Clever Garden Designers Should Be Pitching To Developers

We may be hurtling towards a global recession and the news may be all financial doom and gloom, but there is still a bright spot on the horizon for both established and newly-graduated garden designers in the form of recent mandatory changes to county council planning regulations.

From the 1st of this month (October) all planning applications, without exception, will have to be accompanied by a full Tree Survey Report and an Arboreal Culture Method Statement which, for clever garden designers, could mean a steady stream of bread and butter income to supplement their design work, especially while the housing market holds its breath through these difficult financial times.

And for designers with a flair for planting schemes, there’s more good news now that CABE Space and other organisations are supporting a new campaign to give soft landscaping (greenery/plants) more priority in new developments.

The suggestion is that 2% of the total budget must be spent on planting and green space, and local authorities will have to crackdown on developers who don’t fulfil this approved and planned landscaping. The trouble is, and this is good news for the proactive designer, most developers are not landscapers so even if they plant a few trees, they probably won’t be the right kind.

Some of our graduates have left the course and, not only established successful design practices, but also broken into journalism (again, a good way of supplementing your design income and getting your name known), to write about the importance of good design, planting etc in various local and national newspapers and magazines.

And so talking of CABE – which stands for The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and which is the body that advises the Government on architecture, urban design and public space – there’s currently a great opportunity for other would-be scribes who have qualified in design on our course, because this organisation is now actively recruiting design experts to put together a new 20-strong panel of freelance expert writers for 2009-11.

So, and I know we’re still a few weeks off, but if you’re thinking about drawing up your Christmas party invite list, you might want to include the names of a few local developers and architects and start building a supplementary income stream to get you through the current financial crisis, especially if you are just starting out.



I’ve now finished marking the final portfolio submissions from the OCGD students of 2007/2008 who completed their last assignments during the summer and I am delighted to be able to send my heartfelt congratulations to the student who came top of the class and has graduated with a much-deserved distinction.

Emily Garbutt, who lives in Reading, gained an overall score of 80% thanks to her consistency and attention to detail throughout every assignment. I always tell my students “The Devil’s In The Detail” and Emily’s distinction is proof of this adage.

Emily, whose background is in art and photography, is already designing for private clients and, alongside design talent, brings a wealth of understanding of construction and hard landscaping to her projects thanks to working alongside her partner, Trevor, who is the founder of the Reading-based EarthTech Landscaping.

The students in this year’s new intake are just completing the site survey for their very first project and I am looking forward to writing my Blog this time next year when, hopefully, I will be introducing you to more of our graduates who have achieved the same high standard as Emily.

It’s funny but I was only asked the other day how come, when the majority of students attending garden design courses are female (this year we have just one male and ?? females) the majority of the well-known garden designers are still men?

Emily’s success proves there’s no reason for this gender discrepancy but when I stopped to think about it, I guess the answer has to be that primarily, the men who come on the course are intending to be the primary breadwinners in the family while a lot of the females will be working to bring in a secondary income.

A lot of our students, in fact the majority, are usually either mid-life or mid-something career changers and maybe, having enjoyed success in their previous careers, they’re now looking to take their foot of the gas somewhat? I’m not really sure because it’s such a personal thing.

What I do know, and I am forever banging on about this with my students, is that design talent is not enough to make a name for yourself in garden design (if that’s your goal) you also need good business acumen.

One of the first things I send students who are about to graduate is a link to one of their local business support organisations and I’ve noticed that those who follow through on this are those most likely to succeed.

I’ve also noticed that while a lot of our students who, like Emily, have an art background do extremely well on the course, so do many of the career changers who join us from a background of financial services, including banking.

Come to think of it, with the collapse of so many of the once-trusted and long-established banks, maybe we should start advertising the course in the Financial Times!


Lost Opportunity……

Enormous thanks to all of you, students past and present, who called to congratulate Carol and I on winning one of the I Own Britain’s Best Home & Garden trophies from the judges on the Channel Five programme of the same name.

