The Society of Garden Designers; a damp squib washed up on the shores of mediocrity.

Are so called professional body; the Society of Garden Designers, has forced through what I consider to be the worst piece of legislation in its pitiful 30 year history.
It has decreed that from 2010, if you want to apply to become even a lowly corresponding member you have to submit work before a panel of your peers to be weighed, measured and no double found wanting!
Its bad enough having to apply for full membership in this patronising and archaic fashion, but to expect potential probationary members to go through this as well is frankly bonkers.


What are Carbon Neutral Publications & Can They Save You Money?

Click to launch the full edition in a new window.
As a designer and teacher I care deeply about all aspect of my course and how I present myself and my school to the world.

We have been printing an annual prospectus for nearly 20 years which I believe serves 3 distinct purposes.

  • The prospectus should be is well designed, after all; my students are signing up for a design course and will initially judge us, based on our presentation.
  • The information contained is clear, comprehensive and well laid out. Again this demonstrates attributes necessary to make a good designer and so any educational establishment should set a good example.
  • Potential students get to feel the weight and quality of the publication, This hopefully reflects the quality of the course itself, however it also probably only gets read a couple of times before being discarded.
This last point has been a concern to me particularly when we as designers, are dealing with environmental issues on a daily basis, but think I have found a solution in carbon neutral publication.

I pride myself on the fact that we as a college have always been a market leader in technology and innovation.

We were the first to introduce CAD and computer modelling into our curriculum and also to embrace internet technology and although not at the forefront, if compared to a .COM industry, we are light years ahead of our competition.

Since 2007 we have been using an on-line publication service that gives you the look and feel of a magazine or book without the waste of paper and all the associated expenses.

It gives us the freedom to publish and update quickly, while virtually eliminating the need for publication budget.

2010/11 will be the first year we don't offer our customers a hard copy. We still produce a PDF version which is fast to download and hope that our public are ready to accept an electronic only option.

Your comments and thoughts would be much appreciated!
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Are You An Environmentally Responsible Designer?

Amazon Deforestation
I was recently involved in a discussion on LinkedIn regarding the specification of non locally sourced materials.

Is it just me? or does it strikes you as odd,  that some of us are specifying materials which have to be transported 1000’s miles across the globe,  just to satisfy a whim!

Ignoring the aesthetic argument of genius loci (spirit of place) for a moment, aren’t we as landscape architects, supposed to care about our environment and make responsible choices?

With oil prices again, heading towards the $100 a barrel and the kick starting of the global economy likely to drive prices to $200 within a few years, shouldn’t we setting an example?


Getting Started in Landscape Design

One of the first things students should be doing after graduating, is contact their local Architects.

They are a ready made source of work and because of new planning regulations, many applications now require a planting plan as part of the planning conditions.

Architect on the job

As qualified designers, you should be able to offer architects:

  1. A full planting service to include specification and 5 year maintenance schedule.
  2. A Arboriculture method statement
  3. A Tree survey to BS5837 (2005)
  4. A RPA plan and APN12 recommendations

In addition to this you can also offer a full 3D perspective and rendering service if you CAD skills are up to scratch

3D Rendering and computer modelling

All of the above should be laid out in a letter to the architect having first found out his/her name so you can address it to them personally.

You then follow up this letter with a call a few days later enquiring if they received the information and if you can be of any further help.

Think about it!  If a homeowner builds an extension they will change the footprint of the garden.  As a result the garden will need re-planning.  By offering to assist the architect they can provide a cheep and very lucrative source of work.


Could you do this in 8 Weeks?

“Remarkably this project was completed in only 8 weeks of starting the course.”

I’ve just finished marking, this years students first design project, and thought some of you might be interested in seeing what we do.

Your first project is based around a real client and site as are all the student projects, as I believe its important to give you as much real life experience as we can.

Your first assignment is a courtyard garden, approximate 100 square metres in size

This particular site is in Oxford and is part of a terrace of modern town houses with their garages on the ground floor and the living accommodation on the first and second floors.

The house has an existing balcony for entertaining, but the students have installed a flight of stairs giving access into the garden from the first floor.

The client brief was for no lawn, a substantial water feature and a secondary private sitting space for entertaining and eating out.

