Landscaping - Landscapes for living

Despite suffering from a dip in the building market this sector still provides plenty of opportunity for career progression says Gavin McEwan.

Landscaping involves plant knowledge, planning, design and understanding structures - Image: HW
Landscaping involves plant knowledge, planning, design and understanding structures - Image: HW

Have you ever thought that the garden designs shown on television coverage of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and other horticultural events are the sort of thing you could create? Have you ever shaken your head at the landscaping around your local supermarket or highway and thought you could do better? Would you like a job that helps solve social and environmental problems? If so, turning that impulse into a structured career may be easier than you think.

The word "landscaping" covers a wide range of employment areas, from the often physically demanding work of installing and maintaining public and private green spaces, to the creative world of garden design and landscape architecture. Different though these sound, it is not uncommon for firms and even individuals to provide both, especially on smaller projects.

Many people progress from manual work - which can involve paving, installing water features and outdoor electrics, as well as planting trees and shrubs - to design-based or managerial roles.

And, while garden design in particular is a popular choice for older people looking for less stressful careers, landscaping tends to hold onto people once they are in. This is due, in part, to the wide range of opportunities for personal and professional development it brings.

"It's a rewarding career, and not just a trade - it's a multi-skilled profession, though not always perceived as such," says Jason Lock, director of landscape at Notcutts Landscape & Garden Design Consultants, and chief executive of the Association of Professional Landscapers. "You're also outdoors a lot of the time, turning a mess into something you can take pride in, which is fantastic."

Lock did a four-year "broad-based" sandwich course 20 years ago, which he says stood him in good stead. He says: "It covered everything from soil science and plant identification to how to mend a tractor gearbox.

"You need a combination of training and experience. If you're interested in design, it's good to have done some building because then you understand better what's involved and will know how to get the most out of a budget."

Financial background

The recession has been tougher on the landscape industries than on other areas of horticulture. Lock admits: "A lot of landscapers have been affected, but you must expect good times and bad times."

The credit crunch reduced sharply the amount of new commercial and residential building, which used to bring a steady stream of soft landscape installation in its wake. This aspect of developments is dealt with last, so the effects may linger even when the rest of the economy has picked up again.

Fortunately, early figures for 2010 suggest that the house-building market is already on an upturn. However, a slowdown in the housing market has encouraged more homeowners to concentrate on improving their property. Garden designer and Scottish Agricultural College lecturer Jason Russell says: "Clients are still investing large sums in their gardens - perhaps more so as they aren't planning to move house."

At the same time, there are public policy issues, such as coping with a variable climate and maintaining people's physical and mental wellbeing, that all political parties are committed to addressing. They also happen to be the ones in which soft landscaping has a key role to play.

Apprenticeships (see p9) offer an increasingly common way of getting a grounding in the trade, allowing newcomers to acquire a recognised skill while also being paid a wage. They gain a good grounding in health and safety, the needs of plants and logistics of site management, as well as the basics of landscape design. Many smaller firms offer less formal on-the-job training.

At the other end of the scale, landscape architecture is a profession like architecture, medicine or law, with its own chartered professional body, the Landscape Institute, which accredits individual practitioners and landscape design courses at several UK universities. Such courses provide some of the most demanding training in horticulture, as practitioners need a solid grounding in a whole range of topics from the planning system to computer-aided design.

Qualified success

Landscape architecture courses are among the longest and most demanding horticulture, and can be five years, but shorter conversion courses are available for those with relevant degrees.

However, once qualified, a landscape architect can advance quite quickly in the profession, and opportunities exist overseas too, with large landscaping firms active across several continents.

A good way to decide if a course is right for you is to visit exhibitions of current students' work, which are often held in spring and early summer.

Between these routes are the intermediate Diploma and Foundation Degree-level college courses, which may specialise more in on the design or construction sides. Design courses have proved particularly popular in recent years among those looking for a career change later in life which will build on their interest in plants and gardens.

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