Garden Design Ideas & Zone Denial with Susan Cohan

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Gardeners Are In Zone Denial
Susan CohanSusan Cohan is the 2014 President of The Association of Professional Landscape Designers.  She takes inspiration from her travels around the planet, seeking design ideas from cultures distant and past.  An award-winning residential landscape designer, Susan collaborates with private clients in the creation of special spaces that realize dreams and nourish the soul.

It is impossible to create art without life experience.  Each garden has its own unique energy that needs to be expressed.


In This Episode You Will Discover:

  • the power of the visual image in landscape design
  • simple landscaping ideas to transform any yard.
  • the role texture and contrast play in beautiful gardens
  • patio design ideas for intimate spaces
  • using your dollars wisely in choosing professional garden maintenance
  • UK landscape gardeners have a 200 year head start on North America
  • why it’s more than just OK to have your own strong opinions of your garden
  • flower garden ideas for contemporary designers
  • the importance of using your garden resources wisely





Garden Web –

This is the book Susan mentioned on the show!

Interview Links

Susan Cohan Gardens

Follow Susan on Twitter: @susancohan



Watch the podcast interview here:


Interview Transcript:

Dave:  Today, I have the unique privilege of interviewing the 2014 President of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers.  Susan is an opinionated landscape designer, she’s a lover of all things design­-related, and she’s a contributing editor to Garden Design.  She’s travelled globally to 3 corners of the planet, we’ll talk about that, taking design influence from other cultures and countries.  Please welcome to the show, my guest, Susan Cohan. Susan, welcome to Back To My Garden.

Susan:  Thank you.  It’s a pleasure to be here Dave.

Dave:  Now with that big introduction, I want you to just relax, take a full minute, and just share with the listeners a little bit about yourself and your passion for gardening.

Susan:  Well, it’s interesting, I’m a lifelong gardener, and kind of on a parallel track through several different iterations.  I also, for my adult life, I’ve always been a designer of things.  Landscape design is kind of the final end game for me in terms of where it all led to.  So I’ve run on parallel tracks for a long time.  As a child, I can remember being in the garden with my grandmother and snapping snap beans and making violet and lily of the valley bouquets.  It’s been a lifelong thing for me.  It’s almost habitual more than passion, I think at this point.  And I really respect our ability to make the most of whatever little plot of land we’ve been given, or we’re allowed to work.  That’s kind of the driving factor for everything is to make it better, and make the world a better place through my efforts.


Lily of the valley


Dave:  Beautiful.  I described you having unique artistic vision to my wife.  I showed her your portfolio and it turned into a laptop session of ‘look at this, look at this, look at this’ because it is so visually striking.  It is so remarkable.  Everyone who’s listening to the podcast, if you’re in your car, you’re going back later and visit Susan’s website and look at her portfolio.  The website is and I’ll have a link in the show notes.  Take a look at the gentleman’s hobby farm for example.  Susan, can you just take a moment and go back to when you decided that you wanted to create art in people’s gardens like that?  I found it a little intimidating being so new to gardening, I’m only in my third season.  My wife has 20 years of gardening, but what was it like when you were just getting started?  Did you ever feel fear or trepidation getting into landscape design?

Susan:  This is probably not the answer that you’re expecting, but that’s okay.  I design from a place that’s unknown, so like many beginning designers (at this point I’ve been designing for many years), it’s always an unknown place which is kind of scary.  You don’t know where you’re going, you don’t know what it’s going to be, you don’t know what the final outcome is going to be and I think the biggest step is to get yourself out of the way and let it be what it want’s to be.  Very often my philosophy about design, at this point in my career, is that when I walk away, I almost don’t want it to appear as if I’ve even been there.  I want whatever the final result is to be so intrinsically of that time and place, as well as addressing the human needs for that space, that it doesn’t really show the designer’s hand.  Although it’s clearly a designed space.  I know that I do have certain key elements, everybody does, certain things that I repeat and use because I’m comfortable with them or they’re part of something I’m experimenting with at a time, or over a period of time, and I’ve always done that as a designer.  But, it’s really important to me that, because you’re working on a piece of land that what you do so suits that piece of land and it’s owners, that I’m more of the vessel than the dictator.  Does that answer your question?

Dave:  It does, it does.  Some people come to you with a blank slate and say, do whatever you want.  And then there’s personalities involved as well I would expect.