Remarkably this project was completed in only 8 weeks of starting the course.

The students have already covered 3 dimensional special design, they have been introduced to computer modelling, have been taught basic rendering techniques as well as studying garden history , art and planting design.

It’s no accident that our students are considered to be some of the best in the world.

I believe as a college we produce better designers in 8 week than many schools produce in one year.

This is down to 3 things

Our schools unique teaching style

The students hard work and dedication

And the fact that all are students are hand picked via a 4 day selection process so we only take the very best.

If you would like to know more about our courses, please visit our website or give me a call at my design office to arrange a personal chat about a possible career change.


Telephone Technique Pt II (Meeting the Client)

In the second part of this video tutorial on sales techniques for garden designers, I look at meeting the client. 

I discuss how to manage this meeting, what to say and when to say it and most important of all how to discussing budgets and design fees.

If you haven’t seen the first part,  click here and watch this  first.

In next months tutorial, we will look at design fees and how to calculate  fees based on both time and % based fee basis.

If you have any ideas on other tutorials you would find useful, please let me know!


How Art, the Devil and Gardens go Hand in Hand.

Once a year I take my students to the Tate Modern gallery in London. As part of their course they have to complete a pictorial timeline, comparing art , architecture, gardens, & Socio-economic influences, using thumbnail pictures to create visual links between each category.

This isn’t just another academic exercise. It has real world use for students, enabling them to understand what has gone on in the past and so allowing them to move into the future.

We teach contemporary design at the Oxford College of Garden Design, but it could be argued that a designer should be able to turn their hand to any style, in any period of history, provided they understand the principles of 3 dimensional special design.


Pergola or Sculpture or Both?

Yes, this exercise helps students put into context how each of the four categories influences the other, but it does more than this. It introduces us (some for the first time) to the concept of art as a major influencing factor in all aspects of our lives.

Initially, I get the students to attend under the pretext of seeing the art, not just as a photo in a book, but as it was supposed to be seen, in context, life size and in the flesh.

I get them to sketch, not to improve their drawing skills, but to improve their ability to see.

This week is the students last critique before they present their Project 1to the clients. It’s no accident that the Tate visit co-insides with this.

Having fulfilled the client brief, this is their last chance to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. This is where an average design can become a gold medal winning garden.

I mentions USP’s in an earlier blog but can’t stress enough how important detail is to successful design. It’s at this point in the course that I start to hammer in the mantra ‘the devils in the detail’


The drawings made at the Tate, now become the next design exercise. Weather they become garden floor plans like John Brookes penguin book garden, or landscape drawing or garden sculpture or even bespoke furniture . It doesn’t really matter what they do, so long as they start to think outside of the box. Even if they don’t all get it immediately, some way down the road I hope they all become free thinking, conceptual designers, able to see the potential in the mundane and the extraordinary in the ordinary.

The reason the Oxford College of Garden Design produces the UK’s top design students is because we see garden design, not as a horticultural subject but as art and I believe art and life go hand in hand.


Carol’s Garden of the Month (November)

Carols garden guide for the Oxford College of Garden Design

_MG_3416-EditI first visited Denmans  the garden of the venerated John Brookes many years ago on a hot sunny day in July and was so very excited to be there after eagerly devouring every book he had written and attempting to create my own garden around his design principles.

It did not disappoint although sadly on reflection mine was an insult to design and the great man himself!!!!

I have been there several times since as I am now privileged to know John, most recently just last week and it was such a different experience seeing it in late autumn.

At this time of year it is easy to see that It is clearly designed around exactly the same philosophy as is now taught at the Oxford College of Garden Design!

The strong use of ground pattern creates an underlying framework that holds the design together creating a strong and impelling route of flow – similar to my own garden! At last I have a garden that has got it right although I personally take little credit for that!

Denmans is admittedly 30+ years old and by John’s own admission some of the planting needs updating and plans are afoot to start again in the walled garden area which is exciting!

Nevertheless there is still plenty to enjoy in the plant department with loads of texture and colour as the photos prove! However right now it is a fantastic garden to visit to see the bare bones of a great design but if you are a “plant-a-holic” wait until June or go twice!

