How to Become a Garden Designer

In 2007, when the UK economy was at its absolute peak, just before the onset of the credit crunch, we set up Lush Garden Design. More than a decade later, we’re still here, so we must be doing something right!

During that time we’ve often been asked for advice by people looking to enter the world of garden design. We’ve answered many questions – from which courses to study to where to find work experience. So we thought we’d collect all our answers in one place. I hope you find the advice useful.

What qualifications do I need to be a garden designer?

There are two major areas where you’ll need to gain qualifications – horticulture and design.

Horticulture (plant knowledge)

To be able to design with plants you need a thorough understanding of them – for example, how they grow; what soil conditions they like (and don’t like); what affects their health, and how they reproduce.

The best place to gain in-depth knowledge like this is the Royal Horticultural Society. They offer several specialist horticulture courses, which vary in complexity. RHS Level 2 qualifications are aimed at those wishing to enter a horticultural profession, and this is a very good place to start your journey to becoming a garden designer.

Courses are a mix of theory and practical and are run part-time, across the country.

Design courses

A qualification at RHS Level 2 should help open the door to a higher education design course. Again these courses are usually available part-time, maybe one day per week. As a starting point, look for HNC courses in landscape or garden design, as these courses usually progress through to HND and then to degree level, if you wanted to study that far.

What else do I need?

You will need to get yourself some work experience in the industry, and you will need the business acumen to be able to run your own company.

Where to find relevant work experience

One of the most important aspects of being a garden designer is being able to deal with people. Working in garden centres is a very good way of exposing yourself to how customers think and behave. Preferably this will be working in the plant area – not selling Christmas gifts or working in the cafe.

I spent 18 months working in the plant area of a garden centre and nursery while I was studying at college. As well as being great for helping my plant knowledge, I learned customer service, gained lots of hands-on planting experience, and also was exposed to retail sales and wholesale plant purchasing. This was all invaluable experience for starting my business.

Other places for work experience would be plant nurseries or working alongside garden designers and landscape gardeners. Some of the larger public gardens also offer volunteer positions working alongside the gardeners. You’ll find it easier to get positions in these industries once you have the RHS qualification.

Once you start your design qualifications you might be able to sell your garden designs to friends and neighbours. My very first paid garden design jobs were undertaken in this way. I charged a very low “student rate”, but the experience and the case studies I gained from these jobs gave me the beginnings of a portfolio, and the confidence to know I could turn garden design into a career.

Running your own business

The world of garden design is very much a world of the self-employed. There are very few entry-level garden design positions within large garden design firms, and those will be based mostly around cities.

So if you wish to succeed as a garden designer, you’ll need to set up your own business. Before you start, think about the personal demands involved – the long hours, the low income (especially at the start), and the uncertainty of not knowing when the next cheque is coming. How resilient are you? Can you bounce back from setbacks? Are you the kind of person who learns quickly from their mistakes?

You’ll require start-up funds 
These won’t need to be huge, but you’ll definitely need a computer, some design and business software and some office space (even if it’s just the kitchen table).

You’ll need core business skills
Can you operate a spreadsheet? Do you understand how cash flow works? Do you have an understanding of marketing, sales and customer service? There are lots of hats you need to wear. In time you’ll be able to delegate some of these functions, but at the start, you’ll be doing them all yourself.

Should I enter a Show Garden at one of the RHS shows?

That’s entirely up to you. Some new designers decide this is a good way to get their names out there. One designer I know of still uses their old 2008 show garden award in all their marketing material.

One possibly good reason for creating a show garden early in your career is the fact that the majority of the work involved takes place at the height of the busy season – April-July. As a new designer, you may well have no work booked in, so you’ll have time to dedicate to a show garden. As you get busier in the years to come, the temptation to interrupt your key earnings period becomes somewhat smaller!

Personally, we decided not to go down the show garden route. We weighed up the financial outlay and time involved against the perceived benefits and decided against it. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider a show garden if you feel you can make a business case for it.

Do I need to build the gardens or just design them?

This is a good question. Firstly, can you build a garden? I’m not talking about a bit of digging and planting. I’m talking about mixing concrete, laying paving slabs and plumbing in water features. There are not very many garden designers who have these skills, so the next question is, do you know someone who does? If you do, you’ll need to think about whether you can set up in business as a partnership, or agree a less formal working arrangement.

Design and build
If you bring the garden build in-house, you will need to carefully manage your cash-flow. You’ll be buying in materials for which you’ll only be able to invoice weeks later, once the build is complete. Ask yourself what would happen if a construction project went wrong, or was delayed by the weather? What if a client withheld payment over a dispute? Would you have the funds to be able to continue?

Design only
You might decide you don’t want that level of financial risk. Or you might just want to concentrate on your core strengths. What is for sure is that, whatever gardens you design, someone will have to build them. At the very least you will need to make some informal contacts with landscapers. You could rely on your clients managing the construction work themselves, but the reality is that your clients want someone to take that headache away from them. If that’s not the landscaper, it will be you in a project management capacity. And to do that, you’ll need a good level of understanding about hand landscaping practices.

What does a garden designer do in the winter?

These days we take a holiday at some point between December and February, but other than that we are fully-booked all year round. But that wasn’t the case when we started off. In our first few years, we noticed a distinct drop-off in new business enquiries between October and mid-March. We tried advertising special offers. We tried seasonal plant-related sales efforts. I even took another part-time job. Just be aware that as a new business, your financial plan needs to be robust enough to manage through the trough of winter.

Do you have any questions about becoming a garden designer?

If you do, let us know, and we’ll do our best to answer them for you, and we’ll include our answers here.

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