Susan:  Most people don’t.  For example, I’m working on a project right now that has a clearly­ designed landscape that is now 20 years old and is like a beautiful old woman.  It really just needs me to spruce it up a little, clean it up a little.  Make it more useful for the family that currently lives in the house, and their style without really taking it apart.  So I’m kind of shoehorning things in here and there, rather than starting from a blank slate.  So there’s both ways to approach a project, you have to evaluate is there anything here that’s useful and that’s appropriate and that’s wonderful that you’d want to keep?  Rather than saying everything has to go.  You can’t do that.  One of the reasons that I plant trees is that because people are less likely to take down trees than they are to move 50 perennials.  So I always make sure I’m planting trees.

Dave:  When I was looking at your portfolio, some of the properties you’ve designed can only be described as full farms, or almost estates.  I know you’re in New Jersey in the northeast, but some of your spaces are far more intimate, and I was wondering as a designer, what do you find more challenging or rewarding, the large, grand properties, or the small intimate spaces?

Susan:  Personally, I love to do a smaller, intimate place and space because I think they’re actually more difficult.  Particularly if you have a design brief and or a laundry list from the homeowner where they want ABCDE&F and your job is to try and give them as much of that as you can in a space that makes sense from a human perspective.  That’s something I think that many gardeners and beginning garden designers leave out. I used to always start with that because we are living on human­-used land, I’m not working out on the prairie, I’m usually working on a backyard or a front yard.  How am I going to move human beings logically and with a sense of mystery and delight from one place to another?  And give them a sense of journey and make them notice what they’re moving through?  It’s a kind of a philosophical way of approaching design in that I want it to be a journey and I want it to be an adventure and I want it to be something that allows people to see things that they may have not seen before; smell something they’ve never smelled before or even just use a piece of their yard that they’ve never really done anything with other than run the lawnmower over it.

Dave:  When you said the word perennial, my folks live out in Alberta in oil country, and my brother took his friend to visit them.  And he’s from the big city.  This guy’s never put his hands in dirt before.  And my mom was picking parsnips, and he asked her ‘do those come up every single year?’ .  A lot of our listeners are city dwellers who have a patio or balcony, a few with their own spaces, but they’re limited in size.  Do you have any advice for the new person to make a space more beautiful without increasing work?  Because the biggest excuse is ‘I don’t have time’.  What are a couple of ideas for the beginning gardener to make their space more beautiful?

Susan:  Less is more, always.  Edit, edit, edit, edit. I think the biggest problem, and I had this problem for so many years and I’ll admit to every now and then falling back into the bad habit, is that I couldn’t leave a garden center or a garden­-related store without buying something.  And what ends up is you lose the cohesion that way.  Yes, it’s all things that you like, and maybe that’s the point of view that you have, you could have a very eclectic space.  Always try and make a comfortable place to be.  Even if it’s a fire escape garden, put a big pillow out there and you can sit out there on hot nights.  And then be brutally honest with yourself in terms of how much time you will enjoy working in this space.  If it’s filling up the watering can in the sink and taking it outside and watering one plant and you enjoy that, but any more than that will give you a sense of dread and obligation, then one plant is absolutely fine.  Make it a special, beautiful plant that you love.  Put it in an amazing container that you absolutely love and then it makes it even more enjoyable.  But I think that people, myself included, I’m in the middle of paring down the gardens that I have because it has become a chore rather than enjoyment for me.


terrace garden


Dave:  Fantastic.  You’ve segued perfectly.  I wanted to ask you, because you’re around other people’s gardens so much now as a profession, plus your obligations with the associations you represent, what is your garden like today?

Susan:  LOL.  Okay, I have a garden of misfits.  Largely because I work in the northeast, I work in the New York metropolitan area.  We have, and you wouldn’t think it, we have an incredible amount of deer pressure as well as all kinds of other varmints that make it really challenging to garden successfully.  So what I do with my gardens is I trial plants for 3 categories.  One ­­ how much neglect can a plant take?  So that will give you some idea of what my gardens look like.  Because that’s what actually happens, I want to see how a plant grows without somebody who doesn’t really know how to prune it, or take care of it, how is this plant going to grow.  Is this a plant that has a neat mounding habit?  Is it a plant that’s got amazing foliage?  Is it more aggressive than maybe I thought it would be?  Does it run?  How is that plant going to behave with the minimal human intervention?  The next thing I look for in a trial, is Bambi going to eat it?  Because I’ve got lots of Bambis.  The third thing that I’ve become really interested in is (and the longer I garden, I become more interested in it) is this a plant that has long-­lasting interest, and that usually means does it have really cool foliage? And I’m less concerned with bloom than I am with form and foliage.  So right now, even though I posted on Facebook that I didn’t like yellow-­leafed plants very much, I’m playing with gold­leafed plants that form the thread around my house right now.  So whichever corner you turn, you may not expect it, but you’ll see some growing, wonderful gold­-leafed plants.

