How to become a garden designer
Want to earn a living from designing gardens? Discover how to get the best start in this sought-after career
If you have a passion for plants, an eye for detail and a creative streak, you might think garden design would be the perfect career for you. You might be a school leaver or a career-changer, but the lure of creating landscapes professionally attracts all sorts of people from all walks of life.
Tom Massey, for example, graduated in 2015 from the London College of Garden Design (LCGD) and now runs his own garden design business. “I love the varied nature of the work - from designing in the office and planting out on site, to the intense pressure of delivering a show garden at RHS Hampton Court Flower Show.” Prior to this, Tom worked in animation, before deciding to fulfil his long-time ambition and retrain as a garden designer.
Basic skills of garden designers
As a garden designer you can be involved in all elements of the design and build process, from surveying and creating a design to the hard landscaping and selecting plants.
You’ll need to have great communication skills for working with clients and contractors, be happy working outdoors in all weathers and have a flexible approach to work.
You’ll also have to develop your knowledge of a wide range of plants and materials, and how to use them, so getting training on a garden design course is probably a good first step.
On these courses, however, the study workload can be all consuming, so for a taster of the subject, particularly if you’ve been away from education for a while, it’s worth considering first doing one of the short courses offered by local further education colleges or your nearest horticulture college. To improve your horticultural skills and plant knowledge, look to the RHS and its courses, which are offered at centres across the country.
Choosing a garden design course
There are a variety of courses on offer across the country from those aimed at the amateur gardener, to ones that prepare a student to enter the profession. KLC School of Design, Inchbald School of Design, Oxford College of Garden Design and LCGD are all highly respected within the industry and offer one-year diplomas. Other established schools include Capel Manor, Writtle, Hadlow, Pickard and Merrist Wood – see http://sgd.org.uk/industry-colleges.aspx for more options and locations.
If you need to fit in study around family or work commitments, or live too far from a college then an online or part-time course is a popular option. The Oxford College diploma is taught solely online, and KLC and Inchbald among others offer online and part-time options.
Courses vary in price and can be a significant investment, so it’s important to research what each course offers and what future employers will be looking for. “Prospective students should check that there is the right balance between lectures and studio time,” Andrew Duff, director of the Garden Design faculty at Inchbald, advises. “Lectures impart the knowledge but it is the studio time, which allows students to put that information into practice.”
Andrew Wilson, director of LCGD, recommends talking to past or current students to see if the course offers what you want. “In addition to wider design issues, the course should cover planting design, construction design, an understanding of surveying and levels and visual communication - both hand drawn and using Sketchup and Vectorworks computer aided design,” he explains. “Business and professional practice should also be included allowing students to develop an understanding of contracts, fees, their professional role in relation to clients and contractors and how schemes are costed.”
A good course will provide opportunities to meet garden design professionals and give you the chance to build up that all-important network of contacts. There should also be opportunities for work experience and real projects for students to work on. “At Inchbald, we only use real clients and gardens, which provides a realistic approach to design and also ensures that tutors tackle all projects with a fresh eye,” says Andrew Duff.
To help you choose the right course for you and check quality, you can download a helpful checklist of need-to-know questions at http://sgd.org.uk/industry-how-to-choose-a-course.aspx
Starting a career
Getting work will depend on more than doing a course. Look out for and enquire after internships and work experience at established garden design practices in order to gain real experience. There are also an increasing number of garden design opportunities and competitions, including garden shows, which are fantastic ways to get noticed. A good way to get started and learn the ropes before going it alone is to volunteer to help an experienced designer on a show garden while you are a student.
When it comes to paying work, you will first have to decide if you want to set up your own business or if you would prefer to work for someone else. If you want to go it alone and become self-employed, you will have to organise your tax and accounts affairs, think about insurance and finance, and make sure you keep up to date on the legal aspects of the job, such as CDM. You will also have to find clients, so creating a website and generating interest through locals ads or flyers, giving talks etc might be necessary. Jobs with garden designers and practices are like gold dust, but if you have chosen the right course and done some work experience your chances of success are high, as many employers in the industry are desperate to find well-qualified candidates.
Whether you plan on going it alone or you want gain experience working under another designer, there is support available from the Society of Garden Designers (SGD), the industry body that accredits designers and promotes excellence in the industry.
Networking & moving up
You can join as a student and then, once you have finished your course, apply to become Pre-Registered, before going through an assessment process to become a Registered Member. Benefits to being a member are significant, as Philippa O’Brien, chair of the society, explains: “Although practices are becoming more commonplace, there are still large numbers of garden designers who work on a sole trader basis. To them, the networking available within the SGD can be a lifeline.”
The SGD also posts job adverts from members in the Industry Zone section of their website, and allows you to create a ‘Available to work for a designer’ profile, so those hoping to work in an established practice or designers looking for help with projects can connect. “We also provide inspiration with our two conferences a year on widely varying subjects, at least 24 Continuing Professional Development events every year held across the country, and support with cluster groups and mentoring,” Philippa explains. You’ll also receive the Garden Design Journal each month to keep up with what is happening in the industry and best practice, and where you might have the opportunity to contribute and publicise your work.
Another way to get your name out there is to enter the SGD Student Awards, open to all student members – Tom Massey won both categories in 2015, and previous winners including Jo Midwinter and Jon Sims believe it propelled them to greater opportunities.
If you would rather get someone else to design your garden than do it yourself, find top tips on working with a garden designer in our advice article here
Words: Louise Curley