These blog posts are produced by James Scott, Garden Company MD and Principal Designer:
'Creating beautiful outdoor spaces for people to enjoy is very rewarding. The purpose of this blog is for me to share some reflections on our work and our industry with you. Your comments and views in return are very welcome indeed'.

How to transform a small garden space

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Award winning garden Rebecca BernsteinDesigning a small garden can present many challenges; they are often an awkward shape, shady or overlooked, and can be tricky to access. However, the design solutions to these issues can be truly inspiring and transformational.  I always enjoy designing small spaces because of the potential to really ‘wow’ clients.  Our construction teams find this very rewarding too. A well thought out garden design can positively transform the way a client enjoys a small space – it may become a quiet, intimate haven or a special place to entertain others.

As a professional designer, I know that I need to be able to justify every design decision and in a small garden there is absolutely no hiding place for the design choices made. Every detail is on show and therefore has to be extremely well considered.  Of course, creating a place of enduring meaning – however small – enhances a home’s overall appearance and may increase the property value.

Here are 7 garden design principles that influence me whenever I’m working with a small space:

  1. Creating volume and places of sanctuary within the space.  Use trees and structures (e.g. pergolas, gazebos, seating) to expand the perception of space and create defined areas.  Consider placing the main seating area away from the house a little so that it can be surrounded by planting and feel more haven-like.
  2. Avoiding narrow borders around the edges.  Pushing planting to the boundaries of the garden will accentuate the lack of space, instead keep the eye in the garden.
  3. Creating focal points.  Sculptures, vases, water features, benches – even a hammock -  all add depth and interest to a small space.
  4. Being bold with plant choices.  Don’t fill the available space with evergreens which can become oppressive if overused. Use specimen plants and underplant them with textural varieties to create long-lasting seasonal interest. Embrace the change in the seasons, leave seed heads for the birds, cut back herbaceous plants late and enjoy the emergent growth in the Spring. Add bulbs to increase early colour.
  5. Encouraging wildlife - by planting a range of different flowering plants, building an insect hotel or introducing a bird feeder.  A garden can become a piece of performing art when it attracts birds, bees and butterflies.
  6. Using water to create a sense of tranquillity. No garden is too small for water. You don’t need a pond; any watertight vessel (a basin, pot, urn or stone trough) can be put to good use.
  7. Softening the boundary between house and garden.  Use planting beds along the building’s foundation to create the sense of being in nature as soon as you step outside.

Of course, while considering all of these design principles,  our creative process certainly isn’t about approaching a project with a design in mind and making it fit!  We always need to know at the outset how the client plans to use the garden, what is the ‘sense of place’ that they want to create and also of course what specific opportunities or problems are presented by the location.  All of these factors are taken into account in order to create bespoke, handcrafted spaces that our clients love, and  we nurture our clients every step of the way, evolving our ideas and our approach to suit every individual project’s needs.

For more examples of our garden designs – of all sizes! – browse here.

This article was first published by the British Association of Landscape Industries, of which James is a Designer Member and The Garden Company is a Contractor Member. Based in Hertfordshire, James and his team also work in North London, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Middlesex.

Photo credit: Rebecca Bernstein 

 

 

 

 

6 ways to enjoy your garden this year

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HammockDuring lockdown, those of us with our own gardens have probably spent more time in them than usual.  Even though we are now looking ahead to the easing of restrictions, chances are that many of us may be working from home for some time – providing us with more opportunities to be in the garden rather than commuting.

You may be home alone, or you may have extra members of your household spending more time than usual with you – partners, small children, older kids returned from college … thinking up ways to spend time enjoyably can get tricky after a while.  It’s hard to keep different members of a household happy; equally, it’s hard to entertain yourself if you are completely on your own. With all of this in mind, the Garden Company team has drawn together advice and ideas from several different sources, aimed at helping you to make the most of your garden and fill the next few days and weeks with some enjoyment.

So, what are the 6 ways we want to help you to enjoy your garden? Here’s a pick ‘n’ mix list to choose from:

1       Get your garden into shape

We asked Joanna, our Maintenance and Small Projects Manager, for her top gardening tips for this time of year:

  • Look after your lawn – lawns need regular mowing in order to thrive and stay alive. Otherwise, the lawn’s density will start to decline and the root system will diminish. Also, weeds, damaging insects and lawn diseases can do damage. Please mow the lawn when necessary on dry days. You might consider purchasing online a small electric mower for the time being. The aim is to maintain a constant height throughout the year. Spring fertilizer can be applied, this normally contains moss and weed killer. It is also time for any repairs to bare patches – either turfing or top dressing and reseeding (either shady mix or utility mix seeds).
  • Hoe the borders to keep weeds under control.
  • Remove any tender plant protection.
  • Water plants in pots if it gets warmer. We normally put irrigation controllers back in around now (depending on the weather).
  • Feed Buxus (Box) – as they have been affected in previous years by Buxus blight and most recently caterpillar, we recommend feeding plants with Health-Mix and installing moth -traps.
  • Remove any dead and dying foliage from the plants – some ornamental grasses or tender perennials may need cutting down.

Of course, as well as a healthier garden, all of these tasks will help to give you some exercise, some Vitamin D and are likely to boost your mood too.  Based on our own experience we strongly agree with writer Jenny Uglow’s observation:  ‘We may think we are nurturing our garden, but of course, it’s our garden that is really nurturing us’.

2       Grow your own

It’s never too late to try growing your own fruit and veg, and there are many health benefits to be gained.  Growing your own food can inspire us to take an interest in the origins of our food, make better choices about what we eat and eat more fresh food. If you are already an experienced veg gardener, there is always more to learn …!  Luckily, there’s a world of resources available to the beginner and to more experienced vegetable growers too.  For expert guidance, we recommend the RHS advice pages on growing your own, and if you’re starting out for the first time this article from Gardeners’ World.

