Career profile - Garden Designer

A garden designer sketches out a vision of form, function and beauty for an otherwise lacklustre piece of land.

Such designs usually incorporate elements of hard landscaping, such as paths and walls, as well as soft landscaping, such as shrubs and flower beds, that together create a space that delights
and inspires.

What is best about being a garden designer?

"It’s about the variety, as long as you are willing to be adventurous," explains Claire Belderbos, sales and marketing director of garden design and landscaping specialist Belderbos Landscapes. "I think the better the reputation you have the more exposure you get to different types of projects," she adds. "We’ve been in business for 13 years and every week you get exposed to some really interesting ideas — whether you are landscaping a garden for a museum or working on a huge development for an amazing school, you get variety."

Paul Cowell, owner of garden design and construction firm PC Landscapes, agrees. "It’s the variety of projects that you get to work on, clients you get to meet, and situations and locations," he says.

What kind of skills, attributes, knowledge and experience are most in demand for this role in the recruitment market at the moment — and why?

A creative edge

"The industry is wanting garden designers to push the boundaries — designers with a creative edge and people who are brave as well," notes Belderbos. "People hate going to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and seeing the same old styles. They want to see garden designers who are trying to be different."

A team player

Belderbos points out that creating a new garden is very much a partnership. "You need people who can work as part of a team. It’s not about contractor versus client and the designer. It’s all about collaboration — a team effort. Your listening skills also need to be paramount. If what the client wants doesn’t align with you, you have to create a compromise."

A commercial mind

Belderbos also observes that it is difficult for the industry to find designers "who don’t just do it as a pastime". She points out: "We are running a business and we are serving people all of the time. You want a garden designer to be acting in the interest of getting a job done."

Practical landscaping knowledge

Cowell notes that having some practical knowledge of how materials are constructed is a key skill. "Effectively you are designing a bespoke garden that’s never been built before, so you need to have that kind of practical know-how — understanding how different materials will go with others," he explains.

"For example, will stainless steel still work well with other kinds of steel it’s connected to? And if you are asking contractors to cut these materials, do you know that it’s going to be safe for them to do so? Is there a potential hazard? Have you designed everything to its standard unit size? An understanding of how all of the materials go together is vitally important."

Organisational skills

"Once you are running a contract you also need to have good administration and time-management skills," adds Cowell. "The entire contract is run by the integrity of the designer."

What sort of qualifications and experience would you need to see from a potential candidate to be convinced that they possess these qualities?

From short courses to diplomas to degrees, there are many different garden design qualifications available in the UK. Belderbos has employed people who have trained at Capel Manor, which runs a foundation degree (level 4 and 5) in garden design and plantsmanship, and Chelsea-based KLC, whose diploma includes the opportunity to work at Hampton Court Palace.

"It’s much healthier to do a broader-based course where you learn a bit of everything," says Belderbos. "We’ve hired garden designers whom we’ve ask to go and do a survey and they say: ‘We’ve never done a survey before.’ But if you want that garden design built you have to be able to do a survey so that it’s accurate. So you are looking for people who are passionate about the industry and if they have got some work experience then that’s helpful."

Cowell agrees. "There’s nothing better than practical experience," he says. "If they’ve worked with good-quality contractors and seen how these things are put together it would help their career move forward far more quickly."

Are any of the skills that are in demand transferable from other horticulture roles?

"Yes," says Cowell. "I’ve met many garden designers who, for a number of years, worked in a garden centre or a nursery because they love plants. They’d known that they have graphic skills because they can draw and design so they’ve married those elements together — and if they have a little construction knowledge they can team up with a good contractor." Belderbos adds: "People often come into garden design later in life as a second career, so yes, many of the skills are transferable."

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