Garden and landscape Design - Changing the landscape

Whether tackling large public spaces or small domestic gardens, designers have the opportunity to capture the imagination, suggests Gavin McEwan.

Planting palette: award-winning garden designer Tim Austen with one of his creations at the Bloom garden show in Dublin - image: HW
Planting palette: award-winning garden designer Tim Austen with one of his creations at the Bloom garden show in Dublin - image: HW

How many people have thought as they struggle through the morning commute, or contemplate a mountain of office paperwork, "I wish I could design gardens for a living"?

Garden design is perhaps the ultimate second career, although it attracts its share of school leavers too. The extensive television coverage given to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and other horticultural events reinforces the impression that such work is both prestigious and fun. However, both talent and dedication are needed to succeed in this competitive market.

What's on offer?

While garden design has undoubtedly the highest profile, don't overlook other areas where creativity meets planting. Shopping centres, business parks, hotels and airports all require attractive landscaping, often indoors as well as out, while historic gardens have openings for those who can bring together design flair with an understanding of past horticultural trends.

There are few large employers of garden designers. Some work solo or in small design practices where staff numbers rarely run into double figures. With landscape architecture, the situation is different. There are small specialist practices to be found here too, but landscape architects are also employed by multinational companies such as EDAW, the practice responsible for masterplanning the London 2012 Olympics Park, Europe's largest new park this century, which will be unveiled very publicly next year.

Indeed, landscape architecture is unique among horticultural careers in having a training and career structure comparable with professions such as medicine, law and surveying. It even has its own chartered body, the Landscape Institute. And to get onto a university course, candidates need good A-levels, with relevant subjects such as geography and biology particularly helpful.

At this end of the industry, design merges with wider strategic policies for an area, such as considering the role of green space in floodwater alleviation or in promoting biodiversity. Here, creativity can give way to technical mastery, but the results can be just as rewarding.

According to the institute's education and careers executive Steve Cole: "A lot of government initiatives such as the Green Bank are promoting the development of green infrastructure and measures to cope with climate change. These are all growth areas that landscape architects will be getting involved in. In fact, many A-level students gain an interest in the profession through environmental studies, and many landscape architecture courses have an ecology element."

What are employers looking for?

It is virtually impossible to "wing it" in garden and landscape design. Qualifications are a must for many positions, and a student design portfolio is often the first thing that first employers will look at.

That said, there are garden designers who have gained a grounding in the subject from tough years of garden and landscape construction. This is often appreciated by employers who know what a keen awareness of technical and budgetary issues this training brings. Others move into design from the plant world, having worked in the nursery trade, in historic or botanic gardens, or even garden retail.

For garden designers, the key is to be flexible, says Scottish Agricultural College garden design lecturer Jason Russell. "Our students continue to find work in the industry. It may be more horticultural than design, but we encourage them to keep an open mind and that's reflected in the course content. Garden designers are expected to have a good horticultural knowledge anyway."

Likewise, he says, gardeners in private or heritage gardens will sooner or later have to design a herbaceous border, so should consider adding an understanding of design to their horticultural skills.

However he adds a note of warning: "As with other colleges our student numbers are capped and competition for places is fiercer than it's ever been."

Despite the downturn, demand for landscape architects remains "fairly strong", says Cole. "The country will always need things like parks, commercial landscapes and transport routes," he says. "If you are good, you will find work."

How do I get on?

Only a few garden designers reach the heights of the profession, to be profiled in Sunday supplements. Showing regularly at garden events, most notably the Chelsea Flower Show, is very much part if this, and can lead to engagements across the country and even internationally.

However there are many successful designers who eschew this for the pleasure of designing affordable, well thought-out gardens for everyday use. And given the popularity of garden design courses as a purely leisure pursuit, there are often openings in lecturing too.

Landscape architecture offers a wide range of areas in which to specialise, while larger practices offer more managerial positions, overseeing the design work of others.

How much will I get paid?

The professional status of landscape architects - and the debts they are likely to have amassed while studying - is reflected in salaries. Starting pay is not far short of the graduate average at around £20,000, and may actually be higher in the public sector, with ample opportunity to advance quickly.

Garden designers may have to settle for a more modest income of £15,000 to £20,000, but successful designers in prestigious practices can make several times that.


Garden design

Level 2 qualifications: LdCm SwBc WmMm WmSl

Level 3 qualifications: LdCm SePl

Level 4 HNC/HND: LdGu ScSa SeHd WmMm

Foundation degree: EmNt LdKu SeMw SePl SeSp YkBb

Degree (BA): LdGu LdKu SeHd SeMw SeSp YkBb YkLm

Landscape architecture/design

Foundation degree: SwBr

Degree (BA/BSc): LdGu LdKu NwRh ScEd SwBr SwGu WmBc YkLm YkSu

Postgraduate Diploma: SwGu WmBc

Postgraduate MA: ScEd WmBc YkSu


Sarah Price may be about to become Britain's best known garden designer. Her 800m-long "botanic garden" in east London's Olympic Park will reach a huge audience when the games take place next summer.

Her design, inspired by the great British plant collectors, will incorporate more than 60,000 UK-grown plants, grasses, herbs and flowers. She describes her selection as "just luck really".

Sarah completed a degree in fine art at Nottingham Trent University before qualifying in landscape architecture at Oxford College of Garden Design. "My fine art training has given me the confidence to design with freedom and sensitivity," she says. She has had three designs exhibited at the Chelsea Flower Show, and runs her own garden design consultancy in London.

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