Creating landscapes - a career in garden design, landscape architecture or contracting

Designing a garden or building a landscape requires vision, practical skill and sound business sense, says Sarah Engerran.

Colleges such as Reaseheath offer budding designers a chance to develop drawing skills - image: Reaseheath College

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Design and contracting

Very few careers blend the multitude of skills, interests and attributes in the way that horticulture does. Art, science, design and commerce converge, offering an almost unrivalled range of challenging and rewarding careers. For many, the appeal is the creative freedom to design fabulous gardens and green spaces, shaping the physical environment that surrounds us, which in turn has a beneficial impact on our everyday health and well-being.

Garden designers provide a complete service, including planting plans, hard landscape elements (paths, walls, paving, decking) and special features such as water features, lighting and garden furniture. They can produce design-only work for clients, or may team up with a garden contractor to see the job through to completion. Other specialised skills could include historic garden restoration, public spaces or school grounds design. For anyone wanting to become a garden designer, there is an array of short courses, diplomas and distance learning options available from organisations such as the RHS and privately-run dedicated garden design schools, as well as horticultural colleges such as Capel Manor, Merrist Wood, Reaseheath or Writtle.

On completing their studies, the majority of garden designers will go on to operate as sole traders or gain employment in larger garden contracting/maintenance firms or for the big housebuilding firms.

Design on a grander scale, though, is generally done by landscape architects, who create the open spaces where people can live, work and relax, as well environments in which plants and animals can thrive. Landscape architects study, plan, design and manage spaces to ensure that they are both sustainable and beautiful. They work with architects, town planners, civil engineers and many other professionals.

Like architecture, accountancy or surveying, landscape architecture is a chartered profession, meaning that you will need a degree followed by a period of study at work to qualify fully. You will also need to be a member of the Landscape Institute, the qualifying authority and regulator for the profession.

Around half of all landscape architects in the UK work for private companies. Other employers include local authorities and Government agencies, such as the Environment Agency, Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Countryside Council for Wales and environmental charities such as Groundwork. Some British landscape architects live and work abroad and many of those based in the UK have overseas clients. Travel can be an important part of the job.

Universities and colleges across the UK offer landscape architecture courses, including landscape design, environmental conservation, landscape management and restoration and combinations with planning and ecology. Most require a minimum of two to three A-levels or equivalent to begin an undergraduate course. Above all, universities are looking for enthusiasm and commitment and a practical and creative outlook. Relevant experience will usually be taken into account, particularly if you are a mature student.

If you have already completed a degree and wish to re-qualify as a landscape architect, graduate entry courses usually last two years for landscape design, or one year to specialise in management or science. If you already have relevant qualifications and experience, you may be able to join the institute as an associate member.

Most landscape architects begin their career by completing an undergraduate or postgraduate entry course accredited by the Landscape Institute. Successful completion of the course leads to licentiate membership, the first step on the path towards becoming a chartered landscape architect.

Graduates then undertake a period of mentored experience while working, as part of the Pathway to Chartership. The Pathway develops the knowledge, understanding and professionalism required to practise as a chartered landscape architect in the UK. Individuals can progress at their own pace and previous learning and experience is also taken into account - but most people will need to spend two to three years before they are ready to go forward to the final oral examination.

Successful candidates in these exams become full members of the institute and are allowed to use the title Chartered Member of the Landscape Institute and the letters CMLI after your name. Once fully qualified, all landscape architects are then required to complete at least 20 hours continuing professional development (CPD) each year to keep up to date with current thinking and practice.

Jon Akers Coyle, an associate at Gillespies landscape architects, is keen to draw the distinction between garden designers and landscape architects. "While the skills are interchangeable, they are two very different professions," he says, pointing to the fact that while garden designers can be up and running after just a year or so of study, it takes five-plus years for landscape architects to qualify, with another two years of postgraduate studies in many cases.

It is not uncommon, however, for a garden designer to progress into landscape architecture. Wilder Associates director Peter Wilder's own career path has taken him from gardener to designer to irrigation developer, arborist, nursery man, landscape foreman for a construction company, working for private estates to designing whole cityscapes. It is this variety and breadth of experience that he believes is at the heart of what makes a successful horticultural career.

His early days as a gardener, having to implement and maintain gardens that others had designed, gave him the insight that he believes can often be lacking in designers today. "I saw so many mistakes. They didn't have proper access - the widths weren't right for mowers," he recalls.

Work experience

As a sometime university lecturer and conference speaker, Wilder is often approached by students looking for advice on finding work. His advice is always the same - gain as much experience as you can, even if it means volunteering and working for free or very little.

Wilder leads by example and points to how, having worked on the designs during the week, he volunteered at weekends on the landscaping of Berlin's Potsdamer Platz - the urban landscaping project that unified East and West Germany. "It was only then that I saw the gaps in my designs and learnt how to make sense out of my own drawings," he recalls.

"I tell students to get a job on a construction site where working with a contractor will help them understand what happens to their drawings. Or I tell them to try building one of their own designs because that will teach them to write a good specification." In his opinion, gaining more experience is generally more useful to a practice than someone who collects qualifications.

Does that mean experience negates the need for qualifications in horticulture? Even Wilder would say no to that. In agreement is Richard Barnard, managing director of Hillier Landscapes, who firmly believes that for anyone wanting to forge a career in garden design and landscape architecture, qualifications are a must.