VegFor fun and to keep you inspired, there are plenty of engaging blogs to follow on this theme.  A couple of our favourites are: Vertical Veg blog – which aims to support those growing food in small spaces, making food growing accessible to anyone; and Mark’s Veg Plot – written by a long-time gardener and keen cook.

We also like to browse through James Wong’s Guardian series on gardens.  A qualified botanist, science writer and broadcaster, James says himself that his ‘obsession for food nearly eclipses his love of plants’.  A great combination if you are looking for inspiration and good advice with growing your own.

3          Relax outdoors

We all know the health benefits of getting exercise outside. But what’s less obvious is the fact you don’t even need to be active to benefit from being outdoors  Just spending time relaxing and unwinding, enjoying the scenery and watching the bees and butterflies helps to keep you healthy. There is good evidence now that relaxing outdoors gives you: better mental wellbeing by relieving tiredness, regular sleep patterns, access to Vitamin D and all the benefits of breathing fresh air away from indoor pollutants.

So, if you are not in the habit of being outside in the garden very often, what changes can you make? Take your meals outside whenever the weather makes it possible, take any of your activities outside if you can (reading, phone calls), make sure you have comfortable garden furniture and if necessary suitable shading.

When it comes to reading about gardens and gardening, we liked this list of recommendations from Gardenista. And for those of us more interested in escaping into fiction, here’s a list of popular gardening fiction from Good Reads.

 4     Play with family or pets

BenjiThe team at Days out with Kids have turned their minds to helping families that are staying safe at home in the garden, and published an entertaining list of ideas, from garden games to crafts and other activities. They have also cleverly designed a nature scavenger hunt that is free to download, sending mini explorers on a quest to find, collect and touch different objects in the garden.  As for those of you whose dogs are thrilled to be spending so much time with you this year, how about taking the opportunity to invent some new garden games or even top up their training – more ideas here.

5      Create havens for wildlife

Big or small, a garden can be a healthy haven for wildlife and there are many simple things we can do encourage biodiversity in our gardens, for example: providing pollen/nectar-rich plants for bees and other insects, planting wildflowers, replacing fences with green boundaries, adding water features. The Wildlife Trust (which defines wildlife gardening is ‘a way of encouraging birds, bees, butterflies and other animals into your garden’) has a section of its website packed with good ideas, from building a bug hotel to creating a garden pond.  Some of these may be perfect for you as DIY projects during lockdown, others might be projects to plan now for implementation in the future.

6          Imagine your garden transformed

ColourMaybe the best and most rewarding use of your time in the garden this summer will be to mull over how you would like your garden to look by next year, and beyond! The starting point for great garden design is to really understand what you need from your garden. Firstly, what do you require from your outdoor space, how would you like to use it? Secondly, what are the things that will bring joy to the garden? The answers to these questions will of course be different for everybody and reflecting on what is most important to you will help you to decide on your future plans for your garden.  Why not have a browse through gardening magazines and websites for inspiration, maybe put together a mood board to draw together your ideas?  Many professional designers, our own included, are offering remote design consultation meetings at present, or are meeting clients outdoors with social distancing in place.

When we start to work with new clients, our overall aim is to tap into their imagination and help them to express what is deeply felt. Once clients have given thought to their needs and wants from their garden, we can work closely with them to create beautiful places of enduring meaning and value. Great garden design results in places where we can relax and retreat from our busy everyday lives, or indeed gather family and friends together for fun and entertainment, once we can all safely do so again.

We hope that this post helps you to enjoy being in your garden during this exceptional time, and we’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.  And on point 6 and the theme of developing your own bespoke, handcrafted place, find out more about The Garden Company’s design process here.

All images were taken by James Scott at home in Bedfordshire.

5-point climate change action plan for garden designers and landscapers

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Floodhit areas in the midlands 2020

What more can we do to tackle climate change and improve the sustainability of our industry? It’s a formidable challenge for all garden designers and landscapers and no doubt one that we are already tackling as individuals and businesses in some shape or form. I feel sure that the participants at the last Futurescape Summit headed home with the good intention to do more.  Since then, we’ve all experienced the wettest month on record according to the Met Office, as Storm Ciara, Storm Dennis and Storm Jorge have lashed the country within the last few weeks (the image above illustrates recent flooding in the Midlands).

In my view, a long-term, effective solution to the challenge will require more than good intentions and individual effort – I believe we need to work together across our industry to bring about major culture change. We need to significantly shift our culture (‘the way we do things around here’) towards more sustainable practices. This will take effective change management and strong leadership. People will need to commit with their hearts and minds to a different way of working, not just comply with it or pay it lip service.

With this in mind, here’s my action plan for garden designers and landscapers to work together on this challenge, i.e. things that we need to do now and over time (with credit given to change management guru John Kotter for his framework on leading change):

  1. Create a sense of urgency throughout the garden design and landscaping industry about the need to change to more sustainable ways of working. Find ways to promote honest and objective discussions about our industry’s role regarding the causes and effects of climate change. Explore openly the threats to the environment of ‘continuing as we are’ in garden design and landscaping – not just in our operational roles but also in all of our ‘support’ endeavours (for example, the way we train and educate the designers and landscapers of the future).
  2. Build positive alliances between garden designers, landscapers, professional associations, suppliers and contractors. Make sure that people from each of these different perspectives are working together on the challenge of climate change and are united for combined action. Create forums where different groups can work together with a shared agenda for change. For example, bring professional societies and associations together to form a unified view of what needs to be done.
  3. Create an inspiring vision of what we are all working towards. Describe the new, more sustainable ways of working as visually and impactfully as possible. Make sure that everyone understands where we are heading as an industry – and is prepared for difficult questions! E.g. What will be ‘in’ and what will be ‘out’ in future? What will it mean to apply the 3 R’s of sustainability throughout our activities (not to mention a few more R’s)? How will we align our industry’s PR and marketing initiatives – flower shows, conferences, publications – with the new, more sustainable ways of working? What do we need our clients to understand about sustainability?
  4. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Make sure that climate change and sustainability are always on the agenda. Talk about progress, successes and benefits realised as often as possible. Recognise and reward people for being role models (e.g. reflect this in awards schemes, prizes and medals). Talk about the proposed changes to working policies and practices regularly and listen genuinely to peoples’ concerns.
  5. Create short-term targets for the garden design and landscaping industry regarding climate change and keep building on these. We will need ‘baby steps’ towards more sustainable ways of working, not just one distant goal. We will also need to avoid declaring victory too soon – it will be essential to keep seeking out further opportunities for improved sustainability.

