Ground designs: choosing a landscape designer
With the Chelsea Flower Show still fresh in the memory and a plethora of gardening shows ahead of us, garden and landscape designers are well and truly in the shop window. For prospective clients seeking to appoint a designer the choice has probably never been greater, both in terms of the number of individuals and the stylistic nuances they bring.
A challenge for clients is the comparative lack of regulation in garden design. In theory, anyone can proclaim themselves a landscape and garden designer or horticultural consultant — just as I do in my byline below.* “Garden designer” could refer to a practitioner with years of experience, hard-won qualifications and a bulging portfolio. It’s also a title that can be claimed by someone who has undertaken a six-month course. Or by someone with no qualifications at all.
On the other hand, a qualified landscape architect will hold a degree in the discipline and be subject to further professional development and certification. In the UK the Landscape Institute (LI) is the governing body for the profession. Does it follow that unqualified or underqualified garden designers are inherently “bad”? And does it mean that clients should eschew garden designers in favour of chartered landscape architects? Not necessarily.
John Brookes, who died in March, gained fame for his idea of the garden as the “room outside”, publishing a book of the same name in 1969. He designed more than 1,000 gardens in a career spanning six decades and established a design school from his home, Denmans in West Sussex, influencing countless landscape architects and designers. Yet Brookes was not a landscape architect and had no qualifications in garden design. He undertook a three-year apprenticeship in Nottingham parks department, the last six months of which were spent in the design office. He then worked with landscape architects Dame Sylvia Crowe and Brenda Colvin before establishing his practice.
Colvin was the prime mover in the establishment of the Landscape Institute. Perhaps her drive to raise the professional standing of UK landscape architecture rubbed off on Brookes; he was instrumental in establishing the Society of Garden Designers (SGD) more than 30 years ago.
So what should a client look for? And where? The SGD website is a good place to start. Registered members of the society have undertaken a rigorous assessment process and require a minimum of three years in practice. However, not everyone of note is listed with, or members of, the SGD. The Landscape Institute website also has a “find a member” function, with some crossover with the SGD member profile.
At the highest level of garden and landscape design the lines are blurred to the point of fading away. A client contemplating engaging Tom Stuart-Smith (a qualified landscape architect) might consider Dan Pearson (who trained in horticulture at RHS Wisley and RBG Kew). Such is the scope and scale of their reputations (and portfolios) their qualifications are irrelevant.
It probably is true that some landscape architecture practices are geared up to tackle the large-scale commercial projects that garden designers are less likely to contemplate. Conversely, a big landscape architecture practice may not be best suited to smaller domestic projects, and may not have the bedside manner of a solo designer or small practice. Yet while there is a longstanding notion that garden designers are more “horticultural” in approach, that isn’t necessarily true. Some of the finest plants-people are landscape architects.
Regional flower shows can be a good place to find designers working in a particular locale, and see the work they are capable of. Social media is increasingly useful: a search on Instagram or Twitter can unearth sometimes surprisingly candid examples of designers’ work, including warts-and-all “in progress” shots. These are rarely as carefully edited as website portfolios (although some designers are more cautious than others) so can be helpfully revealing.
Online searches also show off the type and style of gardens designers specialise in. There are plenty of generalists, but if you’re looking for someone to tackle your multi-hectare estate and a designer’s portfolio shows roof gardens and city terraces, you may be better served to look elsewhere.
While older heads bring experience, young designers often bring new and dynamic ideas to the process. The RHS runs a young designer of the year award, a showcase for emerging talent where the finalists get to create a show garden at Tatton Park Flower Show. Gifted youngsters such as Caitlin McLaughlin and Jake Curley have used the competition to further their careers. Chelsea Flower Show has proven a happy hunting ground for two of my favourite young designers, Charlotte Harris and Hugo Bugg, who won a brace of gold medals with gardens designed for Royal Bank of Canada.
When it comes to money there are different approaches. Some designers work on a percentage of total project value basis, with a sliding scale that decreases as the project value increases. Others work on a pre-agreed fee or on day rates. Whatever way the fees are structured, expect to budget around 10 per cent of the overall costs for design fees. A good designer with an eye on costs should be able to save the client money, through good project management. Installing an irrigation system, for example, is cheap to do at the start of a project, but messy and costly once all the paving and plants are in. And a good garden designer will have access to nurseries and suppliers that will not only supply the best plants and materials, but will do so at the keenest prices.
The design process can vary too, but typically will involve an initial meeting to agree the scope of the project, after which a fee proposal is submitted. Once that is agreed, the designer will prepare a brief for agreement, then a concept design based on that brief. Detailed constructions drawing will follow, along with documentation to enable a contractor to price the job, followed by project management. Setting out of plants is typically offered, with most garden designers being very particular and protective over making sure plants are assembled just so. Another consideration is the amount of face-to-face time, and design input, the client gets with the designer. If you think you’ve appointed a medal-winner only to find out a junior team member is doing the work it’s bound to be a disappointment.
Ultimately, having researched the experience and suitability of a potential designer or practice, it will probably all rest on personalities more than process and fees. Ninety per cent of my work comes via word of mouth. I’ve yet to experience a situation where a prospective client has taken a strong dislike to me — at least, one they have articulated — but I don’t doubt it could happen. As one of my clients recently reminded me, the process from design to completion is often “a long game”. We have been working together on his current garden — the second I have designed for his family — for more than two years.
In some cases, the scale of the project requires a long-term commitment from both parties. I’ve worked with one client for a decade, and have three recently initiated projects on different country estates that will take at least as long to play out. So personalities matter a great deal if everyone is to make it to the finish still on speaking terms. And it’s worth remembering that the design and implementation of a garden is rarely a perfect process. For that to happen would require no human input at all.
* Matthew Wilson is a landscape and garden designer and horticultural consultant. His qualifications include a National Certificate in Horticulture, an RHS General Certificate and a diploma in Landscape Horticulture