Engineer and Artist – What Does a Landscape Designer Really Do?

by Gary Van Eijk

I recently started teaching a course about Landscape Design.  It is a subject I am passionate about, and for a long time I have considered sharing my knowledge with others.  It is also the main reason why I am motivated to write about it here.  The media and public perceptions tend to oversimplify what landscape construction really entails.  In reality there is so much more to consider than simple garden decor.


When I teach, I always begin the first class explaining what the course is NOT about.  You can imagine the change of expression on my students’ faces as I work my way through the list and reach the subject of plants.  I can almost feel the deflation in the room when I explain that this class is actually not about plants, per se.  I usually start to notice uncomfortable fidgeting in the room as I make my way through the structure of the eight-week course, and outline the many challenges that accompany designing the space around one’s home.UCG3D-render-The students in the room who have experienced construction or renovation projects of their own homes nod their heads in agreement as I list some of the possible municipal hurdles, including: “Top of Bank”, “Setbacks”, and “Easements”.  Weary expressions run cross their faces as they remember the unexpected need to navigate the labyrinth of “Conservation Regulations”, “Municipal Permit Approvals” and “The Committee of Adjustment”.  Those who are new to landscape design and have not yet considered the challenges that I present tend to be a little overwhelmed at this point.  It’s not rocket science, but at times it comes close!


By the second and third classes, colour starts returning to my students’ faces. They begin to understand that landscape design is more about the science and function of the outdoor space around the home.  We consider how effective trees can be acting as wind barriers, and how hedging can provide privacy.  We discuss how this art form can help prevent water damage to basements, and what the proper size of a patio should be to ensure safety around swimming pools.  All of a sudden, would-be Landscape Designers and contractors start to lean forward with intrigue.  The look of “Oh, I get it!” flashes across faces as we move on to address maintenance budgets, and the use of attractive native plants.  Accountants in the group appreciate it when talk turns to budgeting construction costs, and how proper design can increase property values, or dramatically improve the curb appeal of the home.  Worried expressions return as we cover the trials of landscape design, such as the expense of construction or the species of trees whose roots are known to clog drains.  But for the most part, relief is evident as we address their solutions.  My students come to understand that the landscape design process needs careful planning, sometimes months in advance, in order to achieve success.

I often wonder if the first day of my Landscape Design class is similar to the first day for students in a Culinary Arts school.  Students who are fascinated with the art of creating wonderful food must first learn the sober chemical science of ingredients reacting to temperature.  In the same way, I hope to educate my landscape design students so that their passion for creating beautiful gardens can be paired with the practical understanding of functional design.



Gary van Eijk is a student, teacher and writer on the subject of Landscape Architecture. He is the owner and principal designer of the residential landscape design firm Uncommon Ground Design Group Inc. Gary has been working with homeowners, contractors and architects in the GTA since 1996, and has designed projects in Oakville, Burlington, Mississauga, Hamilton, Ancaster, Niagara, Muskoka, Collingwood and even in Beijing!

He can be reached via e-mail at .


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