In summary, as an industry we are uniquely placed to identify opportunities to protect landscapes from the effects of climate change and mitigate against its causes. Addressing this challenge will require skilful change management and leadership. This will be a process, not a ‘one-off’ exercise. If we do it well, we will not only embed the new practices in our own industry, but we will set a great example to other industries too.

Your thoughts on this vitally important topic are very welcome, please use the link at the top of this blog post to comment.  If you have enjoyed reading this article, please take the opportunity to browse other blog posts on a range of industry-related topics on our website.

This blog post first appeared as an article in Pro Landscaper magazine (online version) in March 2020.

A garden design case study – Barn Garden, Hertfordshire

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04.917 Garden Barn A1Whenever I’m given a new design opportunity, it’s usually against a background of several ongoing projects. During the time period between the first and second client meetings, I find myself reflecting on everything that I’ve heard from the client and what I have seen of the space. I mull over factors such as how the client plans to use the garden, how it is related to the space, what design problems and opportunities might occur.  That’s really an enjoyable period; seeing and building the garden in my head, and not necessarily thinking very hard about it!  When I get to the drawing stage, I become very focused but the ‘mulling over’ first helps to make that a very natural flow.

Case Study – Barn Garden

Client brief – Our clients asked us to transform their one-acre garden set in a beautiful location on the top of the Chiltern Hills (an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) in Hertfordshire. The garden design needed to sit comfortably in a farmland setting yet have a contemporary, modern feel. Being keen cooks, our clients also required a small kitchen herb garden as well as a larger vegetable garden and orchard so that they could grow more of their own supplies.

View of rear and side of the house before work began

View of rear and side of the house before work began

Design challenges – The house and garden are in a lovely setting, but the garden felt very open and quite exposed to the elements; there was also a sense of being overlooked by a neighbouring property.  A sense of sanctuary and privacy was required around the house whilst maintaining a visual connection with the surrounding countryside.  Views within the garden needed to be created and framed to give a sense of scale.

Design solution -  I began with a strong rectilinear geometry, to connect the house to the garden and create attractive, separate spaces.  Trees and clipped hedges were used to strengthen the geometry before the areas were over-layered with softer, more naturalistic planting. Further hedging, trees and grasses also provide screening from the property next door. A large area was given over to a wildflower meadow, using local native calcareous species to increase the garden’s biodiversity and give a further strong connection to its countryside setting.an invitation to explore further. 

Master Plan

Master Plan

Mown paths through the meadow area provide a sense of control and an invitation to explore further. An extra contemporary touch was added by using bespoke modern sculpture to lead the eye and frame wonderful views across the Chilterns.​ Overall, the result is a garden which is well-loved and regularly used by its owners.

View of terrace from the meadow.

View of terrace from the meadow.

View from the house into the garden

View from the house into the garden

Seating area on the edge of meadow

Seating area on the edge of meadow

Garden sculpture with late summer planting

Garden sculpture with late summer planting

View of the terrace from the corner of the house

View of the terrace from the corner of the house

 

Summing up

Design solutions are very subjective and there are always many choices to make – from the concept design stage to the detail of a path width. Just where to start designing a new garden from is interesting. I often start out (as I did in this example) with very basic shapes, lines, usage flow.  I start sketching that out (always by hand initially) and start to see some geometry within the flow with which I can work and develop ideas further and in more detail.

Often with a new project there’ll be a trigger from my history – I never know where it’s going to come from, it might be from a garden that I visited 20 years ago.  In this example, I was influenced by some elements of the wonderful walled garden at Scampston Hall in North Yorkshire. Sometimes of course there are more ‘gnarly’ problems to solve too.  There’s always a conflict of some sort to solve, or an opportunity to balance the garden’s functionality with its aesthetics.  With the Barn Garden, I was keen to ensure the clients could enjoy a feeling of sanctuary whilst maintaining a strong connection to the surrounding countryside.

I hope that this design case study has been of interest – to fellow garden designers, to clients and to people interested in creative thinking generally!  Please do share your thoughts by commenting as shown at the top.  If you would like to know more about our garden design work, then please browse a range of our projects here.

This blog post first appeared on our website in September 2019 and was the most popular post in our 2019 series.

SEASON’S GREETINGS FROM THE GARDEN COMPANY

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2019-12-20_1401Whatever your religious views, and however you spend December 25th, there is really no better time than Christmas and New Year to reflect on the year gone by, to appreciate those around us and to look forward to what lies ahead.  As owner-manager of The Garden Company and having been in this post for nearly 30 years, I genuinely feel that this is as true at work as it is in any other part of my life.

