How To Design Your Garden – David Stevens Interview Pt 1

To listen to the interview, check out the Great Garden Formula Podcast, episode 2 on iTunes.

David Stevens is an internationally acclaimed garden designer and author. David has written 22 books including favourites like Backyard Blueprints and has won 11 Gold Medals at the Chelsea Flower Show in London.

Rachel: Hi David, thank you so much for joining me. One thing I’ve always wanted to ask you is how did you first get into garden design?

David: Oh it’s a long story really, garden design, horticulture, gardening is one of those things where you try everything else before you find what you really want to do, I’ve always been able to draw, and I’ve always enjoyed drawing. I was always fixated on maps and drawing and that kind of thing. But then at school we never really got to know about horticulture or anything like that to be honest. When I left school and tried all sorts of jobs like the police force and the army and couldn’t get on with those at all, that’s when I suddenly found garden design. I studied landscape architecture and did a five-year degree course, worked with John Brooks back in the 70s. It was a while ago and was good fun, it still is.

Rachel: Yes that’s one thing I really notice about you. You keep your passion and design interest after all these years, do you continually rework your design style, what keeps your interest?

David: I think you’ve got to, if you lose interest in any subject pack it in! I think it’s a kind of shame in the way I’ve got a lot of pals in the industry and you can see that some of them have reached their peak and carry on designing the same stuff and it looks good and it’s very competent but you can see they’ve not really pushed themselves and I couldn’t do that. It would feel wrong, you know what I mean?

Rachel: Oh definitely, I know exactly what you mean.

David: You’ve got to keep improving, hopefully!

Rachel: Every time I feel myself getting a little bit bored, I realise it’s time to stretch myself and develop my designing more. And thankfully seem to get client that is a bit more adventurous to let the experiment!

David: Absolutely.

Rachel: Can we talk about your process a little bit? Do you have a set process where you see it in your mind or do you need to work on paper?

David: The mind part has got better over the years, there’s no doubt about that. When I’m talking to other designers or teaching, it’s all to do with getting information and getting inside your client’s head, that’s where it all starts. It’s not my garden it is their garden, garden designers are just facilitators. You put your own ideas in your own skills in to make it work but at the end of the day it has to be just for them.

Yes it is on paper, we were on computer graphics years ago, but I never really got on with it. It’s probably because I was trained as a draughtsman and a landscape architect. It’s the relationship between my hand pen that really gets it. I think it was Frank Lloyd Wright said if you don’t have something pretty much in your mind, there is no point in fiddling around on paper. I tend, as time goes by, to see a client and I’ve got it pretty much before I leave the client, then you can get it on paper and take it from there.

Rachel: Ah that’s good, I was someone who could never visualize, so it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve been able to visualize how a garden would look. So I try to reassure people that are new to garden design, as long as you start off with paper and create a way to visualize it, it doesn’t matter and you don’t have to be a massive artistic talent.

David: Well no it doesn’t, I think just to start with you do need to work on paper and it just comes down to experience, which is the one thing you can’t teach! You can teach guidelines and rules but with experience you’ve just got to do it, I suppose and it comes with time.

Rachel: And practice definitely!

If you could give some advice to people just want to do their own garden what would be your top tips on where to start with a garden, and what are the biggest mistakes people should avoid?

David: The first biggest mistake is on the first warm day of spring to bowl off down the garden centre and go on a random binge of purchases! Unfortunately something we all still do, we all still get seduced by plants, but the key thing with your own garden is to take your time. I would say to people if you can take a year and watch the turning of the seasons, to see how high the Sun pictures in the summer and see where the shadow patterns are, check what sort of soil you’ve got and where the good and bad views are, and unconsciously after a while the design will start to make itself obvious to you.

Whether you call it a design or whether it’s your place in the garden you’ll know whether to put a stream in or whether you need a seat in, or if that corner catches the afternoon sun, wouldn’t it be great for an arbour? Slowly your ideas will start to come together to the main thing is honestly not to rush and do it straight away. So analyse, make lists, open it up to the whole family, do what ever you can so you don’t rush in and waste your money. Otherwise the garden centres and nurseries will just be rubbing their hands together every time they see you!