Dave:  You have lot of beautiful photos up on your Facebook fan page, so if you’re a Facebook user, head over there and you can find in the search engines, Susan Cohan Gardens as well.  Join the conversation.  In the northeast, you just had one of the most severe winters in decades.  What was it like in the spring?  Did you have clients calling you and what was the general atmosphere like in the spring?

Susan:  We we had a couple of bad years.  Everybody says this was the most brutal winter.  We had an actual winter this year.  We’ve been fooling ourselves and have been in zonal denial for years, thinking it really doesn’t get that cold, well it did this winter.  And this is really what our winters were what I remember as a kid.  This is what our winters were, it was hard.  And then it got cold, with a real spring.  For the last maybe 5 or 10 years, we’ve been going from winter to almost summerlike weather almost immediately, and we have an extended spring.  So because it didn’t warm up, no, people weren’t calling and it was a very late start to the season.  I’m used to being out there in March and getting going, and this year it really wasn’t until the middle of April. It was about 6 weeks late, so what happens then, people still have the Memorial Day marker or the 4th of July marker or they want to get things done by those times, and it’s not totally realistic to do that when you’re starting around mid­-April.  People I designed stuff for over the winter were first on the list, we overwintered 2 projects, so they’re still ongoing.  Many of the projects, I have 2 kinds of projects, things that are months long, and things that are just like 2 or 3 weeks and boom they’re done.

Dave:  I think the phrase of the day is going to be Zonal Denial.  For those of you taking notes at home, write that down, because just because it was a mild winter one year doesn’t mean it’s going to be next year.

Susan:  Right, and it’s been fairly mild winters for us for several years on end.  But the good news is, and the really good news is that many many many plants need the snow cover.  And for a couple of years we didn’t have adequate snow cover, so the plants that really thrive in my zone 6 garden are really thriving.  The ones that were kind of marginal, have proven to be really marginal.  The saddest thing is, I’m a total hydrangea-­head, and the hydrangeas took the biggest hit of anything.

Dave:  Susan, my sister-­in-­law is a professional cake designer, and just recently she just sighed and said ‘all anybody wants are red velvet cakes’. It’s a major trend in the cake business. With your professional vision, what is the trend that everybody needs to know about, or what’s coming as a trend in the garden business? Is there anything you want to experiment with next year?

Susan:  I think we’ve kind of hit, from a planting design perspective, there’s kind of two things going on.  There is a very, very healthy, naturalistic planting design movement. There’s also kind of the backlash of that, and there is a real interesting return to kind of formalism in design.  Whether that’s contemporary or traditional with controlled plantings.  I think what’s going to happen, and what will be interesting, is going to be a combination of those two things.  Where you have some very formal, sculptural, perhaps evergreen elements that are planted with abandon. And to me that’s a very 21st century kind of thing.  Everybody is afraid of maintenance, because nobody really knows how to maintain things well. And they view naturalistic gardens as needing less maintenance. Well that’s not necessarily true.  They need intense maintenance, several times a year. Otherwise they look like a big, fat mess.  I think there’s going to be kind of a balance between formal and informal; sculptural and wild; tame and naturalistic.


natural flower garden


Dave: Beautiful. I love how you said big, fat, mess because that’s how I garden too. I think that most 25 and 30 year old men know more about hooking up a home entertainment center than they do about maintaining their own garden.

Susan:  What’s even sadder, I think, is that most maintenance companies, garden and lawn maintenance companies, don’t have any expertise in actual maintenance beyond cutting and the lawn.  They don’t even know how to prune hedges, and that’s why everybody’s hedges look so miserable, and look the same and they’re only green on the outer 4 inches; there’s no green in the interior of the plant.  They don’t want to take the time to train people and they don’t want to take the time to do it.  And homeowners now expect the lowball price.  So you’re hiring a yard maintenance company and you want them to prune your shrubs … beware.

Dave:  That’s valuable, valuable expertise right there folks.  Write that down.  Interview your landscape maintenance company and use a discerning eye.  Get good references. Our half hour is rapidly flying Susan.  Now is my favorite part of the interview where we play the game called 5 Quick Questions. These are going to draw upon your opinion and your expertise.  Are you ready to play?

