Designers Damned by Lou Nicholls

November 3, 2016

in Articles, General Interest

I know that garden designers, gardeners and garden makers read and contribute to thinkingardens, so here’s a cat to set amongst you pigeons. Does it hit a spot? Or is it totally unreal? Feel free to comment, or even to offer a piece countering the case made here.

Anne Wareham, editor
portrait Anne Wareham, copyright Charles Hawes






What makes a Designer? by Lou Nicholls

Recently I commented on a post of Anne’s regarding Garden Designers vs Gardeners. This is quite an inflammatory subject and people, myself included, have strong opinions on it.

Now please, understand this is not aimed at any particular person when I say this. It’s aimed at the culture of a system that is producing designers that have little to no understanding of their product. I can certainly appreciate the aesthetics of their products. I’ve seen some really gorgeous works of art and been lucky enough to work in gardens that have exhibited them.

Beautifully designed Biodynamic Garden at Ryton Gardens

Beautifully designed Biodynamic Garden at Ryton Gardens

At the start of my career in horticulture I worked in a lot of show gardens assisting and leading on the setup of the soft landscaping. It was then I realised the major difference between what happens at a show and what happens in real life.

Prior to working in Horticulture I trained as a jewellery designer. Bear with me, as this has relevance to my point. Not only was I taught how to draw – the rules of aesthetics and everything you would expect in the creative process – but I was fortunate to have chosen a University that taught its students the techniques needed to achieve the desired results long term. I chose the course because it promised to teach me the breadth of the subject. I came away with a working knowledge of Metallurgy and Gemology. I could tell the difference between a Diamond and a C.Z. I knew the melting point of every metal commonly used from Aluminium to Platinum. I could set a stone in a ring I’d made. The point is that when I left that course I was trained as a designer and I was also armed with all the background knowledge I would ever need to actually sit down and do the job of creating and caring for every item I designed long term.

In the question of garden designer vs gardener, how many can honestly put their hand up and say that? It is not just the responsibility of the person who chooses the course, it is also the responsibility of the course provider to make sure that the people attending understand that the course is just the first step in a long lifetime of commitment to learning. Gardens are a living creation. They are not static, they have needs.

Olive tree struggling to recover

Olive tree struggling to recover

For example: placing an olive tree in a walled garden may seem on paper to be a good idea. You assume it would be a good, sheltered environment for the tree to flourish in. But what if when you surveyed the site you failed to realise the detrimental effect an east wind from the entrance would have on your client’s hugely expensive olive tree? When it doesn’t flourish, who takes the financial hit? The client? The designer? Who gets the blame? Probably the gardener – who tries desperately to save a tree that has been planted in a place that although aesthetically pleasing is totally unsuited to its needs. Is this fair?

What if you, as a designer didn’t think to check old maps for springs that may be hidden at the time of surveying? Trees die sitting in waterlogged ground and then the symptoms incorrectly identified only compound the problems. Who is responsible then?

A limited knowledge of plants can create a limited palette, the same gardens being revisited on different sites regardless of the soil, aspect and micro-climates. Often it is the job of the gardener to struggle to make this work. Its rare for a designer to stay on site to help fix these problems in collaboration and often the gardener is ignored when trying to give helpful advice.Perhaps my point here is that both designers and gardeners should work more closely in collaboration, each respecting each others knowledge before the start of the design process? This is of course assuming there is a resident gardener.

What if there is no resident gardener? The designer must rely entirely on their own training to judge not just what the client wants/needs but what the situation wants/needs. Which plants will perform best? How big will they ultimately get? What soil type do they like? And balance that with how they will achieve the desired effect.

I firmly believe that these sort of things can only be achieved by working as a gardener, visiting gardens and talking to other gardeners.

Getting trained as a designer is great. You should leave the course fully understanding garden histories and styles, how to correctly survey a site, how to measure up and plan for the amount of materials needed. You should understand how  to properly draw out a plan to scale so the team chosen to install your design can do so working to a plan in your absence.

THEN, assuming you haven’t already learnt it, you should learn your plants, what makes them tick, how to keep them healthy, what they look like when they get sick and what causes that. A garden doesn’t work independently of its constituent parts; it’s like an engine, each component works in harmony. Or not. When it doesn’t you have to know how to fix it.

I consider myself lucky, I have worked with both types of designers and each has taught me valuable lessons. I have also worked with gardeners who have had a flair for design and whilst not having the bit of paper to say they can do it, they have done it on a daily basis.

Our award at the Kent County Show 2014

Our award at the Kent County Show 2014

Myself, I have designed show gardens and sections of gardens in large estates and also whole gardens on a small domestic scale but I am not a designer.

I am now and always will be a gardener and proud to be so.

