Recognising the true value of garden design

Urban Gardens show debate explores the industry's image and ways to improve it.

Garden design never has a higher profile than during the week of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. And with a programme dedicated to garden design — Channel 4’s Great Garden Challenge — and a 35 per cent increase in membership at the Society of Garden Designers (SGD — see Interview, p13), the profession is certainly winning recognition. At the Urban Gardens exhibition in London earlier this month, five leading garden designers debated “The future of garden design in the media”. The panel wondered whether the media-led boom in garden design was over and if garden designers would ever be able to charge as much as architects or interior designers. It all came down to how the public perceives the profession, which is tied up in what they learn from garden design shows. The top-end designers said the programmes don’t convey how hard it is to design gardens and how cheap it can be. They agreed that action must be taken to promote garden design as a valued trade and to help drag prices up so that designers can make a better living. SGD chairman Andrew Fisher Tomlin chaired the discussion. He said that 30 years ago, garden design was “an almost invisible trade, but in the past five years it has really taken off — garden design has become accepted”. There has been a boom in design and in programmes on the subject, despite the demise of Ground Force, which the panel dismissed. Garden owners are more discerning in what is good and bad design for their gardens. Garden Design Journal writer Tim Richardson made the extraordinary claim that he is a “garden critic”. He said garden “criticism is a good thing” and added that TV makeover programmes were a sort of modernism and did “a lot more good than harm to how we can use outdoor space”. Richardson said garden reviews could appear beside art reviews, but because gardens are ever-changing, it is “inappropriate to talk about reviewing”. He believes garden design is “moving on towards a critical edge”, which is something TV gardening shows don’t offer. Designer Sally Court said she doesn’t think that her clients are influenced by makeover shows, although “the exposure benefits the profession as a whole — but now it is up to us to move the profession along”. She said TV makeover gardening was not realistic: “I know very well that they cheat left, right and centre”. Designer John Wyatt agreed that garden design TV was “all a game” that the viewers were in on. He added that TV gardening is a “vehicle for ideas” and has been “generally a good thing” in raising awareness of garden design. “People think about gardens in a much more challenging way than they did 20 years ago. Then, it was difficult to get people to do anything other than an Edwardian pastiche.” Wyatt and Court agreed it is difficult to make much money as a garden designer alone, without having a lucrative contracting arm to the business. It seems customers simply won’t pay high enough prices because garden design is not yet seen as worth paying a lot for — unlike architecture, for example. Wyatt said: “We’re not valued highly enough as a profession to make a really good living from it.” He echoed the comments of Capel Manor chief executive Steve Dowbiggin on how home-owners should be prepared to spend as much on their gardens as on their new kitchens (HW, 14 April). He said home-owners will pay for a whole job but not just for a design. Court agreed, adding that she charges high design fees but doesn’t construct. She makes up the shortfall by charging handling fees for sourcing materials and plants and giving talks and writing books. Fisher Tomlin recently gave up the construction side of his design business — something many pure designers seem keen to do so they can concentrate on what they like doing best. Court said: “I see no reason why we cannot get on to the same level of pricing as interior designers can command. We have got to start marketing ourselves. We’re stigmatised as gardeners and not seen as proper professionals.” Richardson said the 1990s would be viewed as the “deckade” when garden makeovers, including much use of decking, were trendy in a Conran-style way. He said it is now time for the maturing garden design industry to move on. TV presenter Joe Swift giggled at Richardson’s garden critic pretensions, adding: “We’re still a little bit flaky as an industry.” He believes “the idea of a quality designed and installed garden for an affordable price is absolutely key”. Incidentally, Swift recently started a company that aims to do just that. He added: “It’s easier to design a product than it is a garden. It’s not so simple to do a garden yourself and get it looking really good.” That means a Done for You (DFY) rather than DIY solution is necessary, he believes. Things got a bit precious when Wyatt compared contemporary designers with18th-century landscape designer Capability Brown: “We do the same to keep a grip on the quality of the build.” Richardson said the most important thing for garden designers is “to have something to say — and to say it. A lot of designers haven’t found their voice yet.” There is a risk that high-end garden designers will price themselves out of the market as house prices and the economy stall. But the main problem for the designers is that with many new houses being built without gardens, they may be left picking up the scraps of small courtyards and — if the worst comes to the worst — designing window boxes.

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