With that in mind, I would like to use this blog post to say a huge personal thank you to:

  • Our clients for trusting us with your gardens and projects throughout 2019.  We know (because you tell us!) that finding the right landscape designer, construction team or maintenance service can be a real challenge and we are proud to have been chosen by you.  It’s so satisfying to transform blank canvases or ‘tired’ spaces into thriving, beautiful places where you want to spend time with your families and friends.  It’s also a huge buzz on a cold, wet morning to get a text from a client telling me how happy their garden makes them feel!
  • My managers and all of our team members. Looking around me here in the office today, I am particularly grateful for the good teamwork that we have put into practice over the last year. Our Maintenance Manager has been on maternity leave for a portion of the year (congrats again Jo and Nick!), her work has been ably covered by one of our Team Leaders, Alex Bowden (cheers Alex!) together with support from our Landscape Manager (Alex Haerle) and the rest of the business. This has all helped us to make the best use of our talents to look after our clients.
  • Our suppliers.  It’s hard to overstate how essential it is for us to work with valued business partners that we can rely on and trust to deliver what we need when we need it. I would like to praise the hard work and high quality standards of our longstanding suppliers CED Stone, Londonstone, Harrod Horticultural, Rochfords and Coles Nurseries, without whom our projects would not be possible.  We always enjoy catching up with our contacts throughout the industry at various events throughout the year and 2019 was no exception, with a particularly good few days at RHS Chelsea in May and recently a great day at Futurescape in Surrey.
  • Other professional designers.  As a garden builder as well as designer, I’ve worked closely with many designers since setting up The Garden Company, including Debbie Roberts and Ian Smith at Acres Wild, Jilayne Rickards, Cassandra Crouch, also Julie Toll and Andrew Wenham in Hertfordshire to name a few.  Our role in this type of partnership is of course to interpret their design concepts as sensitively as possible. This year we have been delighted to further develop our working relationship with Sarah and Anna at JarmanMurphy and with Taylor Tripp by collaborating on some exciting and creative projects.

 

One thing I am already looking forward to next year is continuing our work on a beautiful residential project in Oxfordshire. The Garden Company was commissioned to design and build this garden in late summer.  It’s a really interesting opportunity, based on a listed Georgian Manor house being converted for modern living, whilst maintaining the character of the era. We are just entering the planting phase which is often one of my favourite stages as the design ideas and plans start to become a reality.

But that is all several weeks away and before then we will be ‘stepping away’ from the PC/phone/various tools of our trade and taking some time out for the festivities.

Wishing you all a wonderful Christmas and a very happy and healthy New Year.

Please note – our last day in the office is 24th December and we will reopen on the 2nd January 2020.

Switching careers into professional garden maintenance

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People often say to our team members – whether landscapers or garden maintenance staff – that they would love to work outdoors too. We can relate; it is definitely a privilege to create and care for beautiful gardens and grounds, and the personal benefits of working in the outdoors are well recognised.  Some people take things further than a ‘wish’ to work outside, and they switch into a career in gardening and horticulture.  Within our own small business, we have several members of staff who started out on quite a different career path.  One of these is Ben Longhurst, now one of our Maintenance Team Leaders. 

Three years ago, we appointed Ben to join our Maintenance team. He was in his mid-20s and had never worked in the horticulture industry before, but he had skills that we believed were highly transferable and valuable to the company.  Recently, we asked Ben for his reflections on the career move he made into professional gardening …

Tell us about getting started at The Garden Company

Ben pictured at The Garden Company office
Ben pictured at The Garden Company office

I was looking for a new career having left the army, and when I realised how much I was enjoying gardening at home and spending time outdoors, I decided to make the switch. I had no professional gardening experience so early on at The Garden Company I began a work-based diploma in horticulture – this was conducted on the job as an apprentice and in my own time studying. Having finished my qualification, I began to take on more responsibility and working alone in high-end gardens.

I was promoted to Team Leader less than 2 years after joining and now I lead a small team on a busy ‘round’ maintaining private and commercial gardens for clients in North London and South-East England. My role is basically to make sure that their requirements are met to the highest standards of quality.  Our clients are very discerning, and a big part of my job is to make sure we communicate well with them and are proactive with our services.

 

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I never stop learning, either on the job or at home through personal studying. Every season I work through increases my knowledge and experience.  I love the fact that there is no limit to your education in horticulture – in my opinion, it’s a unique industry trait. I feel very lucky to spend my job amongst the elements and see the effects of my work, whether it’s daily, weekly, seasonally or yearly. It gives me great satisfaction that I have not been able to find in previous jobs.

What was your career history prior to the move into horticulture?

I had a variety of different roles – from Aviation Groundcrew Specialist in the British Army, to Parts Advisor for BMW and a self-employed Personal Trainer. Obviously quite a contrast to garden maintenance, but I learnt a lot about teamwork, communication and problem-solving.

Looking back over the last 3 years, what are you most proud of achieving at work?

I do view my progression to Maintenance Team Leader after 20 months of service as a significant accomplishment and – more specifically – I was proud to be involved in caring for ‘Laurel Cottage’ in Pinner, North London which won the Society of Garden Designer’s Small Residential Garden Award this year.  I trust that the judges were impressed with the appearance and condition of the garden during their judging process!

Laurel Cottage garden, photo credit Rebecca Bernstein

Laurel Cottage garden, photo credit Rebecca Bernstein


What are your career goals now?

I want to continue to build my horticultural knowledge and skills – through studying, by learning from the people around me at work and through visiting a variety of gardens and green spaces.  I also enjoy sharing what I have learnt with others and see this as a significant part of my role going forward.  I think that sharing our learning helps us to improve not only our personal contribution at work but also the way our team works together.  I would like to gain more experience in all aspects of The Garden Company, from landscaping and construction of the gardens that I work in through to design and customer service and aftercare. I believe that having such an understanding of how all the ‘pieces of the puzzle’ fit together will help to improve the service I provide in maintaining gardens.

What mark would you like to leave on the sector?

I hope to demonstrate to more people – especially new team members and clients – just how valuable good horticulturalists can be to a garden. A garden doesn’t stop developing once a build is finished – it requires care, planning, scrutiny and attention to detail to reach the designer or customer’s ultimate vision.

What would you say to others considering a career in professional gardening?

Working outdoors and being surrounded by nature is good for you – it provides many health and wellbeing benefits, both physical and mental. Taking care of green spaces is hugely rewarding especially at a time when there is a growing appreciation of the environmental responsibilities and issues of sustainability facing us all. I also believe that this work requires skills and knowledge that are in short supply, so the opportunities for employment and further career progression are very positive.

How has your career move influenced your life outside of work?

Outside of my ‘day job’, I spend as much time as I can visiting gardens or being outdoors.  My wife and I have recently taken up Family Membership of the National Trust so that we can help our young son to engage with his surroundings and to appreciate the natural world.

