Garden design ideas – past, present and future

Celebrating our 30th business anniversary this year has undoubtedly caused me to reflect on the last few decades as a garden designer, and to think about the next few years too.  I was further ‘nudged’ into thinking about this by the Society of Garden Designers, which has recently marked its 40th anniversary by interviewing a number of long-serving designers, myself included. With all of this in mind, I wrote this blog post to share my personal thoughts on the past, present and future of garden design. I would love to hear your feedback, whether from the stance of a fellow designer, landscaper or garden owner/user.

Garden design – looking back 

I started designing at Merrist Wood College where I studied in the late 1980s and subsequently at a London-based design-and-build business.  Most of my clients at that time saw a garden as a place to be ‘gardened’, that would (at best) evolve, rather than a place where a design concept could be applied and the garden nurtured in that direction.

John Brookes MBE (1933-2018), renowned landscape designer and author, played a significant role in raising the public’s awareness of the opportunity that good garden design represents: to create a space with a deliberate design intention.  People became interested in stylising their gardens in the same way that they would stylise a room in the house.  The concept of a ‘room outside’ has been a massive influence on garden design ever since.

In parallel with this, one of the biggest changes in my experience as a designer has been the huge shift in the public perception of garden design as a professional discipline.  It is now seen as a ‘mainstream’ profession to enter, it is a much larger industry than before, and it is largely well respected by the public. I think that people do broadly understand the importance and value of our services – or, at least, that understanding has greatly improved.  Clearly, design fees can vary, but an established garden designer today with proven experience  can reasonably expect to be paid the equivalent of other qualified professionals. Professional bodies – including the Society of Garden Designers – have undoubtedly helped to raise the profile of the industry. SGD Chartered Membership as an individual or as a Registered Practice helps to ‘seal the deal’ in terms of quality assurance and value.

Alongside these changes, there has been a significant increase in clients’ budgets for their garden schemes.  This gives designers more opportunity to apply design expertise and skills to create beautiful, bespoke places that fulfil our clients’ hopes and dreams.

Garden design today

Obviously, there are ‘fashion’ trends in garden design (as in any creative industry).  One of the trends until quite recently had been to move away from plants towards more ‘clinical’, hardscaped schemes.  However, over recent years, there has been a return to a more green, naturalistic look and feel.  I welcome this as we have always been ‘plant-y’ at The Garden Company (!). The balance between soft and hardscaping hasn’t changed for me, and my very rough guide is usually no more than 40% hardscape: 60% softscape.

Planting itself has become more layered since I started designing. There are some great plants that I used a lot in the late 80s and early 90s that I never (or hardly ever) use now – e.g. Fasia Japonica, Photinia Red Robin.   There are certainly plants that have never gone out of fashion – e.g. roses, lavender, Michaelmas daisies.  And – of course – another thing that has never gone out of fashion is a beautifully cared-for lawn.  The RHS Flower Shows have a big influence on planting fashions and trends, but despite there being hardly any lawns at Chelsea for the last 20 years or more, many people still dream of a lovely lawn.

With regard to hardscaping, at The Garden Company we are using more indigenous natural stone than ever before.  Generally, we use more natural materials, that are more sustainable, and less reconstituted paving, Chinese or Indian stone.

Gardens today are more multi-functional too. I have noticed a real trend towards more zoned areas which serve different purposes.  This has probably accelerated over the last year during lockdown, where clients’ gardens had to meet the needs of a whole household for a space to play, rest and (often) work or study as well.

Combined with peoples’ dreams of a multi-purpose garden, I find that more clients are asking for features such as home offices, outdoor lounges/social spaces with a sofa, and – as the interest in plant-based diets and ‘grow your own’ has surged – kitchen gardens too.  There’s also been a growing demand for outdoor kitchens (although personally I’m not a fan).  I think the one garden feature that has really caught clients’ imaginations in recent years is the fire pit. Fire pits are great for relaxing at home and entertaining others, and also a way to extend the use of the garden later into the evening and into the colder months.

Given the increased awareness of climate change, we might have expected sustainability to feature a lot in our clients’ ‘wish lists’. What I have actually found is that clients have become much more interested in attracting wildlife to their gardens and encouraging biodiversity. This has been a real trend and one which we greatly enjoy supporting.  However, I don’t find that homeowners tend to be focused on other aspects.  For example, they don’t tend to ask questions about their project’s carbon footprint.  That is not to say that we don’t take our responsibilities to heart – in my view, sustainability is something that any responsible garden designer will simply ‘do’. None of us should offer unsustainable design solutions (I have written about this in an earlier blog).

The situation is somewhat different with commercial clients who are usually more attuned to sustainability and concerned about their ‘green credentials’.  With these clients, evidence of best practice in sustainability probably does help us to win business (as well as being the right thing to do!).

Garden design – the future

In the years to come, I believe that green spaces will be seen as more and more important to people.   This shift has already been accelerated by peoples’ recent experience of lockdown, along with the growth of more flexible ways of living and working (e.g. shared living accommodation, communal work hubs). The evidence of a relationship between time spent in nature/outdoors and good mental health will also drive this trend.. So will peoples’ commitment to taking better care of our environment.

A growth in green ‘social spaces’ could mean many things but is likely to include more community gardens, street/roadside planting, planted courtyards, rooftop terraces and vertical gardens. In broad terms, it’s all about overcoming ‘greyness’ with planting. It is my great hope that this will lead to an even bigger appreciation of well-designed outdoor spaces and a willingness on the part of budget holders to invest in exterior design and landscaping. I’m thinking here not only of homeowners but much more widely – e.g. hotels, hospitals/care homes and local councils.

From the perspective of a designer who still hand-draws (others in my team put drawings into CAD!), I also expect that design technology will continue to develop at pace.  This will be driven by the technology itself (the ‘art of the possible’), and also by the ever-increasing expectations of our clients.  In the near future, I anticipate that clients will start to expect us to use VR and AR to share our ideas with them (influenced no doubt by what goes on in certain TV shows!).

I would emphasise though that I see the role of technology as helping us to communicate our ideas, and our clients to visualise them.  The spark of creative design, for me, will stay with the human element of the design process – which actually provides a great rationale to people considering garden design as a career choice, as the prospects of demand for our services look very buoyant in the years to come.

If you’d like to stay in touch with my observations on garden design on a day-to-day basis, and share your own thoughts, you’ll find me on Twitter @gardencomp.

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