Why You Can Create a Better Garden Than a Designer

I admit that is a statement I was never expecting to make. I’ve been designing gardens professionally for the last eighteen years. It’s how I earn my living. I charge people a fee to convert their ideas and lifestyle aspirations into a beautiful garden. So, why after so many years in the business have I come to the conclusion you’d be better off doing it yourself?

Well, we are going to have to go back in time by the measure of two whole weeks to answer that question.

Two weeks ago I interviewed Anne Wareham to kick start a new monthly feature on Inspirational Gardens and the people behind them. I knew very little about Anne before the interview; turns out she’s not a trained garden designer. She’s self-taught from books and studying gardens intensely. That’s quite something when you look at what she’s achieved in her garden.

Are Garden Designers Really The Best Option?

Whilst researching for my interview with Anne, I came across an article by Tim Richardson, who writes for the Society of Garden Designers. He wrote a while back, that most of the iconic or outstanding contemporary gardens have not been created by professional garden designers. He commented that if he was a garden designer he would be somewhat miffed by that fact.

Upsetting News for Garden Designers?

No, I don’t see it that way. For me, it’s not a true comparison. It is like comparing a book to a film. No matter how good the film is, it is an abbreviated version. A filmmaker simply cannot fit every detail and nuance into a movie. Also, there is less room for your own interpretation. It’s all been laid out for you; the intimate co-creation that occurs between author and the reader is very hard, if not impossible to recreate in a film.

I feel the same is true between the difference someone can create in their own garden, with the necessary studying and time on their side, and calling in a garden designer. I’m not trying to do myself out of a job or knock my profession. It’s simply a case of time and practicality. A professional designer will see a client and garden they’ve never met before, for one or maybe two hours. In that time they have to assess the personality of both client and garden.

In that one brief experience, that single moment in time defines the designer’s entire experience of that garden. The designer will not have seen the transitions of the seasons. They are unlikely to have witnessed the play of light around the garden from dawn to dusk. They won’t have ‘lived’ that garden in the one or two hours they were there.

For me, designers offer a translation service for those who can’t and don’t want to speak the language of their garden. Considering the short amount of time we see the client and garden, I think designers do an amazing job. It’s no easy task to get inside another person’s mind and dig out their dream garden. Very few people are able to articulate exactly what they want. It takes a truly skilled designer to create a garden that not only ticks all the boxes for the client but delivers more than they ever thought possible.

BUT…

I notice the difference between the book and the film. I feel that professional designs can have a somewhat precise and almost clinical nature to them. A flatness, if you will. They miss that spark of true magic that is created by someone that lives and breathes their garden. And add to the fact that gardens are not static objects; they mature and change over time. Try as a designer may, you can’t think of everything that might happen in a garden for the entirety of its existence with one plan, the garden needs to evolve over time.

Not Really Something Professional Garden Designers Want to Admit To

So, if the best gardens haven’t been done by designers, then my belief that homeowners are more than capable of doing their own garden, with the right training, is not only justified, if anything, I’ve underestimated what can be done by non-professionals. Think about the exciting possibilities that exist if people put their mind to consciously creating their gardens…

Should You Employ A Garden Designer?

Not everyone wishes to employ a garden designer, which is fine, but so few people actually do anything with their garden. And fewer still take the time to learn the principles of design to do it well. Why is that?

I have a few thoughts on why, and I think I have come up with a plan to help address the situation. After my interview with Anne Wareham, an idea sparked, one that will hopefully involve lots of other garden designers, landscapers and, I hope, you too. In case you are wondering, no, it won’t cost you anything to take part. I will tell you all the details in the next blog post which will introduce you to a free landscaping guide I’ve put together…

In the meantime, if you would like learn more about how to avoid BIG mistakes in your garden, enter your email address in the box below. You’ll never miss a blog post and I’ll send you a free report on what to avoid doing with your garden.

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Comments

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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!

Comments

  1. Some great works of art have been created by sympathetic collaboration between client (‘patron’) and designer (artist).

    Some thought could be given to how we could have more ambitious clients for garden designers?

    AW.

  2. I think you make a good point Rachel. Great gardens are created with years of work and ongoing refinement. While a professional can create a good garden in a short space of time, a non-designer can continue to work and learn and create something amazing.

  3. Ron Wheeler says:

    I am really looking forward to seeing how this plays out. I believe there is a client base comprised of people who would dearly love to design their own garden. They want a superior garden (something Rachel believes can be made possible) AND they need fulfilment of the reasons they want to design the garden themselves. There are many ‘design your own garden’ processes available but the ideal one for each situation is the one that is tailored to both achieving a superior garden and fulfilment of the owner’s reasons for choosing to design the garden themselves.