Lou Nicholls














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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Jack Wallington November 8, 2016 at 7:32 pm

This is one of the big problems in the UK, that everyone now has to pay for further / higher education. In my view, this is a criminal decision by the Government but unfortunately the public don’t seem to really care.


Helen Yemm November 8, 2016 at 1:31 pm

An interesting read. A couple of points – three if you count the first one: Hello Jack Wallington, you seem to pop up everywhere – more power to your elbow. 2. I really liked James Golden’s idea about designers having a continuing contract with the client – basically checking progress and teaching maintenance techniques etc as required and needed. 3. For much of my gardening life (as a informal teacher of gardening basics) I had to tiptoe around in the wake of (clearly B-list) designers who had madly over-planted or inappropriately over-designed the gardens of some of my ‘students’, and attempt to help them to make sense of it all. This makes me wonder if: 3. Maybe garden design schools should only take on mature students with at least a decade of practical gardening already behind them. OK I am not entirely serious, but surely plant knowledge and hands-on maintenance-gardening experience should be pre-requisite for any decent garden design course – not something you theoretically ‘cover’ in a term or two, or learn almost as an afterthought.


Kate Turner November 5, 2016 at 11:50 am

I was a parks gardener who did a bit of design and then decided to get that bit of paper by studying for a diploma at what turned out to be a truly dreadful course at Merrist Wood. Im still paying the loan I had to take out for the course and that’s one of the problems, the astronomical cost of the courses!!
This prohibits lots of genuine horticulturalist and gardeners from gaining more strings to their bows and we often end up building and planting gardens for fairly well off designers who have no basic understanding of plants and soil let alone landscaping materials.
I’ve no problem with people having a 2nd career but having an A level in art 25 years ago does not necessarily make you a good garden designer after a years (very)part time course. (I can’t draw!)


Mike M November 5, 2016 at 10:07 am

It would appear that this issue isn’t at all controversial, more of a unanimous tide of support for the views expressed. But then garden designers would hardly be arguing that they are aloof and out of touch with garden planting and maintenance would they?


annewareham November 5, 2016 at 12:04 pm

I guess they can say they shouldn’t all be damned by the bad practice of the worst. Interesting thought – no-one in the horticultural world names and shames. So what warns people off poor designers?


Mike M November 6, 2016 at 9:45 am

I think that this is a serious issue that ought to be brought into the open more. The problem for me starts at the very top of the profession. Every year the Chelsea Show has show gardens that rely on artificially for impact, naming no names of course. Even many of the show gardens from the best designers use plants manipulated to flower out of season, just for an immediate impact. Also, maintaining some of those gardens would be a logistical nightmare. Quite often there is no way that the impression could be replicated in a domestic garden. So, the question becomes: Do we want to be impressed with a dazzling design that is a one-off and will last as long as the show is open before being forgotten for ever, or should we be encouraging design that can be educational and informative with regards to transference to other situations?

I suspect that the real problem starts at the top of the profession where immediate impact matters more than long term sustainability. The Chelsea Show has, in my view, a very detrimental impact on gardening culture. It encourages showmanship at the expense of realism.


Jack Wallington November 8, 2016 at 4:17 pm

I don’t necessarily agree with the opinion that the Chelsea Flower Show is unrealistic. If designers are great plants people and work with a great maintenance gardener, they can manipulate plants as much as they like, and they can make gardens look that good for most of the year.

My garden isn’t a Chelsea garden by any means, it’s a hodge podge of things I like. But it has been in flower and looked neat from January up until now. I be most gardeners’ gardens are like that.


Caleb Melchior November 5, 2016 at 5:34 am

When I was in design school, I had this same conversation with professors many times. And, as is so often the case, it’s helpful to follow the money trail.

One issue is regionality – in the US, we don’t have the established profession of “garden designers” that y’all have in the UK. Instead, designed gardens usually fall into the hands of landscape architects (that’s my training). Landscape architecture programs have intense pressure to make their graduates as lucrative to employers as possible – so they tend to focus on technical skills (grading, hardscapes, civil engineering skills) which can be applied across the country rather than plant palettes which only apply to a limited geographical region. Also, many landscape architecture and design companies work in wide geographic regions, so tend to use a generic plant palette which is widely (and cheaply) available.

Secondly, many businesses in the US operate on a design, install, then walk-away model. The designer and installer get paid on completion of the garden’s installation. Often, there’s a 6-12 month warranty period on plants – but that’s it. The designer and installer are not invested for the life of the project. They have no financial incentive to create something that looks good beyond the first year. Culturally, in the US, clients typically have a VERY short-term vision. They want something that looks good on install – rather than having the vision to think through long-term garden development. When you get a client who’s willing to think long-term, treasure them!