The garden is open all year and there is a really nice little garden centre attached to it that sells everything from a primrose to a £3000 full sized sculpture of a vestal virgin (well virgin’s don’t come cheap!)

Also there is a great restaurant with loads of quirky stuff in it (no not the food which is lovely) .

Go and pay homage!!!

Map picture


Plagiarism is alive and well

Looking for design inspiration and your USP


One of the first things I recommend to students (or even qualified designers for that matter) before they start a new design, is to look through books and magazines for design inspiration.

When my student from the Oxford College of Garden Design first start designing, their ‘design library’ i.e. their knowledge of shape, pattern, and garden features stored in their brains, is pretty much empty, so the only way they can fill it, is to expose themselves to as much content as possible.

Magazines such as Gardens Illustrated and English Garden are recommend reading as too is the Society of Garden Designers magazine ‘The Garden Design Journal’ edited by the excellent Tim Richardson. The designer is looking for two specific things at this early stage

  • A Floor Plan: Ideas for shapes and patterns that will fit into their new garden. This can be achieved by studying garden layout plans in books and online. Students are looking for strong ground patterns with good inter-locking shapes that, after a little modification could transpose well into their own design.
  • The Magic Feature: Secondly that little bit of magic that sets their design apart from everyone else’s. This in marketing terms would be your USP (unique selling point) It could be a sculpture or water feature or even built in furniture, but whatever it is, it should be the wow factor. Something the client is going to love, is unique and if the garden was to appear in a magazine would be the main picture to illustrate the article.

Books are another excellent source of inspiration and students should be studying not just garden/landscape design but architecture and interior design as well. Books written by garden designer John Brookes, or Terrance Conran are excellent sources of inspirations, so to is Barber Hunt and Elizabeth Whateley’s book ‘Aspects of the Garden Design Process’

By seeking inspiration from the past, modifying and adapting it to make it their own, students will gradually develop their own design philosophy, and aspire to take it into the future.


Carols’ Garden of the Month (October)

Carol Heather’s garden guide for the Oxford College of Garden Design

Well I have just returned from a really enjoyable visit to  Waterperry Gardens! near Oxford

Unprocessed Files

I won’t bore you with its history,  because you can read about it in the free guide or on the website, but it is interesting to note that unlike many such places, it has had a horticultural and educational bent, dating back to the1930s when a rather indomitable lady named Beatrix Havergal took up residence with an ambition to educate women in all branches of horticulture!

Personally I wouldn’t describe Waterperry as a designed space . To me, it feels more like an evolution, influenced by those managing it and also to suit its current purpose.   Somehow this lends it an air of innocence which on a wonderful bright Autumn day was very disarming!

There are many elements to the garden, but I suspect most people are immediately drawn to herbaceous borders and I was no exception.

To reach these you enter the garden via the quaintly named Virgin’s Walk (I felt something of an imposter!)  Here the planting is unexciting at this time of year, but turn a couple of corners and WOWEEE!!!!!….. the “Classical Herbaceous Border” comes into view and it looks absolutely stunning!

Stretching for 200 feet in front of you is an amazing display of Asters of every height, shape and colour interspersed with other Autumn favourites including Rudbeckias in variety and towering old style “Golden Rod” which looked far from “naff” despite it’s ongoing reputation!

At this stage you think to yourself oh this must be very dull for the rest of the year, but on closer inspection you can see that this border is planted for longevity in the interest stakes with neatly cut down lupins geraniums ,achillea and phlox patiently awaiting their next moment of glory.

Along similar lines but none the poorer for it is The Long Walk with another fantastic display of the same types of plants but with more shrubs interspersed to provide height and structure. Personally (shock horror!) I think these borders surpass the ubiquitous Great Dixter border, certainly at this time of year at least!

The other area that I enjoyed was the Formal Garden – I know this has all been done before, but it has a really nice feel about it and I loved the swaying Stipa tenuissima around the base of the sculpture.

If you judge a garden on “ideas to take home” this may not be the best, but nevertheless there are planting combos here that you could utilise in much smaller spaces and the garden really does remind you that there is absolutely no excuse for a boring garden just because summer is over! Oh and they serve fantastic cake in the cafĂ©!!!! Enjoy!