Susan: Sure.

Dave:  Question number one:  What do you believe stops most people from getting into gardening?

Susan:  Lack of knowledge and lack of understanding of the rewards you gain from gardening, other than a pretty garden.

Dave: Ooo, that’s a good answer.  Question number two:  What is the best gardening advice that you ever received?

Susan: Wait.  Seriously, wait.  Watch it, wait, and then pull it out or cut it down.  But wait.

Dave:  Brilliant.  LOL Question number three:  If you had just two websites to share with a novice, what would they be?

Susan:  The Missouri Botanical Gardens Mobile Plant Finder, absolutely.  And this is kind of self­-serving, but get a consultation from a landscape designer which you can find on APLD.  Because that will at least get you started in the right direction, it will be worth maybe $100 or $200 or whatever it is that designer charges, but you can pick their brain and their years of expertise, it’s totally worth it.

Dave:  We don’t do our own dentistry, so let’s go with a professional.

Susan:  Well I might or you might, but we wouldn’t generally renovate our own kitchens.  It’s the same thing.

Dave:  Can you give us that website again?

Susan: It is one of the best plant finders in the US, and easily accessed from other places.  And

Dave:  The talent pool must be deep on that page.  We have to send our friends there.  Is that just in the US?

Susan:  APLD is international.  There’s a pretty strong Canadian contingent, a pretty strong British contingent, an Australian contingent, and some other places like Pakistan, and Dubai.  It’s international.

Dave:  Speaking of British gardens, a lot of our North American TV reality shows originate in Britain.  This hottest one this season, is they give city dwellers plots of city land to turn into gardens, and it’s a reality show about gardening.

Susan:  How interesting.

Dave:  It will be here in a couple of years.  Question number four: What’s the best gardening book or resource that you can suggest?

Susan:   That’s such a hard question.  I think the best book a beginning gardener could read is Russell Page’s The Education of a Gardener.  It’s an enjoyable read and it’s totally not intimidating at all.

Dave:  Finally, question number five: Look in your crystal ball.  What’s the number one thing every novice gardener should attempt to grow next year?

Susan:  A small ornamental tree.

Dave:  Do you have a favorite?

Susan: Several favorites. I really like Eastern Redbuds, I find they are interesting in all seasons.  I also, this year and maybe because of our winter, I fell in love again with cherries, all the cherries.  And I don’t care about cedar apple rust, I love me a good crabapple.


Cherry Tree


Dave:  I’m nodding along, I planted 2 cherries in the spring.

Susan:  They’ll be just spectacular this spring.

Dave:  I’ve been fertilizing and encouraging them along, they’re sitting next to a Haskap.  Do you know what a Haskap is, have you ever seen one?  Little swamp honeysuckle bush and it had its first fruit this spring.  Cherries are our favourite.  We like making pies, so crabapples are big.

Susan:  Just for the sheer beautiful smooth grey bark; the early pink bloom; it’s wonderful heart­-shaped leaves.  Any Eastern Redbud Cercis Canadensis ­ gorgeous trees.  If you’re a weeping tree person, there’s a weeper.

Dave:  So the number one thing every notice gardener should attempt to grow next year, a small tree.  You did great on the Five Quick Questions, our half hour is rapidly escaping. I wanted everyone to write down your website again.  If you’re visually-­oriented, you must check out Susan’s portfolio, it is incredible.  You can just feel the vision, the art …. when I showed my wife, we just sat down and went through every photograph on your website.  It’s there’ll be a link in the show notes.

Susan, I’m going to give you the last word today. Can you leave our listeners with either a pearl of wisdom or note of encouragement on their gardening journey?

Susan:  Yes I can because I think once you start becoming an active gardener, however you define that, you will never, ever look at the world the same way again, ever, in a very positive way.  And I think that’s something that is totally misunderstood by people who don’t garden.  It changes your point of view and it also makes you more observant about everything around you.

Dave: Brilliant. Susan Cohan thank you so much for being a guest on Back To My Garden today.

Susan:  Thank you so much for having me, this has been fun!

Dave: Time has flown by. Please check out the show notes, visit Susan’s website and Facebook page and tune in again in 3 days for another episode of Back to My Garden.

Susan: Thanks Dave!

Dave: Thanks Susan.


Additional Resources:

Listen to Susan share her Garden Design Ideas here:

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