been humbled personally when I was invited to look at a large, bare landscape around a new house, and I could barely imagine shaping the space. Then I saw what landscape designer Joe Han, CNLP (Certified Nursery Landscape Professional), The English Gardeners, put in place: curving paths, a water feature, boulders, trees, a pergola, and garden beds filled with shrubs, trees and perennials. That’s what real landscape designers can do—listen to the client, have a vision, consider the practicalities, and make it happen. WNY has many CNLPs who can.


All so-called landscape designers aren’t equal, though. Anyone can claim the name. So get references. Look at other projects that person has done. See the website pictures and descriptions. Most of all, determine if you’re compatible in taste and style. Do you feel you’re speaking the same language? Do you sense you can trust and like this person (who will be in your private yard)? Do you feel heard when you describe your vision or wishes? One place to get to meet and interview landscape designers (or workers) is at Plantasia, PlantWNY’s show held in March at the Hamburg Fairgrounds. The professionals are there to give you a sense of their style and to talk—so talk. If you want more than an all-too-typical green-shrub landscape, ask them what flowering shrubs and perennials they tend to use in their designs. Ask about costs too; better to face it now rather than later. Good work on the outside of your home is at least as valuable as what you spend inside. And then make an early date to meet at your property because the good ones get very, very busy. 


One question that’s often asked is whether you need a formal landscape design on paper. Not always. For a large, formal project, it will be important to have it for decision-making, future management, and long-term planning. For many simpler home landscapes though, the point is to use whatever vehicle lets you and your designer/planner communicate. Sometimes a sketch and plant list will do. Sometimes a landscaper just marks out a space, shows you plants and materials, and gets on with the job. 


Landscape designer Benjamin Hirsch, CNLP, who works with local company Restorff's, often plots out his designs using software created for that purpose. He thinks designers need to look beyond traditional solutions, such as foundation shrubs and advocates for well-placed stone hardscaping, noting, "Native stone and boulders are as right—we might say as organic—as native and site-appropriate plant choices in a landscape. They anchor the plants in more ways than one. But they must be integrated within the design and not look like they just fell from the sky."



The Kulick garden in Snyder


Small garden design and consultation

Gardening comprises a huge body of information, so it’s reasonable to get a horticulture professional’s advice even about one new flower bed. Gardeners and homeowners walk into garden centers or nurseries all the time to ask, “What should I do here?” The cell phone picture they’re showing isn’t enough to work from, but larger pictures and a good interview are often enough for a hort professional to help design that bed right in the shop. You must provide measurements and information (sun, wind, orientation, soil, heights of windows, and more)—and then you look at plants. 


When the site and its problems are more complicated, and help in the garden center doesn’t seem to be enough, you want somebody to see the place. That’s where a garden consultant or coach comes in. (Sometimes a coach even works with you and teaches you to garden.) Ask in the garden center if they provide onsite consultants or if they will recommend someone. I have done this work upon occasion and have identified a few individuals who will do it. One is Lyn Chimera of East Aurora ( One of her clients, Pat Abraham of Orchard Park, says, “Lyn saved me from making big mistakes. In one case I was looking at white-flowering rhododendrons about three feet tall, and she told me 'No—they would grow to six feet—way out of proportion!'” Abraham also got plans from nurseries that she just felt were wrong, either too elaborate or just not the right style for her 1890 Greek revival home. “Lyn helped with the big picture, from fixing the soil to choosing plants that suited the architecture” she says. “A consultation was really worth spending the money.”


Other garden coaches or consultants have received rave reviews, including Beth Henesey of Lockwood’s Greenhouses, who can take first-time homeowners by the hand and lead them into a plan for their first landscape garden. Mary Jane Hayhurst, former Master Gardener, has done this for many in the region. Marla Wagner, CNLP (Grounded Garden Design), also offers personal home consults as well as installation (for smaller sized projects) and maintenance. She thinks the biggest need for many homeowners is perennial gardening advice since some landscapers aren’t so confident about perennials and sometimes fail to get the flowers in there—even though clients ask for them. She adds, “I also think many home gardeners need more help with aesthetics—design—because that is a different skill than the gardeners’ knowledge about plants.” In short, a good consultant or coach can walk around your yard and tell you what might make it easier, prettier, or more successful. Although I know there are others out there, I believe there aren’t nearly enough Lyns, Marys, Beths, or Marlas to go around. We’ll work on that in the industry. Meanwhile, if you find the right garden coach or consultant—for advice or maintenance—don’t let her go. 


The Kulick's garden in Snyder


Hard labor and odd jobs through the seasons

Sooner or later a lot of us need some help, especially with heavy lifting. Kevin and Rise Kulick of Snyder have a garden that’s often on tour, photographed, and remembered especially for its stunningly beautiful and huge containers filled with bananas, cannas, and other large tropical plants. But the pots are so heavy that the couple could never handle the seasonal changeover without a landscaper who hauls away the pots for winter storage.


More typically, many fine gardeners in our suburbs and cities use a landscape firm for seasonal maintenance—perhaps just spring and fall clean-up, or pruning and grooming as needed. You can do much better gardening if some of the most physical jobs come off your list.


Even in a yard where no landscaper has ever trod, you sometimes need to delegate some heavy work.  I’m the last to admit this. Like many of my friends, I want a quiet time in the garden, not someone to supervise. But if your back (or hip or knee) is complaining, at least ask for a young person’s help, even the non-professional kind: a grandson or the neighbor’s daughter. You can delegate some work without supervising: edging the beds, taking out turf for a new bed, hauling in compost, spreading mulch, and digging wide holes for the trees you will plant. Sometimes you’ll even find a protégé who wants to learn from you—a win-win for all concerned.  At least you’ll have made the gardening or yard work easier for a while. It can be easier.


Just out—the Plant WNY Guide 

Remember the Yellow Pages? Now PlantWNY (Professional Landscape And Nursery Trades of WNY) has  published a much better way for you to find landscape services: A Guide to Services Rendered by PlantWNY. This brochure lists more than 100 members with contact information, websites, and specialties including landscape design, installation or maintenance, lawn services, tree services, garden centers or nurseries, and sources for hardscape/garden structures, lighting, or equipment.


Will the PlantWNY guide guarantee the perfect fit for your garden or landscape needs? Maybe not: you have to talk with these professionals. But it’s a great start.


Find the Plant WNY guide online or at many area nurseries and garden centers, or call PLANT WNY at 741-8047. 



Sally Cunningham, CNLP, is a garden writer, consultant, lecturer, and tour director for AAA/Great Garden Travel.

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