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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