The Garden Company invites staff every year to visit at least one RHS Show.  As a result, I have been to RHS Chelsea three times and this year also to Hampton Court Flower Show.  The quality of the gardens and plants on display has been inspiring and I always find something to talk to our clients about afterwards.

Conclusion

We feel that Ben’s reflections on his career change really demonstrate how working in horticulture enables you to make a positive difference to peoples’ lives. It’s hard work and can bring some challenges (British weather being high on the list!), but it is ultimately a very rewarding experience. We love to see people enjoying being in the gardens that we have nurtured and knowing that we have created beautiful havens where people can relax and unwind.

If you have enjoyed reading about Ben’s role at The Garden Company, you might also enjoy a couple of related blog posts:

Being a garden and grounds maintenance professional – an interview with our Maintenance Manager, Joanna Mege

A day in the life of our Landscape Project Manager, Alex Haerle.

If you are thinking about a career change (or helping a family member or friend with their career options), then do take a look at the Society of Garden Designers website and also the British Association of Landscape Industries. The horticulture and landscaping industries are keen to attract new talent! Nearer to home, why not find out about current opportunities at The Garden Company through our Join Us page.

As always, we would love to hear your thoughts and comments on this topic, please post at the top of the blog.

How professional trade associations add value to your business

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garden design

Last month I was invited to take part in a seminar discussion at the Pro Landscaper: LIVE event.  Our theme was ‘the real value of trade associations’.  Along with fellow speakers Wayne Grills of BALI, Rod Winrow of APL and Ramon Lawal of Outdoor Creations, we had a lively debate with our audience, ably chaired of course by Jim Wilkinson of Pro Landscaper.

In preparing for the discussion, I reflected on my own experience of belonging to both the British Association of Landscape Industries and the Society of Garden Designers.  I joined BALI about 20 years ago and served for some time on the North Thames Committee. I joined the SGD more recently (about 10 years ago!) and since then have spent a period of 4 years on Council, with responsibility for the annual Awards process. Looking back on these experiences, it struck me that – with regard to both professional associations – there have been many benefits to me and to my company. Some have been more tangible than others, but overall I have gained a lot more than the one or two benefits that attracted me originally.

So, with all of that in mind, here is my personal viewpoint on the benefits of joining a professional trade association, which I believe fall into 3 broad categories:

  1. Practices – staying up to date with best practices
  2. PR – getting help with PR and marketing
  3. People – making great contacts with people
1 – Staying up to date with best practices
As owner-manager of a small business, it is vital not to be left behind regarding best industry practice, but also a challenge to find the time and resources to focus on improvement opportunities and industry trends.  Statutory requirements and regulations are in a constant state of flux, along with developments in new products, new technology and ever-expanding client expectations. Professional trade associations help me to stay up to date and to ensure that – along with my management team and staff – we remain competitive and we continuously improve our own working practices. For example, last year we took part in a BALI Quality Standards Review which helped us to focus on our systems, skills, resources and controls. Both BALI and the SGD provide access to relevant professional information and expert advice; and the professional development opportunities over the years have been invaluable to me personally and to my management team too in terms of high-quality conferences, open days and other professional events.
2 – Getting help with PR and marketing
Landscape design and build clients are (rightly!) discerning and in search of the best quality services and value that they can find.  Winning work in this environment is not a ‘quick sell’ and – in simple terms – I want The Garden Company to be at the front of peoples’ minds when they have a need that we can meet.  We market ourselves of course, but this activity is boosted significantly by our membership of both BALI and SGD – via their websites and other marketing tools including newsletters and publications.  Prospective clients are naturally reassured by our certification with a professional trade association.  Evidence of winning Awards at regional or national levels also provides a type of quality assurance and confidence in our services. Marketeers refer to this as ‘social proof’ – a phenomenon whereby people pay attention to and copy the actions of others – so boosting our own direct marketing effort through our association with BALI and SGD is very helpful. At the Garden Company we can trace referrals from both the BALI and SGD websites to our own website, and we know that our membership boosts website traffic.  We can analyse this traffic further and know that visitors arriving via this route tend to spend longer browsing our site.
3 – Making great contacts with people
Numerous benefits arise from meeting and getting to know fellow trade association members. In some ways these people-related benefits are less tangible than others, but that doesn’t make them less valuable. Trade associations are basically ‘mutual interest groups’ which can lead to excellent business opportunities. Networking with new contacts, potential colleagues, business partners and clients is much easier when events are organised and communication channels set up for you.  Such networking can help your business move to the next level and become more prominent in your industry.   I believe that this access to a business community is hugely valuable if (like me) you run an SME, or like many others you are a sole trader.  Face to face contact still has a big part to play in developing positive working relationships, alongside the role of social media and phone calls/emails etc. Many of us work largely alone or are ‘the boss’ at work, so it’s great to build positive social relationships with others in similar positions and sometimes friendships that can last many years.

 

Summary

Personally, I have found my membership of two professional trade associations to be very rewarding.  Both organisations provide a great forum for members to share ideas and develop new ways to improve the industry. Over time, and with more experience, I have enjoyed playing a part in supporting the objectives of both organisations, for example by helping to recruit new members or by representing the group (e.g. representing the SGD at RHS Shows). Some of my colleagues in the industry commit huge amounts of personal time to mentoring and coaching others through forums such as GoLandscape.  Others commit their time to Council and Committee work at national and regional levels.

For those of you reading that are also members of one of our industry trade associations, I’d be really interested to hear your perspective on the value to you and your business. For those of you considering joining (and maybe weighing up the membership fees), I would definitely say ‘go for it’ – and be aware that, just joining up is only the start of things.  To gain maximum benefit and ‘real value’, you need to be prepared to engage fully (e.g. run a cluster group, give a presentation, host an event, write a blog post ……!!) and then the benefits will start to multiply.