We were, of course, delighted to win our category for our much-loved garden at Greystone and likewise, our congratulations to all the other winners.

That said, and since we were one of the winners this is in no way sour grapes on my part, I can’t help feeling the entire programme, instead of being the perfect platform to not only promote but show the benefits of good design to viewers, was a lost opportunity for all of us involved in the field.

My first criticism of the programme format would be that the producers did not chose to critique gardens of a similar style in each category which, in a way, somewhat tarnished the glow we felt upon winning our category. The garden that we were up against was completely different in its style and feel and so we felt deep commiserations for those owners because in its own right, it was a fantastic garden too.

Secondly, I can’t understand for the life of me why the programme-makers chose not to use botanical names when discussing the plants and planting combinations in each selected garden. Or why the panel of three judges didn’t insist on this before singing their contracts. The fact is, garden centres sell their plants by their Latin and not their common names, and so if part of the aim of the programme was to educate viewers and de-mystify garden design and gardening, then it failed miserably in this respect.

I also felt, and this is entirely my personal opinion of course, that on occasion, the Judges too let themselves down. Many of the comments they were making came across as entirely subjective at best and at worst, downright inane which again, would have been quite insulting to the people who had worked so hard to produce beautiful gardens worthy of selection in the first place.

Carol and I both enjoyed meeting the presenter, Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen, and felt enormous respect for his professionalism. He’s a man who certainly knows about design and space but unfortunately, whoever wrote his dumbed-down links for him managed brilliantly to disguise the fact he is so knowledgeable and I know several viewers who, after the first episode, cancelled their Sky Plus series link because they felt much of the content was so superficial.

Interestingly, when we called the Producers after the first episode to make some of these observations with the regard to the content and the format, we were told the programme was aimed not at the demographic most likely to actually care about gardens and garden design (i.e. predominantly empty-nesters and the owners of larger gardens) but at 30-something males.

Uh, is it me…. or do the Producers need to sit down, before the next series, with someone from the world of gardens and garden design who actually knows what they are talking about?


Class Of 2007/2008….Where Are They Now?

It’s less than a month since the OCGD post-grad intake of 2007/2008 wowed the industry with their end-of-term Student Exhibition and while the course is structured so that students complete a summer planting portfolio and so do not graduate before the Autumn, many of them are already launched and working on impressive projects.

For example, Susan Clark, (www.thegardenagency.uk.com) a journalist who decided to take to the OCGD course so she could write more knowledgeably on garden design, has been commissioned by the top UK film director Gurinder Chadha, (Bend It Like Beckham…and her new film is the quirky teen smash Angus, Thongs & Perfect Snogging) to design the outdoor space at her new Primrose Hill family home, including a large roof terrace, Japanese-style adult courtyard and kids’ play garden and Christopher James, a fellow Class of 2007/2008 student, has been snapped up by another former OCGD London designer and success story, Charlotte Rowe.

And as if that wasn’t glamorous enough, half-way through the course, student-turned-presenter, Shatsi Sabri, landed her own tv garden series fronting a garden show for a Pakistani production company which has just been commissioned for a second series.

For more updates on Where Are They Now? for the Class of 2007/2008 and previous years, check in on the website where we’ll be posting interviews with OCGD students who have successfully launched design careers and for an insight into why they are so successful, or register for update alerts for my garden design blog


OCGD TV Gardens Scoop!

I am very pleased to say that an astonishing THREE of the twelve UK gardens selected for a the new tv programme on the very best gardens in Britain have links with the Oxford College of Garden Design (www.ocgd.org).

They are, my garden Greystone; and the gardens of former OCGD graduates, Julia Kirkham and Kathy Brown.

The programme, Own Britain’s Best Gardens, is a Thames TalkBack TV production for Channel 5 and will be aired later this year (watch this blog for details of when).
The presenter is the flamboyant Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen who has spent the last month visiting the gardens and, together with a panel of top judges, quizzing their creators on what makes these gardens so special.

If the tv producers are right, and 25% of the gardens chosen to represent the best in Britain have been designed by OCGD tutors or students, then what does that say about the course?