Oxford College of Garden Design Graduate Wins Olympic Garden Project

Hailed as the first-ever “Botanical Olympics,” the UK’s Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) has approved plans for 250 acres of parkland at the Olympic site in East London and chosen 28-year-old landscape designer Sarah Price to design a show-stopping celebration of British Gardening at the main entrance.


Price, who studied fine art at Nottingham Trent University before qualifying in Residential Landscape Architecture at the Oxford College of Garden Design, is a rising star of the horticultural world and is planning to use thousands of different plant species from around the world.

She describes her concept as: “A giant painting in three dimensions” has a £5m budget to realise her vision and adds: “The aim is to bring landscape and garden design together.”

Her showcase gardens will take visitors through four distinct periods in garden history, all inspired by Britain’s great tradition of travelling Planthunters; including Joseph Banks, the botanist who accompanied Captain James Cook on his first voyage to the Pacific and, later, a former director of Kew Gardens.

The four zones of the “2012 Garden”, as it will be known, will be separated by bridges across the River Lee (a tributary of the Thames which is currently being widened) and visitors will walk from Western Europe and the Mediterranean in the 14th to 17th centuries, via America in the 17th and 18th centuries, through plants from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand in the 18th and 19th centuries, ending up in Asia and the Far East in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It is an ambitious project by anyone’s benchmark and Price, who is the youngest designer responsible for a major project at the Olympics, will be designing on a much larger scale than any of her previous commissions. Her 21st century botanical garden will run along the widened river and include mature trees shipped in from specialist nurseries around the world, as well as native British species.

Students at the Oxford College of Garden Design are trained to really understand the historical influences of previous generations on landscape designers by undertaking two major projects. In the first, where they compile a pictorial timeline of the links between art, architecture, socio-economics and garden design for the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries, they begin to see for themselves how each affects the other. The course also includes a weighty written essay based on their 20th Century Timeline where, again, they learn not only who were the major designers in any given decade but who went before and who came after them.

Chaumont! Probably the best garden show in the world?

Chaumont: Gardening! –From Erotic to Rude.
As I write this blog I am reminded of a rather embarrassing episode that happened to me a couple of years back, when I visited the USA to do a radio interview on European garden trends.

It was for “W.H.B.S.Y. -coming to you from down-town Sacramento” (or something like that– all these radio stations sound the same to me!)

I had flown into San Francisco, on the late flight the previous evening.  Then driven 3 hours north east to Auburn, downed the better part of a bottle of California Red before collapsing in to bed, only to be woken at some ungodly hour the next morning, to drive back down the freeway to Sacramento, to do the “Garden Guru’s” 9am Saturday morning radio show.

Not surprisingly I was a little jet lagged, if not a little hung over. Definitely not a good combination when doing live public radio!

I was also extremely nervous, unlike UK radio, when you are lucky to get a 10 minute slot, this show was on for a whole hour with me being the only guest. The way I was feeling, I wasn’t sure I could manage 60 seconds let alone 60 minutes.

The studio was not what I had expected either and was little bigger than a passport photo booth. Rob Littlepage, who was standing in for the Don Yacuzami (the regular Garden Guru) squeezed his way back into the room and donned his headphones.

I sat down next to him but couldn’t get the door closed as my chair leg was blocking the entrance. After some discussion the door was left open and the producer Rick (or Ricky as he preferred to be called) bustled off into the next kiosk where he sat down behind a large glass screen and a bank for dials and buttons.

As I watched the seconds ticking away on the studio clock the intro. music faded in, sounding suspiciously like the theme-tune to the Archers:-and we were off.

Things started well, Rob did the introductions and thanked our sponsors. I manages to talk coherently for the first 20 minutes being periodically interrupted by callers phoning in to ask questions or publicise local events, the most notable being a ‘Toe-mat-toe tasting’, at the local nursery. “32 varieties!!! ……… I don’t know they had 32 varieties.”

I had just started to relax and let my concentration wane when Rob asked me about the contempory Garden show at Chaumont in France. All of a sudden I had a complete panic attack.

I should explain at this point that the French garden show has a theme each year and this year, typical of the French was ‘eroticism’. Knowing how prudish middle America can be, I new that this was not the subject for a Saturday morning breakfast show.

