Close Enough For Planting

This past weekend, I found myself the office. While there, I was reminded of an old-school way of doing my job.

Plants really don't care about your precise calculations.

Stimulating the college memories was an annoying back pain from being hunched over a drafting table too long, using instruments older than most recent college grads, and vaguely remembering lyrics to favorite Steely Dan, Gerry Rafferty, Pink Floyd, and Pablo Cruse songs playing on my iPod.

Among the many songs on that new-fangled, MP-whatever, music thingy of mine are 26 college-years favorites stashed in a playlist simply labeled "Studio". Somebody tell me I'm not alone in having a few oldies to fall back on when college nostalgia hits. Appropriately, I have a Little River Band tune in "Studio" that sings about “Reminiscing”....

Sorry. Where am I going with this, you ask?

As I reflect back on a career of hand-drafting designs, I realize that younger professionals have as much undeveloped talent in the hand-drawing craft as the older professionals have in utilizing CAD to its fullest...although I dare not speak this to be the case for every one of youth or experience in our profession.

I am current enough in my profession to know CAD is "it". As a project management routine, many discussions on design, production, and comprehensive and completeness of plans take place with co-workers. Nearly all of those in the loop use CAD on a daily basis.

Understandably, when it comes to hardscapes, on-structure work, designing around a complexity of utilities, and the like, precision drafting is a must. Accuracy tolerances in design will vary amongst the professional disciplines. Architects strive for accuracy within a fraction of an inch, engineers within a tenth of an inch, and surveyors will at times fret over a one hundredth of an inch.

On most projects, accuracy is inherent in the landscape architect's set of plans. We depend on and use reliable base plans from the prime consultant (don't we all wait anxiously for the last-minute base changes from those guys).

Often, plan trueness will define our planting area and limits. Given that, the plants specified will adapt, respond, and react individually to the conditions and opportunities, once installed.

Assuming we do the right thing with the "right plant, right place, right spacing," then really is CAD accuracy that important in a planting design? My experience indicates that plants are quite liberal in their tolerances. They seem to care less whether that planting area is 36 inches or 42 inches wide. Instead, plants care more about the nourishment they get (or not).

So it is that when dealing with planting, landscape architects may accept a 6-inch, 12-inch, or even, heaven forbid, a 24-inch tolerance between plan design and field installation, depending on the project circumstances and flexibility of the designer. After all, we are dealing with living, growing, animate elements that typically have a habit (mind) of their own.

Our generous tolerance can boggle the mind of our allied professionals. For this, I try to give reason to their conscientious inquiries regarding tolerances with planting.

Plants are opportunistic in the boundaries defined for them. They will do what they want to do. If they rebel and get too far "out of their bounds," we simply reach for the notorious hedge power trimmer to get them back within someone's project tolerances. But then that would be a "right plant, wrong place" kind of scenario....

While watching new-schoolers impressively manipulate CAD software for planting plans, I chuckle. I know the importance of being accurate, but precise alignments and equidistant spacings will soon be forgotten as a plant matures.

Give me a circle template, lead pointer, Ames Lettering Guide, and a wet whistle to lick the tip of an eraser, and I will show you plan graphics with a more intimate feel. At the very least, once I get to hand drafting, the backache will return and the fingers will remain a much different way than the CAD guys are pained!

Did I mention of the glorious smell of markers that filled the work studio this weekend?

Y'all enjoy your weekend. Install a few new plants in the yard...maybe plant one or two additional petunias in that patio pot, even though the book says not to. I am certain it will be within acceptable tolerances.

Tim May is a professional landscape architect and LEED AP for TNP in Forth Worth, Texas. He can be reached via email at or by twitter at @TMay82