It says this really is one of the most prestigious garden design courses in the world (never mind the UK).


Own Britain’s Best Gardens

Capitalising on the success of its hit series, Own Britain’s Best Homes, Channel 5 has launched the hunt for UK gardens to feature in a new follow-on series, Own Britain’s Best Gardens and guess where the producers have landed…..Greystone.

Greystone is my Oxfordshire home and this week, myself and my wife Carol, will play host to the show’s flamboyant presenter, Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen and a panel of Judges who will be spending two days filming at Greystone and discussing the design merits of the two-acre garden.

One of the key attractions to the programme-makers (Thames TalkBack TV) was the fact Greystone is a woodland garden with over 200 majestic beech trees. I designed the Greystone garden to take on a particular ambience at night when, using careful garden lighting, the trees take on an ethereal, almost Cathedral-like ambience. Stunning and very romantic!

What do I think about all this. Is Greystone the best garden in the UK? Probably not, but Carol and I would not swop it for anything.

As soon as we know when the programme will be aired, I'll publish it on the Oxford College of Garden design website.


Does Good Design Matter?

If you think not,then take a closer look around your own neighbourhood. You won’t have to look very far or very hard to see lots of examples of bad design which could so easily have been avoided.

The very first Golden Rule of Good Design, in my design philosophy, is that the building itself (usually the house) must be integrated into the landscape. What this means, in lay terms, is that if, for example, you have a traditional stone building, you are probably not going to win design awards for surrounding it with chunky contemporary glass walls and steel overheads (pergolas, arbours and the like).

Scale is also crucial and is again, dictated by both the existing buildings and the size of the plot.

You can easily see how crucial scale is by looking over the garden fence at your neighbours’ plots or other people’s front gardens as you drive around town. Notice how many houses will have a grand entrance and then a silly, mini-size terracotta pot with a tiddly, twisted topiary tree flagging the doorway. The wrongness of the scale will just jump out at you.

Another common bad design is the curvy, serpentine path running down the middle of a medium-sized rectangular town or village garden which breaks another fundamental “good” design rule and, worse, splits the long rectangular plot in two which, instead of enhancing your outdoor space, will end up making both sides almost unusable.

I often talk about interior design to make a point about good and bad garden design. If you have this type of medium-sized, long, rectangular garden then think about what kind of lawn you want.

Lots of people again choose a curvy, almost amoebic shape and my response to that is that if you think about the garden the way you think about the inside of the house, you would never put a squiggly-shaped carpet in a rectangular room.

Or would you?

What do you think constitutes good/bad design and are there times when good design demands that you break the rules?

Post your comments to this blog entry and for more information on good design philosophy download the Oxford College of Garden Design prospectus


Credit Crunch or Designers’ PunchLine?

The credit crunch looks likely to prove an unexpected blessing-in-disguise for garden designers and those thinking of switching to Landscape Design as either a first or second career.

How so?

Because according to a new survey just published by the UK Building Society, Alliance & Leicester, there are still millions of UK residents looking to move house over the next 12 months and therefore, seeking to do everything they can to improve the value and desirability of their current property.

The survey of over 2,000 UK households was carried out by Opinium Research on behalf of the Alliance & Leicester and showed that about one in eight homeowners are still planning to sell in the coming year, despite the gloomy downtown in the housing market.

And of those planning to make significant improvements, almost 60% said they were intending to improve their outdoor space which is where the good news for designers comes in. For example, in a street with two fairly matched houses on the market, the one with the most attractive or well-designed outdoor space will be the first to sell.

As a general rule, designers can tell potential clients that they need to spend around 10% of the existing value of their home on the outdoor space to see a guaranteed return of up to 20% uplift on the value.

That means if someone whose home is presently worth £600,000 spends £60,000 on their garden, they will then be able to market their home at up to £720,000 which in the current financial market is a better return than most savings accounts.

And, for working garden designers, a very persuasive argument to get potential clients to commit to a quality design project.