Unfortunately my mouth had other Ideas. Like a frozen rabbit caught in car headlights, I heard myself discussing one particular garden dominated by a pair of large 15ft high pink breasts.
My mind was screaming stop, but my mouth just kept on going. Rob had lost the plot at this point and was having a fit of the giggles.

The producer was wildly flailing his hand across his throat in a sawing motion and I was only saved by the timely interruption of an advert for ‘Sun Dance computers’.
On listening to a tape of the show afterwards, I had even managed to describe the viewing tower behind the garden for those people who wanted a birds-eye view of the giant mammaries.

Oh well, that’s probably the end of my radio career.
clip_image004Nesting Marigolds
As for Chaumont sur Loire I would thoroughly recommend a visit even if you don’t like gardening. I take the student from the Oxford College of Garden Design there every year.  The Chateau is situated at the top of a cliff overlooking the river Loire and the show is situated in the park behind the castle in about ten acres. You enter, down a spiral staircase build into the hollow of a tree.
Cross a bridge over a 50ft gorge to some steps on the other side and finally, up into the show ground. The exhibits are identical in shape and size and each surrounded by a beech hedge.
clip_image006Giant Corset
The exhibition attracts submissions from around the world with
every designer interpreting the brief in a different way.

From a nest of pink Marigold cloves to erupting luv bubbles (yes I didn’t understand this one either!) to a giant corset that you both walk through and round to a garden designed to imitate lingerie
clip_image008Erupting Luv Bubbles
The setting is beautiful, the gardens imaginative and the restrant is to die for. It has to be one of the best (if not the wackyest) garden shows in the world.
For further information on Chaumont-sur-Loire
Tel: +33 (0) 254 209922
 clip_image010Negligee screening


Specifications for Garden Designer Pt 3

The relationship between drawn and written information

On the smallest of schemes, annotated details may be all that is necessary and putting specification and drawing together may also assist the contractor.

However, on larger projects there is a danger that the specification will become dispersed onto several drawings, with repetition and contradictions creeping in. To avoid this, it is recommended that all the specification is found in one place. The drawn details can then linked to the appropriate specification description by systematic cross referencing, using the specifications own clause numbers.

This then leaves the question of the more general information such as the quality of topsoil or the strength of mortar? It is rarely adequate to leave such details to the expertise and discretion of the chosen contractor. In order to provide a professional service to your client, it often requires at least a few pages of specification separate from the drawings attached to the planting schedules, or the letter of invitation to tender.

An imperfect solution

I have touched on some of the obstacles which confront the designer and the contractor when faced with agreeing and achieving the desired standards on site;
  • the need for reasonable financial certainty without being too restrictive,
  • the huge amount of technical and contractual knowledge required;
  • the designers’ time needed to tie up the more important loose ends,
  • the absence of a simple appropriate standard form of contract.
Few projects are standard. Most are unique ‘prototypes’ designed and detailed from scratch.
Using an identical specification on every project, is therefore not only inappropriate, but may also be dangerous.

The concept of a ‘model’ specification is rather different from a standard solution because, the ‘model’ specification is designed to be edited by the designer to remove all extraneous information and to insert any additional information the particular project requires. The result is a tailor made document which should help the contractor.

Producing a project specification takes time and eats into the fee but the time is reduced with practice. No specification can be totally comprehensive. The designer’s decision on what to put in and what to leave out is a matter of judgement. That judgement will be made based on several factors such as the complexity of the project, the known competence of the contractor and whether the designer will be visiting site during the construction phase. Specification writing tries to be exact but in practice is an imprecise art.

A ‘model’ specification

The essentials of a ‘model’ specification are three-fold:
First it provides a familiar ‘structure’ within which every subject has its logical place.
Finding the appropriate instructions becomes quicker and easier because of this.
Secondly it can provide a check list of subjects which may need the designer’s attention. The designer can decide either to delete the subject as inappropriate or to include it with or without amendment.
Finally, by offering the designer a model clause the designer has guidance on written style and technical content.
I am sure that many designers have heard of the NBS Landscape Specification or the more modest publication “Specification Writing for Garden Design”(2) These model specifications can provide help and much needed technical guidance for the hard pressed Garden Designer. Writing a specification from scratch is a very daunting task; using a model specification makes that task considerably easier.