And information gathering is fun, and it’s amazing how much your ideas will change, and by all means look through magazines and tear out ideas and perhaps make a mood board, just get together the things you like and are attracted to. Whether it’s kinds of plants or plant combinations or a brick path, whether it’s hard landscaping of one kind or another, whether it’s water, all of those things will hone in on the kind of style you like. Very often the style is picked up from the house, you live in a house that you like the architecture, and the architecture then gets translated into the garden, you extend the lines out, you extend the materials.

The garden isn’t in isolation, you can’t separate it from the house, the landscape, the cityscape, which is very important.

Rachel: And for those people that have just newly qualified, they have just come out of college and are a little bit nervous, what advice would you give them?

David: Don’t worry! We’ve all had that thing called designer’s block, you’ve had it I’ve had it, I still get it. You sit there and look at the drawing board and all the measurements, you’ve talked to the client, all the rest of it and you’re still stuck. So get up from the drawing board, take the dog for a walk, have a cup of coffee, and it will start fall into place.

I think honestly that a lot of it has to do with confidence, and some people are simply more confident than others. I wasn’t particularly confident in the early days, I thought I could probably do it, and with each design you do, that will give you confidence. To start with it will take you longer than you think, sometimes a design will drop straight out in five minutes. You can design something in five minutes but it may take you three days to actually draw it up.

It is honestly down to confidence and that mysterious thing called experience, the more you do the better you get. One thing that designers and artists often have is the ability to feel when you’ve done it right, you’ve got to feel good about it. So if you are feeling happy, then it’s right. If you’re not very happy about it you can keep going until you get it right.

Another important thing is you’ve got to learn to think three-dimensionally, unless you’re working on CAD you need able to do in your head, think how high the trees are and how tall hedge is, how dense your shrub border is. Always thinking three-dimensionally even though you’ve got to put it onto paper.

My honest advice is to stick with it, look, read, get inspiration from whatever source you can. A lot of my inspiration is architectural. It can come from other designers, cruise the web, your website is great!

Rachel: Thank you!

David: Well it is! I found it and thought this looks good. The more you look on the web, the more books, and I’m a bookaholic, most gardeners tend to become a bookaholic, the more you’ll learn. Visit gardens, take lots of pictures and a notebook; otherwise we forget so easily. Simple plant combinations can look quite fantastic but always record it so you have a record of it so you don’t forget. So information, information, information, gather, gather, gather, that’s where you broaden your palate, it really is.

Rachel: Yes, I used to have a designer swipe file and it was your books I used to use for inspiration!

David: That’s very kind! You do get information from books whoever’s they are. They’ll give you inspiration and get your mind working perhaps in a different direction and that’s the important thing.

Rachel: Yes just flicking through them before you start to design, I used to find that things would just mesh together and I would know where I got the information from. And you could never really copy a design because no two gardens are the same.

David: You just need to develop your own style and that’s what clients or customers want. I was influenced by Sylvia Crowe and the Bauhaus movement and all design really springs from there. We all design, in many ways, in all the same way. It’s all to do with practical thinking in keeping it simple.

That’s another thing, if you designing your own garden for goodness sake, keep it simple! Over complication is the death of a good design in whatever form.

Rachel: Is there a way people can stop themselves from making things overly complicated?

David: Mmm it’s a bit like when you do a watercolor you should know when to stop and you can easily overwork it. I almost feel that it, so it’s quite an intangible thing in a way. A lot of designers work off checklists so you tend to prioritize that checklist and you can eliminate the things of the least importance and then if you want to add extra things it works and doesn’t feel too busy. Design is a structured process which you build up and I build my design up in areas, I work away from the house. Work out at the beginning if you really need all these things and that will help you during the design. Can things be combined so you can save space in a small garden?

Part 2 of the interview will be up next week. To find out more about David Stevens, visit his garden design website.

If you can’t wait until then, check out the Great Garden Formula Home Study Course – step by step guidance on how to make your garden look fabulous.

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About Rachel Mathews

Professional international garden designer for over 20 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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  1. This post really helps a lot. I hope I can read more of its related post so that I can also be help with it someday.

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  1. […] 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. […]

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