How to make garden design a successful second career
Charlotte Rowe knows all about making a success of starting over
There’s a lot to be said for being a late starter. Working in other careers, knowing what you want to achieve and having a maturity that makes difficult negotiations with clients and contractors if not easy, then more manageable, is crucial experience for a garden designer. Charlotte Rowe MSGD, an award-winning garden designer with a practice in West London, didn’t embark upon this career until she was almost 50, but thinks that what she’s been able to bring to it from her other life in PR is enormous.
“Having a background in marketing, and a knowledge of how a business needs to present itself, is vital if you’re to win, and keep winning, contracts,” she says. And she’s certainly proved this, going from a one-woman practice after graduating from the Oxford College of Garden Design in 2004, to heading up a successful team of designers and landscape architects with a portfolio of more than 200 gardens, roof terraces and landscapes, both in the UK and abroad.
Rowe’s background in marketing and PR included several high-profile posts, including working for the London tourist board during the build-up to the millennium celebrations, and as director of communications for the former Greater London Authority, working for Mayor Ken Livingstone. She learnt the necessity of constant promotion to keep things fresh and relevant – something she has brought to her work as a designer.
But all the time she was promoting others, Rowe knew she was not in the right career. “I had originally wanted to be an architect,” she explains, “and then I briefly considered becoming an interior designer after doing up my house in France.” But in 2004, aged “49 and a half”, she enrolled on a course in garden design. “I did it with some trepidation, because I was told that when it came to getting an internship with a garden design practice, I might be seen as too old.”
Rowe did not seek a regular internship, and has some regrets about this because she thinks it would have eased her into the garden design world more gradually, but with characteristic tenacity she went on another route to launch her career.
Channel 4 was looking for participants who were going through a career change for a TV programme called Life Begins Again, and they shadowed Rowe during her first year after graduation. “It was my first foray into the profession, so it was high stakes, but it helped me define what it was I wanted to do and set some key milestones.”
Her first design was for a neighbour in Kensington – her one and only gratis job – and it was here she learnt the value of working with contractors you can trust. “The client had quotes from two contractors, and they went with the cheapest. But I struck up a professional relationship with the one who didn’t get the job, Sam Diment of HCL Garden Design, and since then we’ve worked together on around 50 gardens.”
Rowe quickly became known for her stylish designs that were defined by hard landscaping in the best quality materials, with careful detailing and strong planting – something new for small urban gardens at the time. Her clients wanted outdoor spaces that complemented the interiors of their homes. “They were asking for something functional and beautiful that reflected their style,” she says, “and because so many of my clients use their garden mainly in the evenings, because they’re working all day, they wanted areas to either relax or entertain in.”
Rowe also became known for her use of outdoor lighting, illuminating the garden at night and adding another layer of interest by uplighting the shapes of leaf and branch, and throwing the patterns onto a hard surface.
Although her practice is now increasingly designing these larger projects, such as big country gardens, the team employs the same principles of strong architectural lines and luxuriant planting as in Rowe’s urban gardens. “Like all designers, I wanted to spread my wings and do larger landscapes,” she says. “Smaller gardens have to be ‘bang on’ in terms of design and detailing, and there is no room for error, as everything is on close view and the planting needs to look good all year.
“In large gardens, there is less pressure of this type, but the design and planting challenges are different - the design has to all meld together and work with the surrounding borrowed landscape, and the planting conditions become of paramount importance.”
But it’s those smaller city spaces Rowe loves, as she finds them completely absorbing in design terms, “and satisfying too, as we get to see it all finished much quicker than in the case of large landscapes”.
With her range of experience and undeniable success, Rowe is well-placed to offer advice to up-and-coming designers.
- Be honest with yourself and your clients, and try to work within your own particular comfort zone
- Slowly build up your portfolio by gradually setting yourself new challenges.
- Build good relationships with a few really professional landscape contractors as they will be able to help and steer you.
- Talk about the budget with clients early
- Being careful who you do free work for – by all means, do a bit of work gratis when you start out, but do not let yourself be lured by friends and family constantly asking for mates’ rates.
Words: Caroline Beck