Barnard admits his preference has previously been for landscape design. "For a long time I have taken on those who have done a landscape architecture course over someone who has done garden design because the course was generally broader and they learnt far more about scale and how designs work in open spaces. Now though, a lot of courses integrate the landscape architecture approach into garden design, probably because a lot of the tutors are landscape architects."

He adds: "It is very important that garden designers have a qualification. They need skills in both drawing and also in interpreting clients' requirements and being able to think for the client. There are a lot of aspects to the job that can only be brought together by a qualification."

But on the commercial side of the business, landscape contracting, on-the-job training trumps qualifications, Barnard believes. He points to the fact that the majority of Hillier's best landscape contractors have come through the craftsman's route, working alongside skilled men as apprentices used to do.

Transforming ideas

Landscape contractors enjoy nothing more than transforming design ideas and scruffy building sites into havens of natural beauty. Practical skills enable them to build paths and ponds, sculpt earth contours and tend plants.

GCSEs in subjects such as geography, biology and arts subjects can open up careers in landscape construction, leading from worker to craftsperson and then foreperson. Many firms offer modern apprenticeships, combining formal diplomas such as NVQs with personal skills training in teamwork, problem solving, communication and IT.

Career opportunities range from self-employed landscapers working with garden designers to create beautiful back gardens, to contractors working for massive landscaping firms undertaking big public or private sector projects. These include anything from renovating the open spaces in city centres to creating the features of a new business park.

Barnard believes that one fundamental skill missing in landscape contractors, and even in some designers, today is plantsmanship. "Everyone wants to go into hard landscaping and the soft landscaping skills are missing. They don't know their plants, positioning, durability or suitability," he highlights. In an attempt to help fill that gap, Hillier takes on freelance gardeners and designers, as well as students to assist on big planting projects.

As an RHS judge, Barnard delights in the fact that a third of all the marks at the shows come from the plants themselves: "There are a lot of frustrations with garden designers who don't know their plants. There's not been enough emphasis on the plants and trees and cultivating in general. It's so important to get it right, but so easy to get it wrong."

Barnard is not alone in his opinion that among all the landscaping and designing, the role that plants play is in danger of being lost. Capel Manor College head of garden design and horticulture April Cameron lists a sound knowledge of plants as a basic qualification for anyone wanting a horticultural career, regardless of their specialism.

The college demands that anyone taking its level 3 qualification needs to have achieved a level 2 horticulture qualification first to demonstrate that they possess an understanding of the ecology, soil, aspect and planning of a site, and the planting.

"You don't have to have an encyclopaedic knowledge but you do need to know which plants are tough, reliable, trouble-free, disease resistant and look good, and know how to combine them well," says Cameron. "Most clients don't want an ultra-modern creation, they just want something that's going to look great and last."

Client communication

There it is - that word "client', the all-important factor in the career of any designer, architect or contractor. Regardless of your discipline, there will always be a client, whose wishes, vision or fancies need to be taken into account. All the design and build skills in the world are no good if you cannot communicate and sell your ideas to the client.

According to Barnard, a lot of garden designers are good designers but bad communicators, who are unable to talk to clients in a way that will get from them exactly what they want. They then need to be able to interpret what the client has said into a drawing, preferably by producing a thumbnail sketch while on site and using their draftsman skills when back at their desks. "I've seen some fantastic designers whose careers have faltered because they couldn't sell for peanuts," he says.

Gillespies' Jon Akers Coyle is in agreement about the importance of communication skills. Both garden designers and landscape architects must be able to understand special design, to envisage the end result, taking into account all elements from the view, the vista and the space itself.

"Half of it is pitching a vision. That's what clients are looking for," asserts Coyle. "Designers and architects need to be technical and practical but they also have to seduce the client and sell their ideas. They won't advance otherwise."

Other business skills are also essential, in an industry largely populated by freelances, sole traders and small businesses. Cameron believes that entrepreneurialism has become an essential quality for anyone wanting a successful horticultural career. Being able to set up and run a business means acquiring the skills to market yourself and also to make hard-nosed business decisions when necessary. She adds that it is often those who have had other previous jobs with a business development or sales element, who are the most successful.

For Paul Cowell at PC Landscapes, which designs and builds, the key is to never stop learning. He has completed 12-plus years of horticulture-related further education since leaving school with no plans to stop learning any time soon. He looks for a similar dedication to CPD in his own staff and potential new recruits can expect short shrift if they not done any recent learning. "You need energy, tenacity and a lifelong thirst for knowledge to really make it in this profession," he concludes.

Fast track

Landscape architect career path: As a chartered profession, you will need a degree followed by a period of study at work to qualify fully as a chartered landscape architect. You will also need to be a member of the Landscape Institute, the qualifying authority and regulator for the profession.

Garden designer career path: Short courses, diplomas and distance learning are all available from various organisations such as the RHS, the English Gardening School or the Oxford College of Garden Design as well as horticultural colleges such as Capel Manor, Merrist Wood or Writtle.

Falmouth University College of Arts, in collaboration with Duchy College in Cornwall, offers a BA (Hons) degree in garden design.

Contractor career path: GCSEs in subjects such geography, biology and arts subjects can open up landscape construction, leading you from worker to craftsperson and then foreperson. Many firms offer modern apprenticeships combining formal diplomas such as National Vocational Qualifications with personal-skills training in teamwork, problem solving, communication and IT.

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