Landscape careers - Masters of space

Landscape sector professionals transform outdoor spaces into spectacular locations for people to enjoy. Rachel Anderson looks at what you need to know to get started in the sector.

A taste of horticulture: half-day courses allow students to get a feel for the industry - image: Oatridge College
A taste of horticulture: half-day courses allow students to get a feel for the industry - image: Oatridge College

How does a bare patch of land become a spectacular location for people to enjoy? The answer lies in the skills of the landscape industry professionals, who can transform outdoor spaces into attractive places that meet certain needs.

Some of these specialists are managers and scientists, but the majority are horticulture professionals - garden designers, landscape architects and landscape contractors. A garden designer, for example, will be able to come up with a plan to create a mini, urban oasis out of a bland, rectangular patch of grass.

Landscape specialists

Landscape architects design gardens, too, but they also work on much larger-scale projects such as the London 2012 Olympic Park. They have the skills to, for instance, turn an urban wasteland into a public park that can be enjoyed by millions of people.

Landscape contractors, meanwhile, can physically deliver all of these carefully thought-out plans. They skilfully put into place both the hard and soft landscaping elements of new spaces - such as public pathways and fences - to make the visions of garden designers and landscape architects a reality. In short, all of these horticulture professionals are "masters of space". But what skills and qualifications do you need to become one of these specialists?

Ian Houlston is an associate at design, environment and sustainability consultancy LDA Design, which designed the award-winning 2012 Olympic parklands and public realm in conjunction with Hargreaves Associates. Now called the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, it is the largest urban park to be built in London since the Victorian era - and it is expected to spur the regeneration of the east London area in which it was built.

Houlston admits that landscape architects are increasingly required to be "polymaths" and to have an understanding of a broad range of topics because, as the Olympic parklands has shown, the profession incorporates both natural (land-based) and cultural issues.

"The Olympics shone a light on the profession as to what we can achieve," he says. "Traditionally, landscape architecture may have mainly been seen quite narrowly - to do with the design and implementation of parks and public space. But now it's much, much more than that.

"We need to understand a lot of issues. We are dealing with some of the key issues facing society and the environment - issues such as urban regeneration, conserving and enhancing ecosystems and mitigating and adapting to climate change."

For this reason, Houlston claims that if you are thinking about becoming a landscape architect you need to be willing to work hard, have a flexible approach and be creative and good at problem solving.

Ciara Price is a landscape architect for Churchman Landscape Architects - the firm responsible for designing the Sammy Ofer Wing at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. This incorporates a new public realm that enables visitors to access the museum via Greenwich Park.

Price points out that confident negotiators also do well in the profession. "We often work within large teams of other construction and design professionals and getting our voice heard while being an effective member of the team is crucial," she says.

Computer skills

Both Houlston and Price believe that landscape architecture is becoming increasingly digital, so having good computer skills is important.

Landscape architecture is a chartered profession, which means that you need to gain a degree and then undertake a period of study at work to become fully qualified. You also need to be a member of the Landscape Institute - the qualifying authority and regulator for the profession.

If you are considering a career in landscape architecture, you therefore need to gain a minimum of two-to-three A-levels or equivalent. (Note: For further information on how to get into landscape architecture, please see

Students can study for a degree in landscape architecture or, as is increasingly happening, they can choose to do a postgraduate landscape architecture "conversion course" after studying a related degree such as engineering or design.

The route into garden design is less straightforward because there is no mandatory qualification. There are many different types of garden design courses to choose from - including short courses, diplomas and degrees - so it can be difficult to know where to start.

Finding the right course

Robin Templar Williams, a leading UK designer for major residential garden projects around the globe, says the best place to start is to find a course that teaches the "fundamental building blocks" of spatial design.

"It's a multifaceted career," he adds. "As garden designers we need to know about design, horticulture, hard and soft landscaping and business. But the starting point is spatial design so it's all about choosing a good course. It doesn't matter if you do a degree or a diploma. Just because it's a degree, it doesn't make it a better course."

Templar Williams warns that there are many courses led by lecturers with little or no real experience in the field of design. "Look for a lecturer who has been in the industry for 10, 15, 20 years," he advises.

"And then go and sit in on the design-based lectures for a couple of hours and see: 'How am I going to be taught spatial design?'"

He adds that work experience is important but not critical. "I would never put someone off by saying they should have 'x' amount of experience before they can come into garden design," he says.

April Cameron, head of Essex-based Capel Manor's School of Garden Design, explains that many colleges, including Capel, host advice evenings where potential students can find out about the courses on offer and see how they suit their background, knowledge and qualifications. She says many who train to be garden designers are mature students who want to fit their work around the other aspects of their life - such as being a parent.

Cameron agrees with Templar Williams that you cannot design without spatial awareness. But she is also keen to point out that garden designers need to know about plants.

"I would agree that you couldn't design a garden without spatial awareness - whereas you can design a garden without plants. But there's no point designing a lovely space when the plants are not thriving," she says.

Plant knowledge

Mark Gregory, managing director of the Surrey-based garden design and landscape construction company Landform Consultants and chairman of the Association of Professional Landscapers (APL), emphasises that anyone involved in constructing gardens also needs an understanding of pure horticulture.

He says: "An all-round good landscaper is someone who has a grasp of what plants need - how to grow them and prepare them.

It's paramount. The soft landscaping cannot be underestimated. People do not talk about landscaping and horticulture in the same breath, but I do not think you can separate them."

