A career in garden design

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It’s a big year for birthdays in our household.  I’ll be celebrating my 50th at Christmas  – I know, hard for people to believe! – and our two daughters have both had significant birthdays (13 and 10).  I’ve always been one of those people that becomes reflective (rather than beery) around birthdays and in my 50th year I’ve found myself thinking a lot about where I am in life – and the part my career in garden design and landscaping has played in this.

I’ve been reflecting on some of the career choices I made early on (without a grand plan). I’ve also been thinking about what my daughters can expect when they start their working lives, in terms of earning a living and enjoying what they do every day.  As neither of the girls is likely to be hugely interested in my thoughts, I decided to share them with you in a rather-more-personal-than-usual blog instead.

How I got started in garden design

I’d like to say that I was focused on garden design from the age of 3, but in reality I drifted into this profession when I left school.  If asked prior to this, I’d have said I wanted to play sport for a living and my parents were keen for me to train as an accountant. However – aged 18 – I spent a summer working for a forestry company and met someone there who’d studied landscaping at Merrist Wood College in Surrey.  This sounded more enticing than the Forestry Management course I was half-heartedly heading towards.  Making the switch to Merrist Wood and landscaping was a key decision for me and in the short term meant that I gained from a year working in the US and also having one of my garden designs selected to be built on Main Avenue RHS Chelsea (Silver-Gilt in 1989 if you’re asking!). Although I certainly wasn’t the most diligent student I was awarded the accolade of having produced the best design projects when I graduated.

After college, I joined Capital Garden Landscapes in Highgate as a Designer/Manager (quite a learning curve at 21).  I was responsible for the whole process: taking enquiries, drawing up plans and managing the build. Not to mention line-managing people older than my parents and handling clients with exacting requirements.  It was also here that I started a long and fruitful working relationship with Andrew Wenham MSGD.

Two years later, in 1991, I set up The Garden Company in Chipperfield near Hemel Hempstead.  Today we employ around 20 people, 5 of us in the office and the majority on domestic and commercial sites building and maintaining gardens.

So – what advice would I give to people entering the garden design profession today?

Generally, I recommend total immersion therapy!  In more specific terms, here are some of things I did that helped and some that I wish I had done more of …

  • Join the best company you can and get stuck in – try to see beyond the workload to the learning opportunities around you. While I learnt a lot at my first company, I had to learn a lot more the hard way once I had set up my own business.  This probably added years of learning on, not just months. If doing it again I would have sought out at least one more company to broaden my experience before setting out on my own.
  • Get your name known (in a good way!) and get to know other people in your profession. Be proactive and build a network.  Social media has changed this aspect of the role beyond recognition.
  • Proud to receive our first BALI Award in 1996

    Proud to receive our first BALI Award in 1996

    Get face-to-face too – go to trade events, RHS shows and join relevant professional societies.  You might think you don’t have time to do this, but time will become even more precious as your career and personal life both expand.   Professional gatherings help you to share knowledge and experience and accelerate your learning. I am convinced my business would not be as successful if I hadn’t been so involved with BALI and latterly the SGD. Winning BALI Awards over the years has definitely helped to raise the profile of The Garden Company.
  • Hone your technical knowledge, business knowhow and self-confidence so that you are ready with ideas and solutions when good opportunities come along.  By putting the effort in early, people will start to see you as ‘the person to go to’ (and refer others to you too).
  • And a personal plea from me – please visit gardens!  When I’m interviewing job candidates, so many people talk about being inspired by garden design or horticulture but can’t name a garden they have visited in the last couple of years.  (I reckon I’m allowed a middle-aged grumble here).

What does a garden designer need to be good at?

Apart from garden design, that is. In addition, you need certain behavioural characteristics. I believe the most underrated of these is listening.  Listening with intent to my clients, suppliers and team members is absolutely vital to the Garden Company’s success.  If you don’t listen – and understand – then you are much less likely to make the right decisions.  (Which is quite ironic because I am well aware that my habit of ruminating over my last phone conversation/meeting with a client often makes me look distracted and less than focused in the office!).

I would also add tenacity: keep going, don’t throw the towel in, tune into problems when they arise because generally they get worse if left untended.

What I love most about being in garden design

It’s a bit like parenting actually.  There are lucid moments when you realise that it is all going well. It might be when you see that you have created something beautiful for a client … achieved something positive for the environment … noticed a new team member making a great contribution. I have also found being involved with BALI and the SGD very satisfying, particularly in the last few years while serving on the SGD Council and helping to establish their Awards scheme.  As the saying goes, it’s good to put something back.

I feel very lucky to be in this creative industry which brings pleasure and joy to people – a recent text from a client says it for me: ‘My garden makes me happy – every day’.  (I try to remember this note when the going gets tough)!

So what? (I hear you/my children ask)

I don’t know yet whether either of my children will follow me into garden design/a related profession.  I realise of course that the context for their careers will be significantly different to my own – as we head towards the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution apparently, with breakthroughs in emerging technologies, artificial intelligence and robotics.  However, if I could have one wish for each of them in this special birthday year, it would be that they find their work truly satisfying and rewarding – and also that they understand early on the relationship between talent, hard work and achievement.  (Yes, I know that’s two wishes).

For more insight into our achievements at the Garden Company please visit our Awards page.

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