Garden Design – How to choose the right landscaper and materials – Part two David Stevens interview. Part one of the interview is here: How to Design Your Garden.

Or to listen to the interview in full see episode 7 on iTunes podcast

Rachel: So once someone has got their design that they’re happy with and they’re ready to call in the landscaper, do you have any advice for the best way to work with a professional contractor? I mean obviously you have to pick someone that is good and that you’ve seen examples of their work, but are there any communication things that people need to get right?

David: I think with any contractor be they inside the house or outside the house whether it’s a landscaper or electrician or whatever, you need to work well and befriend them. What I would say right off the bat if you have any doubts contact the APL that’s the Association of Professional Landscapers because they assess their members as do BALI the British Association of Landscape Industries.

Garden Designer and Author David Stevens

The APL tend to be a bit more garden orientated whereas BALI tend to be a bit larger scale but two do overlap. So if you don’t have access to a good landscape or you don’t know one, look at the APL website they will list everyone in the country and you can pick up someone in your area. So you know they have reached a sufficient standard to be on that list, which was quite important.

Builders will often tell you they can landscape, don’t believe them! Builders are great at going vertically but not at going flat!

Rachel: Yes, I’ve noticed that as well!

David: Some can, but very few. I’m a great believer in selecting people that know their profession backwards. The good landscapers can do hard and soft landscaping and handle the whole contract. But I honestly think communication is the main thing, get your ideas over to them and take good advice from a contractor. Over the years, I’ve learnt a huge amount from contractors, from how to lay paving to how things work. Contractors do this all the time and know their advice very often is sound and good. So don’t be afraid of listening to their advice, it’s a good thing to do..

Rachel: Yes, it’s knowing whether the advice is to change something because it makes it easier to build and quicker or whether they are genuinely advising you, experience helps, but nine times out of ten they are doing their best to help you. The ones cutting corners tend not to discuss it! They just say I moved it over here because it was easier, and I can see that it might have been easier but it doesn’t look good!

David: And the other thing is budgets. So many people unfortunately underestimate the amount of costs involved in building a garden. It can be up to 80% in hard landscaping, the walling, the paving, that’s really where the lion share of the budget is going to go. Plants and planting are relatively inexpensive compared to hard landscaping.

Rachel: Yes people are often under the illusion that garden is just grass and plants and that’s quite cheap. And think that it is easy to put a patio down. And I think there’s more skill involved in hard landscaping and there is in fitting a kitchen for example. There are so many skills a good landscaper has to have.

David: Just things like getting the fall correct with the drainage, people forget about the damp proof course and all these basic things that should just be second nature and a good landscaper will understand all of that and lay on proper footings and foundations and all that kind of stuff.

One thing I would just point out if you are a designer just starting out, unfortunately more and more litigation is coming in, so if in any doubt, if there is a retaining wall or structure that you’re not sure about get it checked out by a structural engineer or an architect. I’ve seen some dreadful things happen over the years so it’s best to have that peace of mind and get that expertise.

Rachel: Definitely, I’ve never specified how anything should be built on a plan, because that’s not my area of expertise. Different soils will need different depths of footing, so I always make sure that the landscape professional is the one who makes a judgement call on what needs to be done, because they do have the experience and expertise to know.

Have you noticed with the current economic environment any design shifts that have evolved because of it?

David: Oh yes people are far more of veggie conscious and growing far more vegetables. And environmentally are increasingly looking at growing more in the garden and attract more wildlife. I think the wildflower meadow seems to have run its course which is good, as it was never that easy to do properly anyway, but I think people have really become conscious of Grow your own.

And all my customers that’s one thing they stipulate in the garden, even if it’s a tiny garden they want to grow herbs for the kitchen or whatever. And very often the bigger the garden, the more they want to do. Which does make sense, and it’s a cliche but when it’s homegrown it does taste better out the garden.

Rachel: One thing that I’ve noticed, which is great, is that people are more environmentally conscious and want to create an ecosystem garden and attract wildlife into their garden. One thing I always struggle with is it which materials are environmentally friendly to use. Concrete is such a big pollutant and natural stone travels such a distance and comes from countries where child labour is used, what’s your view, how do you deal with those types of issues?

David: I think you need to be aware of them and I think things like Indian sandstone are now becoming a lot more controlled. The majority of the companies that import them make sure that no child labour is used and that it is quarried properly. And the same thing with FSC Timber, always make sure you buy timber from a renewable source and it will have that sticker on the timber. Most of the big suppliers will make sure their timber sourced in that way which is important.

And also people need to become much more aware of what we call greywater, that’s the run-off of rainwater from roves and we can store it in tanks or simple water butts so that you are recycling your water and you’re not making a drain, literally, on the natural resources.

So then you need to be aware of all those things, you need to check them out. You need to know the material is that you are using, and you need to know where they are from and the social implications caused from using them.

Rachel: I say to people that if you can get stone from a quarry down the road, even though it will cost more it’s better to use it. We are certainly trying to recycle materials a lot more, my landscape contractor is very environmentally conscious and he made the good point that both of us recycle and do everything we can at home and the moment we get to work we start using concrete! So we’re finding ways to recycle as much as we can and not put things into landfill.

David : Yes it makes absolute sense to recycle the paving instead of putting into landfill. You can often put materials to other uses.

Rachel: The last thing I’d like to ask you is you’ve written some amazing books, 22 my research tells me, which is phenomenal! For homeowners just starting out with their gardens which one of your books would you recommend?

David: I think the best one is a book called The Garden Book which I did with Urshala Buckhan it’s a Conran Octopus one and she is a brilliant horticulturalist, we get on very well and I did the design side and she did the horticultural side and it’s a super book. It’s a big book but it takes you right through the design, construction and planting process.

Rachel: Actually that’s one I really love as a designer. So next question is for new designers which book would you recommend?

David: Backyard Blueprints. It’s a neat book with a lot of practicality about building gardens. I like practical landscaping, I don’t trust garden designers with clean Wellington boots, do you know what I mean!

Rachel: Yes I do!

David: Practicality is important.

Rachel: Yes you’ve got to be able to build the thing otherwise there’s just no point!

David: Absolutely.

Rachel: Well, David thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today, I know that it will help so many people.

David: Pleasure!

Here are links to the books we discussed in the interview (with Amazon affiliate)

Backyard Blueprints

Garden Book: Planning, Planting and Design

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Rachel Mathews
Rachel Mathews

Professional international garden designer for over 30 years. My mission is to de-mystify garden design and make it easy for people to successfully design their own garden - without needing to spend a fortune!

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