For more information about the aims of BALI and/or the SGD, please click here: BALI  and SGD. To read my related blog post on developing a career in garden and landscape design, click here.

A day in the life of our Landscape Project Manager

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For this blog, we are stepping into the shoes of our Landscape Manager Alex Haerle.  Alex’s job is all about helping people to turn their garden dreams and ideas into reality – and at the same time taking away their headaches about their landscape project.  We thought you would be interested to hear more about what’s involved.

What do you see as your main responsibilities?

I have a dual role as Designer and Project Manager.  It probably splits about 20:80 with most of my time spent managing landscape projects / teams (with an extra 10% needed to cover the unplanned tasks that come up!) This may be building to our own, in-house designs or to designs created by other professional designers.  The type of project can vary significantly, from installing a water feature to building a large garden for a country house, commercial Head Office or a public space.

What does a typical workday look like?

On any given day, with my Project Manager ‘hat’ on, I will be doing some (or what feels like all!) of these things: site visits to ongoing contracts, liaising with designers by phone/email, handling new enquiries, working up estimates, ordering materials, producing planting plans, visiting plant nurseries and solving ad hoc queries with projects as they arise. In addition, I have one or two design days per week. There’s also a lot of ‘business as usual’ that is not directly project-related – such as interviewing or inducting new staff, managing our vehicles, monitoring our health and safety compliance and staying in touch with previous clients.

There’s really no such thing though as a typical workday, week, landscape project or client! For example, at present I’m project managing a small residential rear garden for a retired couple who are looking for a low-maintenance way to enjoy their outdoor space.  At the same time, over the last 4 months we have been building a large garden for a substantial new property – the landscape designers are Taylor Tripp, and I’m liaising with them regularly to ensure they are fully up-to-date with how the project is developing.

There are however some golden threads that run through every landscape project – the quality of the work, controlling costs and getting things done on time in the right sequence.  Those are the three project elements that I spend my time and energy on.

What do you enjoy most about managing landscape projects?

Alex with daughter Alice at Inner Temple Garden London, on completion of a rejuvenation project

Alex with daughter Alice at Inner Temple Garden London, on completion of a rejuvenation project

Ultimately, delivering a beautiful garden to the client and designer is very rewarding. It’s so satisfying to transform an uninspiring space into a thriving, beautiful place where people want to spend their time. It’s good too to know that much of our work will continue to develop and bring enjoyment to people for years to come.  Positive feedback from clients is always really pleasing and being awarded recognition over the years by both BALI and the SGD is a real accolade to everyone involved.  On a day-to-day basis, one of the things that I most enjoy is leading teams of people that between them have got deep construction knowledge and experience. I can rely on their core competence to get most things done effectively and efficiently and this undoubtedly plays a big part in keeping my ‘to do’ list under control!  It also means that my role as Project Manager is more about getting involved at key decision points. I also really enjoy collaborating with different professional designers to create gardens.  Over recent years I have worked with Julie Toll, Andrew Wenham, Cassandra Crouch, the Jarman Murphy partnership, Jilayne Rickards, Peter Reader and Taylor Tripp, to mention a few! There are many more whose work I admire and would like to work with in the future. As well as differences in design styles, it is interesting to learn how designers can differ in how they work with us.  Some like to be very hands-on and are often on site, sometimes literally rolling their sleeves up and getting ‘stuck in’ – others are more detached from the actual build and rely more on good communications via email, drawings etc. Obviously, there’s no right or wrong, it’s all about being able to understand their preferences and interpret their designs sensitively.

What do you find most difficult or challenging about managing landscape projects?

Mistakes happen sometimes.  We all know it but it’s still horrible when it occurs … as my career progresses, I feel as if a large part of my mental work is about anticipating what could go wrong in order to prevent it as often as possible.  What I’ve also learnt is that the sooner you deal with a mistake by coming up with a realistic solution the better.

What skills, knowledge and experience help you most in your job?

I hope that I apply good leadership skills with my team members (of course, you would need to ask them to find out!).  These are the people working on site, all day, every day, dealing with various challenges and often affected by our ever-changing weather.  They are skilled craftspeople and I have a lot of respect for their abilities and knowhow.  On the whole, I see my role as leader being to support them and make it as straightforward as possible for them to do their best work.

I need to be able challenge people at times too.  This might be my own team members, or a supplier, or even the client.  This has become easier with time as I have grown to see that one of the best ways for me to add value in my role is to share my specialist knowledge and experience.

I also like everything on a project to be ‘just so’ – down to the finest detail.  I genuinely think this helps in our industry!  We are sometimes up against the poor reputation of construction companies regarding quality and service, and we are very keen to overcome that ‘bad press’ by ‘wow-ing’ our clients.

What advice would you give to somebody who wanted to work in a similar role?

Get as much practical landscape project management and hands-on experience as you can.  Make sure that you view each project as an opportunity to learn.  This way you build up a mental database of problems that you may have previously encountered, which is invaluable every time you are faced with a new project.  Developing your professional confidence in this way also helps to instil confidence in those around you – clients, designers, team members and suppliers.  There are many decisions to make before and during a landscape project and learning to make those decisions incisively is vital.

Also, while having a project plan is essential, remember the importance of keeping an open mind.  Plans change during projects and expecting them not to is a recipe for stress! Treating the project plan as a living document and being prepared to modify it in collaboration with others is a much more realistic (and enjoyable) approach.

Alex aged seven

Alex aged seven

Alex joined the Garden Company 7 years ago and – with his team – provides a domestic garden and commercial grounds landscaping service to clients in Hertfordshire, North London and surrounding areas.  Client sites range from privately-owned gardens (large and small) to business parks and public spaces (find out more here).  Prior to joining the Garden Company Alex spent 8 years at Frost Landscapes designing numerous gardens in Milton Keynes and nearby villages.  Alex studied Landscape & Garden Design at Writtle College in Chelmsford and traces his career choice originally to a patch of mud in his back garden given to him by his mum around the age of 6 or 7 – closely followed by taking on responsibility for his own allotment plot.

