A beautiful garden is easily achieved if you do your research and plan carefully
If you haven’t inherited somebody else’s badly planned space, your garden may well have ‘developed’ organically over a period of years. The end result? A dull, muddled or unsightly plot that you never want to step foot in. However, a truly fabulous space with bags of wow factor is possible.
In the same way you would hire an architect for an interior project, more people are turning to garden designers for help outdoors – with their aid you’ll soon have a garden you can’t keep out of.
What are the benefits?
For most people, creating a garden from scratch owes much to trial and error, so why not hire a designer and take away the risk of something going wrong? These professionals will look at your garden holistically.
If you ask for a space that can be used for entertaining, relaxing and as somewhere for the kids to play, they will aim to design a multi-functional space that ticks all of those boxes. To do this they will give your garden a structural backbone, put together planting plans and, if necessary, include irrigation and lighting systems with the scheme. Good designers will have an encyclopedic knowledge of hard landscaping materials and will know exactly what would look right in your garden, whether it would work within your budget and exactly where to source it. Most designers will also have a great understanding of the wide variety of plants that are available. This can be extremely important as they can choose specimens that are perfect for your particular conditions.
London-based garden designer Claire Mee thinks the greatest advantage in hiring a trained professional is that you’ll ensure your space works as hard as possible. ‘A designer can really open up your mind to different things that can be done, including some ideas that you might not have thought about,’ she says.
Where to find a designer
Don’t resort to finding a garden designer by flicking through the Yellow Pages and stabbing blindly at names with a pin – chances are you’ll be left disappointed with the results. Fortunately, there are more reliable ways to locate one. If a friend or neighbour is waxing lyrical about the garden they’ve had designed, arrange to visit and have a look round. If you like it, get in contact with the designer.
If nobody can conjure up a name, don’t worry. The Society of Garden Designers (SGD) represents 180 leading designers across the country. To join, members must pass an adjudication interview to assess their skills and have at least two years’ professional experience under their belts.
Before Patricia Stainton was commissioned to design the gardens for a modern house near the south Devon coast, she had to show her prospective clients around her own one. ‘They had looked at the work of one or two other designers, but decided to commission me after viewing my garden,’ says Patricia, whose background is in fine art.
She was asked to put together a plan for the walled gardens close to the house and to include more natural planting around the perimeter. Patricia devised a clever scheme that includes many plants tough enough to resist the salty winds that whip in from the coastal estuary. Patricia used some of the clients’ favourite plants – neatly clipped box and lavender – in an intimate courtyard, where a circle has been cut out of one of the walls to create a window over the surrounding landscape. Much of the planting has been used to soften the sculptural white walls, especially at the entrance to the house, where taller grasses such as miscanthus have been planted with smaller varieties in tiers of graduating height to give a layered effect. ‘It would be rather harsh without the grasses, but these plants add a great sense of movement to the static blocks,’ says Patricia.
Many creative individuals prefer to be independent, and you’ll find designers to approach at gardening shows, by searching online or even by looking at the adverts in the back of gardening magazines. For a list of garden shows, visit the Royal Horticultural Society’s website at www.rhs.org.uk.
Before committing yourself, it’s best to speak to three different designers. Some won’t charge for an initial consultation (although others do). They will happily discuss your plans, talk about budgets and show you their portfolio of work. Even though you will be largely choosing a designer based on their ideas, equally important is whether you like them or not. Claire Mee explains: ‘Clients are always asking me who they should choose after they’ve seen three designers, all of whom’s work they like. My answer to them is to go with the one you get on with best – you really have to work closely with that person.’
First, speak to a garden designer over the phone. They will get an idea of what you want and you will have a gut feeling about whether you want to employ them or not – it’s also important to find out whether they’ll design and build the garden, or simply design it and then put you in touch with landscapers who will finish the project.
Next, a home visit will be arranged. This allows them to see your space, helping them to discuss ideas and your budget. At the same time, look through their portfolio and discuss fees. If you have strong ideas about how your garden should look, it’s a good idea to construct mood boards with pictures clipped from magazines.
If you like the sound of everything they’ve said, go ahead and commission them to draw up a design. Depending on its complexity, this can take several weeks. When it has been finished the designer will let you take a look at it, giving you the opportunity to make changes – don’t sign it off until you’re 100 per cent happy.
After the design, they will draw up a planting plan – if you are a keen gardener, suggest certain varieties or a style you like; if not, leave it up to them.
At this point, a designer will either put you in touch with a landscaper (ensure that they belong to the British Association of Landscape Industries), or arrange for their own team to start work on-site. Alternatively, they may put the work out to tender. All of this takes time. ‘It can take six months to a year from the first meeting to going onto site. It depends on the size of the job and how busy you are,’ says garden designer Amanda Patton. ‘You are unlikely to have a garden within two months of phoning me.’
Calculating your budget
Designers all charge differently and you should discuss fees when you first call them. The cost depends on many factors, including the status of the designer, the size of your garden, the complexity of the scheme and the quality of the hard landscaping materials you want to use. The size and maturity of the plants will also play a major factor.
You could pay a fiver for a small shrub, but a mature specimen that would give you instant impact could set you back hundreds of pounds. It’s certainly important not to scrimp, and you should expect to pay exactly the same for your garden as you did for your kitchen. Providing you’ve picked a good designer, a healthy budget should ensure spectacular results.
Words: Martyn Cox