Mark Laurence November 4, 2016 at 10:06 pm

When I set up as a garden designer in the mid-eighties I came from a decade’s experience as a landscaper. I’ve never “qualified” and I avoided the SGD for 20 or so years (I’m a member now). I agree that you have to come from a place where you have knowledge of the plants and materials you work with, that this cannot be taught in a school. You also used to have to be able to draw, and to visualise things. So now we have a dearth of designers who go through a mid-life career change, attend one of the garden design schools, only to join an overly swamped market where there are more designers than gardeners. The gardeners I’ve met mostly don’t have much knowledge either, other than using a lawn mower, strimmer and hedge cutter. RHS or Kew trained gardeners are all too rare.

True knowledge and ability are rare, and not appreciated enough by clients. You need to be a bit of a plantsperson to create something genuine and lasting. Working as as a designer, I’ve seen client attitudes change the minute you pick up a spade and do something manual. If you’re not a celebrity, it’s difficult to get paid your worth too, whether designer or gardener. The problem is much deeper than just the designer-gardener argument.

I think it is a perpetual problem where the person of knowledge and skill does not receive their worth – whichever end of the trade you’re in. And there are way too many designers and way too few gardeners.


Ben Probert November 4, 2016 at 7:03 pm

I’ve come to the conclusion over my career so far that garden designers are made of Teflon: no matter what you throw at them it never sticks!

It doesn’t matter how shockingly unsuitable a design is, or in particular how bad the choice of plants is, the non-stick designer is NEVER the one at fault when things go wrong. Not many miles from me is a garden designed and planted for the millennium by a VERY much top designer… it has everything I’ve come to expect from a designer; strong bold lines, a massive water feature, a bold colour scheme of blue lavenders and silver foliage, and it looks dreadful. It’s not the design that’s dreadful, it’s not the massive stainless steel fountain made by someone so famous that we mere mortals have never heard of him, it’s the plants.

See, speaking as a mere gardener, plants with silver leaves like lavender and Artemisia come from hot and dry areas, so it seems obvious to me that a cold wet Devon garden isn’t a good place for them to grow. Unfortunately it wasn’t so obvious to the designer, but nonetheless it’s the fault of the gardeners for some reason (and the gardeners are not happy taking the blame!).

Now personally if I’d paid somewhere in the bottom end of six figures for anything not fit for purpose I would be more than a little cheesed off, and yet the ‘Teflon school of design’ makes sure its students never take responsibility for their mistakes.


Jo Ann Turner November 4, 2016 at 5:11 pm

You have really touched a nerve Lou, that many gardeners/designers I’m sure will agree with. As a horticulturalist who also does some design, from the beginning of my career felt strongly that a solid foundation in horticulture with knowledge and experience of plant’s needs, is key. So many people seem to get into ‘garden design’ with no, or very little plant knowledge, then, as you note, gardeners (and clients) deal with the aftermath for a long time. This lack of a foundation in hand-on horticulture also extends to Landscape Architecture as well, at least in Canada. LA’s are extensively trained in design, history, CAD, hardscaping, municipal regulations, etc,. but the actual plants almost seem to be an afterthought at times. There seems to be a tendency, often, to stuff in as many plants as possible into a design, for an ‘instant’ landscape, with predictable consequences, esp. with trees and shrubs that are totally over-planted and outgrow the site. What a waste. Could go on…This would be a great topic for the Garden Bloggers group…Might hear a bit of rough language though ; )


James Golden November 4, 2016 at 2:08 pm

Isn’t this about the unexciting word “maintenance”? A good designer should work to establish a relationship with the client that will enable the gardener to have a hand in the ongoing maintenance and development of the garden, either through a contract for periodic maintenance, or a role in choosing the person or firm that will do the maintenance. The design should extend into the future, and the designer should remain involved. How to do this is another question entirely, but it should be the goal of any good designer. It goes without saying that the designer should have knowledge of plants, site conditions, and the ecology(ies) of the site. I suppose I’m saying the gardener-designer dichotomy is, or should be, a false one. They should be one and the same, and clients should be educated to understand the need for the designer’s continuing involvement in garden maintenance in all its aspects.


Annette November 4, 2016 at 10:22 am

After Anne’s introduction I was expecting something really hot and controversial but alas, pretty tame post. A lot of establishments neglect the plant side of things completely and concentrate on the design side, so graduates are more likely to emerge as architects than anything else and if they have no passion and interest for/in plants their designs will fail unless they incorporate lots of hard landscaping which they often do actually. I studied garden design in the UK and I’m a passionate plantswoman too and I was very lucky to have chosen a school which considered plants as important as the landscaping itself. In an ideal world garden designers and landscape architects would be passionate about both: plants and design, but then we don’t live in an ideal world, do we? 😉


Jack Wallington November 4, 2016 at 8:25 am

For me a garden is so much about plants that to be a garden designer without plant knowledge would be madness. It’s like painting an oil painting without knowledge of colour, paints and technique.