Leading and managing The Garden Company: 5 learning points

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Career in garden design
What have you learnt from your job over the years?  I’ve been leading and managing The Garden Company since 1991 and recently I have found myself reflecting on what this has taught me.  These ‘learning points’ happen to be set in the context of a garden design and build business, but I strongly suspect they are applicable to any small service firm – architects, consultants, accountants – let me know!

Point 1 – Clients must always be at the heart of what we do and how we do it

We provide a high-end, bespoke landscape design and build service; we aim to ‘wow’ our clients, who may be residential garden owners or commercial organisations, schools, hotels …. Sometimes, we have two clients to ‘wow’ – the garden/site owner and also a fellow designer (where we build to their design, not our own). With all of this in mind, it can still be surprisingly easy to fall into the trap of focusing on what we want to deliver rather than listen to what the client really wants.

So … the first learning point I want to highlight is that designing and building gardens isn’t about our wants and needs, it is about those of the client.  What do they want from their garden or grounds?  What are their aspirations? How do they want to use the space in future? Of course, we can add a lot of value when it comes to solutions (that’s why we’ve been chosen!), but we need to start from a very good grasp of the project’s starting point and the desired outcomes. We have learnt over the years to listen intently to the client from the beginning and all the way through a project.  Our marketing materials speak about our clients, their stories and aspirations, not what makes The Garden Company great.

Point 2 – Failure to plan is planning to fail

A bit of a cliché maybe, but so true in my view. Any good project manager knows the importance of mise en place, a French term which translates to “putting in place.” This is the work that begins in the restaurant trade long before a meal is due to be served. Chickens are portioned, vegetables are peeled, sauces are prepared. It is certainly not exciting work, but it  is essential for a high-quality service and it reinforces the need for people to take pride in their work at all stages.

We hold this principle very dear at The Garden Company and we have invested significant time and resource into making sure that projects are planned and delivered effectively and efficiently.  We have captured our approach to this in both our Landscape and Maintenance teams by writing down a set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for all team members to follow.  The overall purpose of each SOP is to give detailed directions so that any individual can do a job correctly, on time, every time. They are great training (and cross-training) tools and we are glad we took the time out to document them.

Point 3 – True teamwork delivers results

Soon after setting up The Garden Company, I realised that to scale the business up I needed to develop individuals and teams to be able to help me to deliver our services. However, delegation has been one of the hardest lessons to learn because – even now – in such a competitive industry, every opportunity feels a little like gold dust.  Once I have delegated a task, I know that I can neither ‘abdicate’ nor can I interfere – so I’ve learnt to keep things on track by making sure that I have shared any information about the delegated task that I already have, by communicating regularly and agreeing interim steps, deadlines and progress reviews. But it’s a work in progress and for the full picture, ask the rest of my management team how this is going!

Of course, the alternative – trying to keep doing everything myself – is not sustainable. Leading and managing my own small business has taught me to appreciate value of good team work in practice. As company owner and manager, there have been days when I’ve not been quite sure how I’ll get everything done – perhaps it’s the big finish on a project in time for a client’s garden party, along with a proposal presentation to be prepared and a new design waiting for my attention on the drawing board – these situations are challenging, but they do reinforce the message: on your own, you’d never meet all the requirements made of you.  Together, through genuine collaboration and cooperation, teamwork can really save time, make great use of the talent available and deliver fantastic client service.

Point 4 – As company leader, it’s vital to preserve some thinking time

Many of us started out in business at a time when lunch was for ‘wimps’ and we all carried bulging time-managers or Filofaxes around alongside our over-sized mobile phones. However, as The Garden Company grew, I found that being very busy and rushing from one activity to the next without a pause was becoming a problem.  These days I have learnt that a vital part of my leadership role is to carefully protect some of my time for thinking and reflecting on the business and its future growth and development.  While day-to-day operations will always be a high priority, I know I need to balance my time spent on short term ‘stuff’ with bigger, long term thinking and decision-making about what we do and how we do it. Tactics that help me to do this are:

·         delegating to others (as described already)

·         listening and staying open to new ideas from others, inside and outside the business – otherwise, it’s so tempting to stick to old tried-and-tested solutions, and the listening skills I deploy with clients are also very useful with colleagues and business contacts

·         applying some good old stress-management techniques – for me, it’s about getting good quality sleep, eating healthy food, taking exercise, relaxing with the family and/or my guitar, walks in the fresh air enjoying my surroundings (remembering why I do what I do!).  I think it’s well-recognised that time away from the ‘coalface’ can often be the time that new ideas come to the foreground.

Point 5 – Being creative is extremely rewarding

Creating beautiful gardens for a living is highly rewarding in itself, not least because every project is unique. Every new project needs to be based on a robust thought process together with a sprinkling of design creativity and inspiration.  In my January blog, I wrote about the factors that have most influenced my design work over the years and the satisfaction to be gained from creating a space for people to enjoy.

I am always impressed at RHS Shows and elsewhere by the creative talent in our industry and the opportunities to be creative that come our way.  I’m so grateful to remain highly motivated by this and not ever feel stifled by my job!  It’s clear to me why many people switch into second careers in this industry because of the opportunity to be creative and work with nature, compared to so many deskbound professions.  As a garden builder as well as designer, I’ve worked closely with other designers over the years – building gardens to their designs and interpreting their concepts as sensitively as possible has been a great additional source of creative energy and inspiration for me.

And this leads to my final point – I’m glad I chose this career path

It’s not exactly a learning point, but the golden thread through all of my ‘rambling’ here is that we are a friendly bunch in garden design and construction! Sure, it’s a highly competitive world, but at least it is friendly competition.  In my view, the work just attracts nice people (!) – I’ve written before about how much I enjoy being immersed in this industry.  It would be easy to take this for granted.

