Engaging a designer to design a garden is something that most people do only once in their lives, and hence don’t know what to expect. By engaging a designer you are employing a professional who, in addition to flair, imagination and sound aesthetic judgement, should have appropriate training, experience, and be committed to CPD. A garden or landscape designer plays the same role with a garden as an architect does when designing a house or extension. This is a specialised skill and requires years of training and practical experience, understanding of the principles of design, knowledge of relevant legislation and an eye for detail. The challenge for the designer as opposed to the architect is that they work with living material, so the work produced is to an extent dynamic and ephemeral at its core. The designer’s imagination therefore needs to extend not just to the creation of the garden itself, but beyond to the passage of the garden through time: a house is finished when construction is complete, whilst a garden starts when work is complete.
Whilst any competent garden designer needs a working knowledge of all the available hard landscape materials and at least 1000 plant cultivars, at its core, design is about the organisation of space. Essentially this means that the geometry of a space must work functionally and beautifully for its users, even before the specific plants or hard landscape materials have been selected. This is why a designer tends to work from the top down – from the general to the detailed, where an inexperienced gardener will work from the ground up – starting with their favourite plants or materials and then trying to arrange them – rather than designing the space and then seeing what materials and plants it suggests. It’s also why a garden planned from the outset as a piece usually hangs together better than one that has been developed piecemeal.
The relationship between client and designer is one of trust and professionalism – it is the designer’s duty to impartially advise you of the best course of action in your garden, and of the best materials, plants and products. A professional designer will be completely independent and have no financial interest in promoting a particular third-party product or service. They will guide you through the design process and agree in advance the scope, extent and duration of the service required.
Design fees are usually fixed at the beginning of the work when the brief has been written to clarify the scope of works. Project monitoring and consultancy fees are usually agreed separately but in advance for clarity. For more details, see my page on Fee Guidance. Many first-time clients are unaware that the design process follows a recognised sequence that is necessary to produce the best outcome for a site – see my page The Design Process.