Even the best project specification and drawings in the world will not produce high quality work from a poor contractor. Things are less likely to go wrong with a good contractor. So every designer’s priority should be to assemble a list of good local contractors.
Then, provide them with all that essential specification information in writing by one means or another so that a proper price is tendered. Things are less likely to go wrong if the contractor has tendered a realistic price and is in possession of all the relevant information from the start. If things do go wrong, you and your client are better protected if the required quality is defined clearly and concisely.

Specifications for Garden Designer Pt 2

Most designers find specification writing a necessary evil.

Is it even necessary?

In a limited number of cases a formal specification document is probably not needed provided the essential information is given to the contractor in some other written form.

The two types of information

The written information traditionally included in a specification is divided into two main categories –the contractual obligations commonly known as the Preliminaries and General Conditions (the quality of workmanship and materials). Essential content of the Preliminaries which are vital to most projects are the start and finish dates, insurance and health and safety requirements. There are, of course other things which may need to be agreed such as the protection of existing trees, the arrangement of stage payments for work completed or the limitation of working hours, but these matters are often partly covered in a standard form of contract such as those issued by the JCLI, JCT.

The problem is that none of these standard forms of contract is entirely appropriate for small garden projects and even when they are used, they are usually completed after negotiations have taken place and a price agreed. Vital information such as the examples given above is needed before the contractor can tender a firm price. The designer is therefore left with the need to confirm such matters in writing at the beginning of the tendering process.

The options for defining quality

Before attempting to answer the above, let us first consider the question of quality. Unlike contractual and administrative matters, quality is very much more difficult to define. One way is to specify a brand name, but this may financially restrict the contractor unnecessarily.

Another method is to refer to Standards, published by the British Standards Institute or to other standards such as the National Plant Specification. Incorporating another standard by reference is often the most comprehensive and fool-proof method. However this requires a degree of knowledge about the content of those standards, both by the designer and the contractor and this is not always available.

Thirdly, the designer may write a description of quality themselves. To do so, requires practice and the development of a concise and an unambiguous style of writing and requires an depth of knowledge and skill that only the most accomplished parishioners should attempt.

In a limited number of instances, the most direct method of controlling quality is a reference to an agreed sample. This approach can be particularly appropriate for the appearance of hard landscape features like paving or walls.

The sample may be one which is constructed on site by the contractor prior to the start of the main work, or a previously constructed project preferably by the same craftsman. The advantage of a sample is that the client can be fully involved and can understand exactly what they are getting right from the start of the contract.

The use of samples

allows the contractor and his craftsmen to contribute to the creative process and gives them a positive involvement which not only draws on the contractors’ expertise but raises the craftsmen’s commitment and morale.

Monitoring the performance of the contractor is also simplified by making a direct comparison between what is built and the agreed sample.
So not every specification for quality depends solely on a long written description, but, given that there are several possible approaches to specifying quality, all of them in the end will require a degree of written clarification.

Do you always right a specification?

Do you use a 'Model Specification' or do you write your own clauses?

Please let me know I'm always interested in you feed back and comments

Specifications for Garden Designer Pt 1

The importance of a Specification

Contractual problems can arise on any project what ever its size. However, the larger and more complex a project the more scope there is for arguments with the Contractor because the amount of money at stake is potentially larger.

The Client who is faced with additional , unexpected and perhaps avoidable costs is not going to be pleased and may hold the Designer liable. The way to avoid argument is to produce clear "documents", i.e. drawings, schedules, specifications and instructions, so that your Client, all the Tenderers' and the appointed Contractor fully understand your design intentions.

What a Specification is

The Specification is a written description of requirements. On a small, simple project it may be possible to cover the necessary information by writing specification notes on the drawing. On most contracts a separate document is usually necessary.

For convenience the Specification is normally divided into two sections. The first section deals with administrative matters and is commonly called the Preliminaries. The second section defines the quality of workmanship, materials and plants required.

The Specification should be used to define quality and sequence of work etc. while the drawing is best for defining shape, size and location.

Few designers bother with specification writing and those that do, often don’t fully understand the full legal implications of this document.