It surprises me that there are garden designers out there without that plant knowledge. But I guess not every garden has to lead with plants, and if you can design you can design the look and layout of a garden.

What I love about gardening is that it challenges the brain in every capacity as you describe Lou. Past, present and future planning, knowing your plants, knowing great design. It’s a limitless amount of stuff to learn.

My background is in the creative industries as a designer, artist and author. My love is gardening. What I want to do is create lovely gardens so my aspiration is to be a garden designer and a gardener. I am currently choosing the title ‘garden designer’ because that’s the bit I want to do right now so it makes more sense. But I will always be a gardener at heart, which is what makes my designs so much fun to work on. I can’t imagine designing a garden without the fun of picking and choosing from thousands of plants.

I guess with ‘creating gardens’ for other people at the end of the day the proof is in the pudding. If you create long lasting gardens people love, people will hire you.

I’m right at the start of my journey and I am loving it. It is my escape from a long stressful period of my life that I thought I would never break free from and I’ve never been so happy. If I can one day get to where people like you are Lou, I will be pleased that I’ve made progress.

Power to the plants people!


Lorraine Roberts November 3, 2016 at 7:31 pm

I’m in total agreement with Lou. How can you design a garden properly without complete knowledge of plants? This is the garden designer’s palette.
As owner, garden designer, head gardener, horticulturist at Plant Paradise Country Gardens botanical garden & organic perennial nursery in Caledon Ontario Canada, I all too often see landscaper’s without adequate knowledge of plant material. Very disappointing.
Anne, BTW – I read every issue of thinkinGardens. Love it!


annewareham November 3, 2016 at 11:46 pm

Thank you so much for that message, Lorraine. Means so much. It’s sent me happy to bed! Xxx


Cherie Southgate November 3, 2016 at 6:38 pm

It’s good to hear someone expressing many of the thoughts I have about garden design and the education of garden designers. I was lucky enough to study for an HNC in Garden Design at Pershore College where we shared modules with folk studying to be professional gardeners. These included soil science, botany, pest and diseases and plant identification. The plant indents element was wonderful and I often refer to the reference cards I made as a way of learning the plant names, their preferred habitats, their weaknesses and strengths – oh and good ways to use them in a planting scheme. We had to develop planting plan designs for a variety of sites. We even had to physically plant a tree and be observed to make sure we got it right. I think courses are not so rich in their content now due to cuts in educational funding and the ‘dirty bits’ are removed as they’re much more expensive to deliver. So it’s not surprising that the designers are coming out into the workplace with less grounding in actuall gardening.
I too come from a design background – industrial design in my case – and had been a gardener and amateur garden designer for 20 years before embarking on a career change. I still don’t know enough about plants but I do know where to find the relevant info. I find that understanding the site and looking at where things are already growing happily is a great starting point to a design and it’s essential to build a relationship between me, the place and the people who’ll be using the garden before I offer up any ideas. I definitely need to know how much gardening the client wants to do themselves. I also work with a professional gardener
I think that Show gardens are rarely based on that sort of approach and many of the designs shown in the Professional Garden Design arena are for public areas/use, big corporate organisations or clients who want to make a statement but who have little love for gardening and plants themselves.
Then there is the maintenance factor but I’ll leave that rant for another day.

Thanks Lou for a great article


Katherine Crouch November 4, 2016 at 10:02 am

hi Cherie, we have the same design background and history prior to our career change and I agree with you – many thanks


Mike Bentley November 4, 2016 at 5:03 pm

Cherie I’m currently studying garden design at Pershore and you’ll be pleased to that hear we still study all of the things you mention, including planting a tree (and digging it up again immediately afterwards). Like others posting, I think plant knowledge is essential for garden designers. Also common sense. A gardener friend told me recently that she had been working in a “designed” garden where you couldn’t get the mower onto the lawn which was completely surrounded by a shrub border…


Mike M November 3, 2016 at 1:54 pm

I thoroughly agree with many of the comments made here. I see too many show gardens at prestigious garden shows, especially the overrated, overhyped Chelsea Show, which have no realistic chance of ever becoming permanent, organic, evolving gardens.

Design and artificiality all too often converge. Surely the whole point of a well designed garden is that it should be capable of existing for decades afterwards? This presupposes the confluence of design and gardening knowledge.

The problem is not confined to garden design courses though. Several years ago I did a BTEC National Certificate in Horticulture. I remember having a debate with a course tutor who wanted the class to consider how to achieve a quality lawn on a boggy site. My argument that the client should be informed that this was not a suitable thing to attempt was met with a response along the lines of: “if that’s what the client wants it’s up to the gardener to provide it”. No it isn’t, it’s up to the designer/gardener to insist that trying to achieve the unachievable is a waste of time, effort and resources. Being training in how to engage with a client who wants the impossible would be much more effective in the longer term.


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