Education - Garden design

Course applications are booming despite the recession and high fees, buoyed by healthy work prospects in the sector, Jack Shamash finds.

Schools try to teach all skills for the modern industry from plant identification to landscape theory - image: LCGD
Schools try to teach all skills for the modern industry from plant identification to landscape theory - image: LCGD

See more information on Garden Design Courses.

The Inchbald School of Design charges £20,400 for students to attend its one-year diploma course in garden design. It might seem like a lot of money, but the school is fully subscribed and there is no sign that numbers are likely to tumble next year.

Despite the recession and despite the high fees, public and private courses in landscaping and garden design seem to be booming. The rise has been fuelled by an increased interest in gardens and also by a large number of middle-aged people taking up garden design as a second career.

The public sector offers a vast number of courses, many of which can be done part-time or through distance learning. At Writtle College, a conversion year - designed to give general graduates a training in garden design - was initiated only five years ago. It started with only a handful of students, but this year it has 16. "There's a really big interest in this course," explains postgraduate landscape architecture course lecturer Dr Suruhan Mosler.

Writtle has a large number of courses. There is an MA in garden design, an MA in landscape, a diploma in landscape architecture, a BSc in landscape and garden design and a BSc in landscape architecture. For anyone wanting to work in stately homes and old parklands, there is even an MA in historic landscape design.

Capel Manor's courses in garden design are run out of its Enfield and Regent's Park Centres, mostly on a part-time basis. There is a level 3 certificate in garden design as well as level 2, which takes place one evening a week over two years.

Private schools

One of the significant developments over the past few years has been the rise of private schools offering their own diplomas. The KLC School of Design has a one-year diploma course, which is taught two days a week. The cost of the course is £7,995 and students will be expected to do private study for the other three days a week. Many will also work - either in the garden sector or in their previous professions - to support themselves.

The London College of Garden Design (LCGD), which is currently seeking university validation, has 24 students on its one-year diploma course. Students are given two days of teaching each week, with some extra supported learning.

Many of the schools also teach through distance learning. Inchbald School has a three-year online course costing £12,000. The school is particularly keen to stress that it runs MA courses that are validated by the University of Wales.

The schools try to teach all the skills required for the modern industry and most include computer aided design as well as landscape theory, history and construction. The garden design courses may also teach plant identification and basic horticultural techniques.

They attract a wide variety of students, some embarking on second careers (see box), although many are already involved in the industry. The London College of Design has a number of people currently working on large estates who want to hone their skills. There are also architects and designers who want to move into the world of gardens.

Traditionally, most of the students doing garden design were women. However, this is changing. Last year at the KLC college, there were only three or four men among the 20 or so students. This year the number has risen, although women are still a majority. At the LCGD and at Inchbald, proportions of men and women are roughly equal.

There is also a large number of foreign students. Writtle gets around 30 per cent of its garden design students from countries including Korea, Japan, China, Iran, Spain, Poland and Germany. And 60 per cent of students at Inchbald come from abroad. "We get a large number from Canada. We're very much helped, because the school is 52 years old. Many former graduates are in good jobs and able to recommend us to newcomers to the profession," says garden design director Andrew Duff.

Short courses

The colleges - public and private - all offer short courses, some designed to help professionals acquire new skills. LCGD, for example, offers "info bursts" for professionals looking at subjects such as preparing stonework with modern tools or planting to reduce maintenance costs. Most schools will also offer hobbyist courses with titles such as Improve Your Garden or Landscape Your Flower Beds.

Entrants to the profession are chosen carefully. Mosler says students need "sensitivity to the environment". She adds: "We'll be looking for a good portfolio of photos, an appreciation of art and design and an interest in working outside."

The schools also want genuine dedication. In the past, it was often felt that garden design was a soft option for affluent people who liked gardens. "Things have changed. These days we're looking for serious students, not ladies who lunch," says Duff.

For students who make the grade, there is still work around in the public realm as well as private estates and gardens. And garden design is not just for the rich homeowners. Ramon Lawal, director of garden designer Outdoor Creations, explains: "A lot of clients are just people with disposable income who don't want to do the work themselves. Many clients have modest suburban properties."

KLC course coordinator Annie Guilfoyle believes that students should get as much experience as possible before setting up on their own. "After you've established yourself for two or three years, you might not make a packet, but you should be able to make a steady living," she says.

Most firms will consider employing people who have done diplomas at private colleges. But they must show a real understanding of the trade, explains Outdoor Creations' Lawal: "We want people who can plan designs that are practical and not too expensive to create or impossible to maintain. We recruit around one member of staff every year. It doesn't matter where they studied. If they can demonstrate that they have the skills, then we will be interested."

Second careers

Many students on garden design and landscape architecture courses are career changers. Capel Manor school of horticulture head April Cameron says: "For us, it is predominately professionals changing careers."

At Writtle College, students include former geologists, biologists, media designers and journalists. At the private college KLC, this year's intake has a barrister, businessmen, a doctor and highly-paid city workers.

These people have changed career not just because they are burnt out or unemployed, says London College of Garden Design principal Andrew Wilson. "They often went along with parental pressure. They did a career in a traditionally lucrative area, but then realise there is more to life than just working in a job they don't enjoy."

He adds: "Landscape or garden design is a business so business skills and the ability to do financial planning are vital. You have to be able to network and be a salesperson to convey your ideas in an exciting way. The skills acquired in previous jobs are extremely valuable."

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