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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Catriona Tudor Erler December 14, 2014 at 3:20 pm

In his wonderful book “A Love of Flowers,” H.E. Bates (also author of “Love for Lydia”) wrote, “[a garden] should reflect its owner. That is why gardens ordered and devised according to an expert plan are, at best, impersonal and at worst as soulless as the skyscraper blocks of ‘packet-of-fats-on-end’ architecture that now curse London and other cities.” Like other great garden writers such as Vita Sackville-West and Gertrude Jekyll, he was not shy about stating his opinions with conviction and color!

annewareham December 14, 2014 at 4:25 pm

Ah, yes. I cut my gardening teeth on that lot and others of their ilk. Wonder if ‘should’ is right though? Is it avoidable for a garden to reflect its owner – who may be a plutocrat able to hire a celebrity designer….?

Catriona Tudor Erler December 15, 2014 at 12:55 pm

When a plutocrat hires a celebrity gardener – say André Le Notre designing Versailles for King Louis XIV – the garden still reflects the owner. In this case, the owner is looking for a show of power and wealth. That was achieved, along with the message, inspired by the work of Descartes, that the French were intelligent, rational beings who could dominate the landscape and shape it to their own visions and desires. Having said that, I think Bates is saying that IDEALLY a garden should reflect its owner, not be a “tasteful,” “off-the-rack,” instant garden creation (think installing full-grown trees and shrubs so it looks mature right away, and overplanting to fill in all the blank spaces immediately) created by a competent but uninspired landscape designers. The motivation (to show off ones taste and wealth) may be the same as Louis XIV, but without a brilliant designer such as Le Nôtre, the results are, as Bates suggested, pretty dull and depressing.

annewareham December 15, 2014 at 5:58 pm

Yes, that all makes good sense. You’re right about what Bates probably meant. Wish I didn’t think a lot of unplutocratic, personal gardens are also pretty dull and depressing. Not nice of me, but I can hardly lie in this context. XXX

Benjamin Vogt November 2, 2014 at 9:59 pm

Precisely! Empowerment. Aka confidence. And this: “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.” That’s exactly how I’ve approached design in my young business. Thank you — you articulated what I’d been feeling and sensing on my 30 or so consults.

Eugene October 31, 2014 at 9:37 pm

I lacked the prerequisite humility to be engaged as a designer. It was a case of ‘My way or the highway’ and ‘no…you cannot have it in pink!!!’

I was right of course, but it was a poor choice of profession.

Michael McCoy October 31, 2014 at 10:27 pm

I’m not so sure Eugene.
I reckon it’s you guys that are making the money.
Sure, you’ve got to make a name for yourself first so people are prepared to be dictated by your impeccable taste, but once that is achieved….
In a way I’m envious

Mark Robson October 31, 2014 at 7:36 pm

Well said! , as a garden designer there is a real sense of accomplishment when your client cherishes the product of your creativity, after all, hopefully it interprets exactly what they wanted and more. Not only does this validate your ability as a designer but also your ability to connect and read your clients, Most importantly it reassures you that your design will survive, be maintained and evolve like all good gardens should. This will be a garden loved.

Michael McCoy October 31, 2014 at 10:14 pm

I love that you’ve added the ‘and more’ in there Mark. I totally agree. The last thing I’d want anyone to conclude is that I’m driven by some sort of lame humility – a need to be the invisible or anonymous designer. I mean, I KNOW I’m better placed to clarify, interpret and execute their dreams or desires – that’s why they’re paying me – and I’m happy to be visible. The result, in my experience, is almost never what they had imagined, but hopefully it takes what presses their buttons to a level way beyond what they’d have been capable of achieving on their own. But it’s got to be their buttons (so to speak), and not mine, that are being pressed.

Katherine Crouch October 31, 2014 at 4:14 pm

At last! Someone who thinks like I do! I felt rather demoralized at an SGD project appraisal when it was suggested that I did not have sufficient control of the (ongoing) project because I allowed my client to “dictate” what he wanted, make additions to the planting, move plants and so on. It’s called Engaging in the Garden in my world. Why should his garden planting be the same as it was 5 years ago?

One of my favourite designs is probably not my best, as my lovely client often greets me with the words ” Kath, you’re going to kill me, but I’ve just bought some….” and then we have a great time shuffling the perennials about, thinning out the geraniums and making room for the new treasures. I rather think that might be gardening…..

It’s the planting that evolves, generally. The hard landscaping footprint may remain the same for decades, give or take a summerhouse or Phase 2 that was planned but not built because of lack of money. A fellow designer once told me that he made more money from paving than plants, and his designs were paving-heavy ‘because clients can’t f**k up the paving, but they always f**k up the planting.

Angela Tolputt October 31, 2014 at 3:41 pm

I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments and conclusions expressed by Michael. Looking back, my most rewarding design jobs have been where the client has embarked on having their garden designed in order to add some meaning to their existing beloved plant collection or, as a novice, they have begun a journey in which they want to be coached in how to look after their garden. In either case, the garden remains theirs. My view is that I am a facilitator and a garden coach as well as a garden designer.

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