Landscape design and build fuelled by inspiration

A career in the landscape sector offers the chance to work on diverse projects while building a wide portfolio of skills, Rachel Anderson finds.

Eden project landscape apprentices - image: Eden Project
Eden project landscape apprentices - image: Eden Project

The golden ratio, an aesthetically pleasing spiral found in nature, was the basis of a gold medal-winning urban garden design at this year's Ideal Home Show at London's Kensington Olympia. Designed by level 3 second-year horticulture/landscaping students at Pershore College in Worcestershire, the 5.5x4m plot, named "The Path to Discovery," won the show's coveted young gardener of the year award.

Lead designer Nick Russell says: "Throughout the garden are representations of the recurring mathematical patterns found in nature. We believe the best way to revive and revitalise the enjoyment of plants is to excite and educate the younger generation, our generation, about these hidden intricacies."

In many ways, the theme of this garden was rather fitting because just as the golden ratio starts with a single tiny cell before expanding into an eye-pleasing spiral-shaped formation, a career in landscape creation and design begins with just a flicker of interest in horticulture.

This small spark can then grow and spiral in whatever direction you choose, whether it is designing domestic gardens or constructing large landscapes such the area surrounding Heathrow Airport's Terminal 2, a project undertaken by Brighton-based Acre Landscapes. Owner Nigel Bowcock, a BALI board director, says: "It's such a diverse industry - you just have to show a level of interest to get into it."

Those who are academically inclined could, for example, choose to gain a qualification in garden design or, if they prefer to set their sights on larger green spaces, a degree in landscape management or landscape architecture. BALI representative Denise Ewbank explains: "Landscape architecture is a professional qualification that, alongside architecture and the built environment, attracts those leaving school with strong qualifications who want to work with green infrastructure rather than follow the built environment route."

Just like the many plants that make up an urban garden design, garden design courses also come in many different shapes and sizes, from short courses to diplomas through to degrees. Increasingly, garden design is incorporated into broader horticulture courses as a module. Given that garden designers need to have a sound knowledge of plants, this is perhaps a great foundation.

Society of Garden Designers head of education Sarah Morgan advises budding garden designers to start out by finding "a good college with a good reputation that celebrates good design." She adds: "That's a good benchmark actually. There are a lot of colleges out there whose show gardens are challenging even the best of designers. That indicates to me that they are teaching all of the elements that are involved in creating good gardens."

Morgan also says prospective students need to acknowledge the wide portfolio of skills, such as a broad horticultural knowledge, required. "There's no one formal route that says 'I've arrived'," she points out. "It's about recognising that you need a wide portfolio of skills and building up that skills set. Start within your confident zone. It might just be a case of redesigning a border for a friend. And get alongside the people who will help you to make it happen - landscape contractors, builders, any trade that is linked to it."

Landscape contracting

Ewbank points out that landscape contracting, which includes soft landscaping and hard landscape construction for domestic gardens, commercial schemes and public realm projects, tends to be a route for people who are inherently practical. "Many who start out from school go straight in, learning on the job, which is why an apprenticeship is perfect," she maintains. "There are approximately 50 land-based colleges across the UK offering relevant courses such as level 2 and 3 diplomas in amenity horticulture or landscape construction."

She notes that new trailblazer apprenticeship standards set out the kind of skills and training that employers want at supervisor and operative levels across horticulture and landscape construction "They are in the process of being approved and the apprenticeships will deliver high-quality, structured training that meets the needs of employers and will not simply deliver what the training providers want to deliver.

"This should be a massive step forward for our industry as the apprenticeships will signpost a real career path for young people in horticulture and landscaping, which hitherto may not have been on their or their careers advisers' radar."

Sustainable environments

In addition to the trend for incorporating garden design and landscaping modules in horticulture courses, colleges are also acutely aware of the need to create sustainable green spaces for the world's growing urban population.

EastEast Sussex-based Plumpton College, for example, is planning to launch a new foundation degree in urban horticulture in the forthcoming academic year (subject to validation). Plumpton Head of horticulture James Pashley says: "If you look at the cityscapes projects going across London and elsewhere in the world we are reaching very exciting times within urban horticulture, which is why we've decided to put on the new foundation degree. We are going to be training people who are going to be managing these situations and leading such projects."

