Does employing a garden designer lose you your garden? by Michael McCoy

October 31, 2014

in Articles

Perhaps it’s not easy to feel that your garden is really your own when you have had a garden designer working on it? Do you feel free to amend the planting and to make changes?

A version of this article by Michael McCoy originally appeared in the excellent Australian website Garden Drum, which publishes the kind of material many thinkingardeners will enjoy. It functions much like thinkingardens with an editor and a wide range of contributors.

I asked permission to re-use this piece as it touches on an issue that interests me a great deal as you can see from here :– just what does garden design consist of and who does it?

In this case we have a responsible garden designer who is concerned that his clients can own and enjoy their gardens after his contribution, and who realises that this may not always be straightforward.

In that same spirit he would like me to explain that all images are of gardens designed in an ongoing collaboration with him, and implemented, maintained and guided to maturity by the owner

Anne Wareham, editor.

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Michael McCoy:

While I design gardens for a living, I sometimes wonder if I’m more an educator or an evangelist, as I want nothing more from my design work than to see my clients fully engaged in the nurturing, fine-tuning, guiding and managing of the garden we’ve created – preferably together.

This realization of this desire, which took me at least a decade to grasp and then articulate, has led to one of my biggest dilemmas: that professional design can lead to clients being alienated from, rather than connected with, their gardens.

I guess there’s several reasons why someone might call in a professional designer, most of them being more or less an expression of their sense of disempowerment.

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Sometimes they’ve got no idea how to achieve the design effect they know they want.

Sometimes they’ve got no idea how to look after a garden, so look for professional assistance in creating a garden that matches their skills, or lack of them in this case.

Sometimes they’ve no confidence in their taste, and want to buy something they can feel sure is cool – or enviable. This is my least favourite group, but happens to be where most of the money is. If you can create, and be the primary purveyor of, the next big thing, then financial success is assured.

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And sometimes they’re knowledgeable and accomplished gardeners who nevertheless know that they’ll never be satisfied if their gardens are limited to their own abilities. My observation is that the best gardeners are also the ones most frustrated by the limits of their ability. They’re the ones always asking for more from their gardens, and never want to rest on their laurels. This is my favourite group by far. I love starting in a good garden and cooking up ideas with the owner about how it could be better still.

Primarily I see my job as providing empowerment. I therefore never felt more of a failure as a designer than the day when a client rang – one who had previously considered herself a somewhat competent gardener, one that would at least give things a go – and asked where she should put some plants she’d been given. I tried to throw the decision, and even the thinking process, back at her, but she was terrified that she’d ‘mess things up’.

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About the same time, it occurred to me that not a single one of my favourite gardens in the world was designed by a professional designer. In every case they were personal expressions of the owner, and lovely or lovable for precisely that reason.

It has made me all the more determined as a designer to simply facilitate garden owners to fulfill their own dreams. That might mean teasing out and clarifying those dreams (which is no mean feat in itself; can alone provide huge empowerment; and has, at times, fully justified my fee), as well as thinking of creative ways these could be achieved, and providing the practical advice required for execution.

But even then, I’ve discovered there’s no easy way of doing this without interrupting the connection between the owner and the space they inhabit. It’s a very, very fine (and time consuming, and non-lucrative) line to walk.

Michael McCoy see also

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With thanks to Catherine Stewart, creator, curator and editor of Garden Drum

Related to this article:

There has been considerable discussion of this article on Facebook, here.

Further images of Michael, and his clients’ work: “Everyone has their own idea of Paradise” and Can professional garden designers really hope to emulate those for whom a garden is a life’s work?

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