Gregory encourages all landscapers to complete the widely available RHS General Certificate in Horticulture. But this useful course is something to aim for once you have a job, he adds. The first place to start is work experience.

"Identify who is in your area doing quality work and see whether you can start doing bits and pieces for them - even if it's just washing vehicles in the yard at the weekend," Gregory advises.

"You cannot underestimate the importance of getting a strong grounding - learning the process of landscaping and how things go together. You have people coming out of college who do not know what it's like working with soil or getting wet and they quickly get disillusioned. So you need to find out whether or not landscaping really suits you."

GSCEs in subjects such as geography, biology and arts are an ideal background for entering the landscaping profession.

Some school-leavers begin an introductory diploma in landscaping and horticulture, while others are hired after finishing their work experience as employers recognise their potential.

Land-based colleges throughout the UK offer these diplomas and also work with the industry to offer apprenticeships. These give you the chance to earn a basic wage working for a landscaper while studying part-time at college and they are an ideal route into the industry, says Gregory.

"We are basically mentoring someone and they are going to college for a better understanding of how the various landscaping components go together," he adds. "It's a lot quicker and easier to learn when you are living and breathing landscaping."

Apprenticeship schemes

An apprentice at Sussex-based Frogheath Landscapes won the APL Young Achievers Award this year. Frogheath director Alison Moody says Peter Belton began working for the company one day a week when he was 15 and still at school. This was arranged with the help of a school liaison officer.

"As soon as he finished school when he was 16, we took him on - on the condition that he continued to train one day a week," says Moody. Belton gained a level 2 diploma in landscaping.

"He is now in his third year of training," adds Moody. "He is training to be a bricklayer at Plumpton College. It's great, as he is not even 20 years old yet but he will soon be able to go to another landscaper or builder and get a job as a certified bricklayer."

Anne Burns is the horticulture and landscape construction team leader at Oatridge College - part of Scotland's Rural College, which offers landscaping apprenticeships. The college also helps introduce school pupils to landscaping by giving them a "taster" of the industry.

"We do taster courses where students come in for half-a-day a week to get a feel for the land-based industry," explains Burns. "We have been doing that for the past seven years but there's an increase in it on a yearly basis. We are busier now than we ever have been."

Apprenticeship schemes are becoming increasingly popular as employers acknowledge the need to attract more people into the industry. Gregory says: "All of my competitors say that there's a massive skills shortage. We are finding it harder to get good, trained people."

He adds: "It's a young industry and its future is very good because it hasn't peaked. I think its going to become increasingly important as issues such as climate change and planning policy come to the forefront. The future is very good for our industry."

Templar Williams believes that given the current tough economic climate, it is now a good time to train as a garden designer. "What we do is generally a luxury, so the market is shrinking," he notes. "The economy has affected many companies. There's still business out there, but currently it would be difficult to find employment.

"But in these times - when perhaps you might have a bit more time to train - you will be in a position to move forward when things get going again.

"As companies start to expand, potentially, someone who is nearly qualified will be able to step into a new role." He adds: "The economy ebbs and flows. This is my third recession. It's not flatline."

Professional development

Every week at LDA Design, an employee gives a talk to his or her colleagues about a particular project they have just completed or are currently working on.

As Houlston explains, landscape architects learn from each other and they also take the time needed to complete short courses to learn new skills.

"Continuing professional development (CPD) is something that is very important professionally," adds Houlston.

"It keeps people feeling inspired and provides an opportunity to develop new skills and expertise - and it also allows your career to go in a direction that's applicable to your own interests."

Gregory points out that CPD is important in landscaping as well and adds that much of this is done "in-house".

"We will bring in a specialist if we need to," he says. "For example, we will bring in a specialist to teach pest and disease identification to staff - and if we feel the need for a course we will flag it up and create one within the company."

Templar Williams adds: "It's important as a designer that you are constantly refreshing your knowledge. The industry bodies, such as the Society of Garden Designers and BALI, offer some particularly good one-day workshops for their members."

Fast track

Landscape architect career path - You will need to have 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, the Garden Design School and the Oxford College of Garden Design. Horticultural colleges, including Capel Manor in Middlesex, Merrist Wood in Surrey and Writtle in Essex, also offer these courses.

Contractor career path - GCSEs in subjects such as geography, biology and arts can be useful for landscape construction. Many firms offer modern apprenticeships combining formal diplomas, such as NVQs, with personal skills training in teamwork, problem solving, communication and IT.

For further information, see

Helpful advice for starting out

What advice would you give to someone looking to get into the landscape sector?

Arun Landscapes director James Steele-Sargent says: "I would get some 'hands-on' work experience first - even if it's for a week - with a team that's willing to show you the ropes and demonstrate what they are doing. That's how we train our staff up and we have got some excellent teams.

"If someone has done a college course, it shows they have enthusiasm - but it doesn't necessarily mean they are ready to work.

"We get people ringing us up, asking whether they can work with us for a week. It makes their mind up and some say after one day: 'No, this is not for me.' Some of them are just years ahead of themselves. I will give anyone a chance."

What would you say to someone who wants to take the next step up?

"If people want to learn something new, such as bricklaying, we just transfer them to a different team. They are trained in-house by our craftsmen, who have been doing that trade for 20 or 30 years. That's pretty much standard practice in this industry.

"Because we have a reasonable amount of people working for us, all of our skill base is in the company."

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