As cities expand and redevelop, there is clearly a need for trained landscaping professionals. In fact, they are so in demand that Steve Prinn, head of horticulture at Askham Bryan College in Yorkshire, notes that 95 per cent of the college's level 3 horticulture students go straight into employment or further study after completing their course. Askham Bryan students also created a show garden at this year's Ideal Home Show.

"We are really proud of the fact that these guys are getting jobs at the end of it," he says. "But given the amount of jobs that there are in the industry we still seem to attract people who are already gardeners, such as career changers. Every couple of years I think we might be turning a corner but then something happens and we are back to where we started. It's about educating schoolchildren that you do need to be reasonably bright and intelligent to carry out a career in horticulture - and that it can be well paid."

BALI is tackling this issue. Acre Landscape's Bowcock and fellow board director David Dodd, of The Outdoor Room in West Sussex, are developing outreach programme "Go Landscape" that is seeing them go into schools and talk to year-nine students - who are choosing their options - about working in landscape design and construction and grounds maintenance.

Bowcock explains: "We started it because there's such a large skills gap in the landscape industry. We both run firms and we see it on a day-to-day basis. We also want to change the perception of horticulture and the landscape industry to help people realise that it's a career option, not just something that you do in the summer or if you fail your exams. You can run a business, do a masters or a doctorate in the subject or even become chartered. So far we've been to three schools and we've seen a massive interest."

Later on this year Go Landscape is launching a website aimed at young people, their parents and teachers. Bowcock says: "If we have something as a reference point we can hopefully help attract the right people at the right level - and give examples of people in the industry and demonstrate that it is a serious career option."

- For more information on careers in landscape design and construction, visit To search for apprenticeship schemes in your area, visit

Case study - Unique apprenticeship partnership

A partnership between the Association of Professional Landscapers (APL), Myerscough College and the Landscape Skills Academy - an advisory business run by award-winning landscape designer and gardener Jody Lidgard - has created a unique apprenticeship scheme driven and shaped by the landscaping industry.

APL learning and careers manager Penny Evans explains that the two-year programme is currently seeing nine apprentices, who are based at different landscaping firms throughout the country, come to Myerscough for five-day training "boot camps". The boot camps replace traditional day-release training, enabling the scheme to become a national programme.

Evans adds: "Jody has taken on the challenge of providing the industry expertise and so we are utilising this to ensure that whatever is delivered in those five or six days is a reflection of what the industry needs. So there's a great relationship between education and industry. It makes it different in that respect."

She points out that the majority of the apprentices, who are working towards a level 2 diploma in work-based horticulture, were already working in the industry and their employers were keen to offer some formal training.

Case study - The Eden Project

First- and second-year horticulture apprentices at the Eden Project in Cornwall surprised visitors at the Cornwall Spring Flower Show this year by creating an eye-catching show garden containing no flowers.

Flowerless plants such as ferns, puzzle grass, moss and liverworts complemented the main features - a moss wall and water feature. The group of eight apprentices was involved in all aspects of creating the garden, from designing to building.

Eden Project learning and development specialist Jed Langdon explains that the tourist attraction offers four new horticulture apprenticeships each year. "Our apprentices, who range in age from 16 to 24, rotate around all of our horticulture teams on six-week placements throughout the two years, so they work in the following areas before choosing where to specialise towards the end of their apprenticeship - rainforest, Mediterranean biome, outdoor gardens, outer estate, science team, temporary displays and Watering Lane Nursery," he says. "They also get the opportunity to take part in external placements at other gardens, such as the Lost Gardens of Heligan."

Langdon also points out that within these teams their work will vary from general horticultural activities such as watering, weeding, pruning, plant propagation (sowing seeds and taking cuttings), plant maintenance and visual checks for pests and disease, through to glasshouse work, assisting with projects such as doing research for new horticultural projects and inputting information into the plant database. The apprentices work towards gaining a level 2 diploma in horticulture.

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