  4. I think the potential is certainly there for people to be more ambitious with their aspirations for their garden, whether they hire a designer or do it for themselves.

    Obviously I have no objection to anyone employing a garden designer but I think it will help client and designer if there is a better overall understanding of design. It’s important, what the client does with their garden when the designer leaves, is coherent and in tune with the design.

    I think you are right Ron; lots of people do want to do their own garden but often don’t know where to start. Hopefully the idea I’ve had will work out well for both landscape professionals and homeowners. So, I’m also looking forward to seeing how this plays out!

  5. I’ve established gardens at 5 homes over the past 40+ years and by trial and error have developed reasonably good gardens–though I’m never quite satisfied. I’m self trained by reading, consulting horticultralist and visiting gardens. The gap between what I’ve learned and a professional is that I pretty much know what doesn’t work but have difficulty projecting how the garden will look in the future as well as identifying a plant that is needed–that’s where the eye of a professional is valuable in my opinion.

  6. Paul Ridley says:

    Not sure I agree fully with the premise.
    Clearly there are and have been highly talented people who have no specific training in design who have, even so, designed wonderful gardens and landscapes.

    Others, with vision but perhaps limited design ability, have worked with designers to create great gardens, as Anne notes. These partnerships, developing over time, allow the designer to modify the initial design, enable the shared vision to evolve. I believe Dan Pearson and Tom Stuart-Smith work in very much this way, and no-one would question the exceptional quality of the results.

    Yet others, with little understanding of good design principles, recognise that their garden could be improved, but rely entirely on the designer’s interpretation of the site to achieve a satisfactory outcome.

    These last, to follow a different analogy, are buying a bespoke tweed jacket as a one-off: it fits, and with continued use will develop a character of its own, related to that of the owner.
    The visionaries, working with designers, might be said to have an account with their tailor – the frequent return for alterations, further garments, advice and sharing opinions allows for a nearer match between the vision and the outcome, and the clothing is a closer reflection of their needs and personal style than would otherwise be the case.

    And finally, there are a few, very few, capable individuals capable of designing and making their own clothes. Their idiosyncratic, possibly eccentric style marks them out as true individuals – their ideas are often trend-setting, and they are quite talented enough to have been couturiers if they had so chosen. These are the makers of Tim Richardson’s iconic gardens, and their existence is no threat to the work of talented designers.

    So, I’m with Anne on this one – a campaign for more clients with vision and commitment! Yes please! It would lead to far more good gardens than would deluding people that they can all make a great garden just because they want one.

    Thanks Rachel – it’s a nice headline-grabbing headline!

  7. I first read this article almost a week ago and was interested to come back and see what the “professionals” had to say, if they would say. It takes a confident person who can see into the future, to let go of the reins and then recognize the potential of active, home gardeners. Speaking from a nonprofessional point of view, but as someone who has nurtured her own bit of Eden for the last 30 years, I’ve found that time, editing, and knowledge have all been major factors in the evolution of my garden. I could have saved time and avoided a few mistakes, by asking for professional help, but I’ve enjoyed the beauty and learning process growing around me.

    There was a men’s clothing commercial that said: “An educated consumer is our best consumer.” In a perfect world, home gardeners with vision, would search out professionals for ongoing consultations. People might then look at their gardens as a process, and not just as an end result.

  8. “An educated consumer is our best consumer.” That’s a great quote Kari. I couldn’t agree more! I’ve just written the follow up to this blog post – that is one of my aims to educate and get people to work in conjunction with designers.

    Paul, also great comments. I’ve thought a lot about what you’ve said. You may well be right that it is only a handful of individuals that are truly capable of creating a great garden. I don’t know, but I want to find out.

    This week’s blog post lays down the start of a challenge to see just what is achievable if people have some direction. I certainly don’t ever want to delude people but inspire. I think the types of people that read blogs aren’t average, they are educated and inquisitive and much more capable than a traditional audience.

    Time will tell if I’m right or not!

    I think you are right that the best way forward is a more involved approach between homeowners and designers. I hope that The Great Garden Challenge will help that come about. http://www.successfulgardendesign.com/produce-a-great-garden/

  9. I adore this garden http://www.successfulgardendesign.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Fig33-Gale5-pic.jpg do you have any more pictures you could share with us?

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