A good example of the positive culture that we work in can be found in the support that many give to industry charities such as Perennial and Greenfingers. More selfishly perhaps, as a member of the Society of Garden Designers and the British Association of Landscape Industries, I can honestly say that I have met lots of lovely people through these organisations. Otherwise, I can see how being owner-manager of a small business could be a lonely place to be.

Conclusion

So, while most (maybe all) of the points listed are well-established in theory, I believe that it is my personal experience of leading and managing The Garden Company that has driven them home for me.

If you are a business owner, what would you add from your own experience? I’d be very interested to hear – whether you are new to the industry, or in the middle and later years of your career …. or from a different industry altogether!  Please do comment.

And if what I have said here about life at The Garden Company resonates with you personally and you are looking for a new challenge – we are always on the lookout for people who are passionate about beautiful gardens and want to ‘wow’ clients … please get in touch.

 

 

New year, new design ideas

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‘It must be lovely to be a garden designer and create all those beautiful spaces for people to enjoy’.  People have said this to me many times over the years and it is of course very true.  Designing gardens is extremely rewarding, not least because every project is unique. Every new project needs to be based on a robust thought process together with a sprinkling of design creativity and inspiration.  So, where do the design ideas for each new opportunity come from? I’ve been reflecting recently on my own design process and this blog post lays out the factors, people and places that influence me the most. For those of you that are fellow designers, I would be interested to know about your personal influences and sources of inspiration.  For those of you that are in search of a professional garden design service, I hope that this gives some insight into how we approach garden design at The Garden Company.

Early years and influences

Looking back to my earliest memories of being outdoors, I have realised how fortunate I was to grow up immersed in the beauty of the Cotswolds. My brother and I had a 2-mile walk to school through woodland and we spent a lot of time happily exploring. My grandparents lived in a 1-acre plot with a somewhat overgrown garden and orchard –   it was a place of excitement for children! While my brother and I would often play games or climb trees there, just as often we would help with pruning or fruit picking.  Although I didn’t realise it then, I was engaging with nature every day.  Now I am very aware of my attempts to recreate those feelings and emotions when designing gardens.  I’m often aiming for a certain atmosphere, a ‘sense of place’, a garden that doesn’t just look good but feels good too – overall, a relaxed and comfortable feeling.

Wildlife garden

Wildlife garden

Garden designers past and present

When I was first studying garden design, the designers that most influenced me were those such as John Brookes, Robin Williams and Geoffrey Jellicoe.  They were very active at the time, with exciting schemes, stunning show gardens, and inspirational books.  I still dip regularly into their books on my office shelves – Geoffrey Jellicoe’s ‘Private Modern Gardens’ is a wonderful source of ideas.  More recently, leading garden designers including Cleve West, James Basson, Tom Stuart-Smith and Christopher Bradley-Hole have been a big personal influence. Their show gardens have left a lasting impact on me and added to my mental ‘bank’ of ideas.

Large family garden

Large family garden

As a garden builder as well as designer, I’ve worked closely with several designers over the last 25 years, including Debbie Roberts and Ian Smith at Acres Wild, also Julie Toll and Andrew Wenham in Hertfordshire.  Building gardens to their designs and interpreting their concepts as sensitively as possible has been a great source of insight into their creative thinking.

We are so lucky in the UK to be able to visit some truly outstanding gardens and flower shows. Early on in my design career, I was really influenced by Hidcote Gardens in Gloucestershire, a well-known Arts and Crafts garden. I was struck by the series of outdoor ‘rooms’ and the atmosphere this generates.  Along with many of my fellow designers, I visit Chelsea Flower Show every year, usually spending a few days there during Chelsea week, to immerse myself in as many ideas and schemes as I can – from design concepts to the finer finishing details.  I also enjoy the National Garden Scheme, a great opportunity to view gardens not normally open to the public.

Small family garden

Small family garden

My advice to garden design students is always to make sure that they are exposed to as many influences as possible. Often I find myself looking for a design solution to a certain set of ‘problems’ and the main source of ideas is the collection of experiences that I’ve had before.  It’s vital to expose yourself to as much creativity as possible – so that when your mind is working on a design concept, you’re more likely to come up with a better solution.

Looking beyond garden design

Of course, being inspired and influenced by what I’ve seen can apply to many things beyond garden design.  Very often, I get my ideas from nature – the atmosphere created by an old tree surrounded by low level planting, or natural colonies of plants.  Even the layout of agricultural land can be aesthetically pleasing.

Naturalistic garden

Naturalistic garden

Abstract art can be a great demonstration of the relationship between certain proportions, geometries and colours.  A simple image can be a reminder that certain proportions and balances are pleasing to the eye – Piet Mondrian’s pieces based on squares and rectangles and Wassily Kandinsky’s work on the ‘harmony of colours’ are examples of this.

In terms of architecture, I value Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy, especially for his sense of balance and proportion and the blending of buildings into the landscape.  Rarely were his buildings imposed on the landscape. It’s a shame he never came to the UK because it would be wonderful to have more access to his work.

Design trends vs timelessness

There are trends in garden design as in all creative work. I don’t think I really follow them – although I am influenced by them and sometimes actively avoid them! Being heavily involved in the British Association of Landscape Industries and the Society of Garden Design helps me and my team to stay up-to-date and able to anticipate what clients might be considering.  The other side of the same coin is that garden design is quite timeless.  The end of a design project is the start of a long process of nurturing a garden to its full potential and – although obviously we introduce new products and materials as appropriate – in the main we are designing with a long-term vision in mind.

Conclusion

I’ve commented here on a wide range of ideas and experiences that influence my approach to each new garden design project.  I think this reinforces  what a highly subjective process garden design is – it’s certainly hard for me to imagine a time when the type of bespoke service that we provide to our clients will be automated.  I hope that these reflections have been interesting to my fellow designers, to clients – old and new! – and to people interested in creativity generally.  Please do share your thoughts by commenting as shown at the top.  If you would like to know more about our current and recent design work, then please see my updates on Instagram (@thegarden_company) and Twitter (@gardencomp).