In this litigious world, sooner or later one of us is going be sued and the line between bankruptcy and survival could well be a comprehensively written specification.

The Specification and its relationship to the Contract

You should always advise your Client to enter into a written Contract . Any Specification should be one of the "contract documents". The Contract is between your Client and the Landscape Contractor. You, as Designer, are not a party to the contract although your role as agent for your Client should be defined in the Contract.

Model Specifications

At the Oxford College of Garden Design we have written are own ‘Model Specification’ published by Packard Publishing which has been widely adopted as the industry standard.


Aimed at novice and professional garden designers, this work book explains a method of producing instructions for garden design work which can be tailored to an individual designer's current project.

It has been developed over many years and most importantly is thoroughly tried and tested. It has been kept deliberately brief and is flexible enough to allow designers to expand or condense it to suit their needs, and to allow use of their favourite products and plants.
Students and newly-qualified garden designers will find the model specification particularly useful both as a contract document and as a technical check-list; it can be used on the smallest projects where the specification clauses are annotated directly on drawings or plans or as an independent document.

The overall format assumes a designer is acting as an independent consultant and not as an employee or partner of a contractor offering a package design and build service.

My Concerns!

What worries me is that specification in the UK is often taught by tutors with a limited understanding of the legal implications or worse still, by former contractors that often have a very biased attitude to specifications and see them at little more than a nuisance.

Making a specification short and simple yet comprehensive enough to avoid ambiguity is extremely difficult. Those that advocate writing your own specification can not possibly expect students to have enough skill and understanding of the subject to prepare documents that are legally water tight? Yet this is exactly what is happening today in many courses across the UK.

Your comments and feedback are always welcome


Effective Strategy To Estimate Time For Your Design Projects

Effective Strategy To Estimate Time For Your Design Projects

I recently came across the above article when surfing and although it’s primarily aimed at web design, it has a lot in common with garden design fee estimating.

The article starts out by saying “How many times have you been completely confused at how that ’small’ project turned into such a big one costing double and taking three times the length you estimated?”

When students first start out in business, they find it very difficult to estimate the time it takes to complete a design project for 2 reasons,

i) their inability to estimating accurately and the fact that they are still inexperienced designers and therefore take longer to complete a project.
ii) Their own embarrassment at having to charge money and a lack of confidence and feeling of self worth.

So many college and even our professional body the Society of Garden Designers skip over fees and estimating as many members and academics are themselves unfamiliar or not confident with the process.

There are 3 ways to quote for a project, the fixed fee, an hourly rate and the contract percentage basis.

Back in 2003 I wrote and presented a fee guidance scale to our UK professional body the Society of Darden Designers which explained all three of the above fee options. Although it was adopted as the industry standard, it has sadly been poorly promoted, again I believe because of the overall lack of professionalism and business skills within the industry.

It explains clearly to both client and designer how, what and when to charge.

As a new graduate the fixed fee method although preferred by the client, is not a good choice, as there is a real danger that they will under estimate for reasons I have already explained. The hourly rate may be better for the designer, but may end up costing the client more, due the fact that the designer is newly qualified and not yet up to speed.

The third, and I believe the fairest method for both parties is the percentage fee scale. The design fee is based on a sliding fee scale based on the landscape contract cost. If a client has a budget of £10k then the design fee scale would be 18% i.e. the design fee would be £1800. At £100K the design fee would drop to 10% i.e. a design fee of £10,000 and at £500K it would drop to 8%

A great little recourse I found in the article at the top of the page is a time tracking and analysis devise called Tickspot (See below)

tickspot-timerTickspot allows designer to keep track of the hours spent on a project

Tickspot encourages you to analyse the design process and steps involved in each phase and allows you to estimate the amount of time each phase takes


Another useful exercise you can do is to work out how much you need to charge per hour in order to make a living.

Required Gross Profit (salary) £30,000.00

Secretarial £1,000.00
Training £750.00
Insurances £730.00
Repairs/maintenance £450.00
Printing, postage, stationary £2,290.00
Advertising £631.00
Telephone £1,080.00
Motor running expenses £2,400.00
Travelling expenses £57.00
Entertaining £354.00
Legal fees £400.00
Accountant fees £1,200.00
Bank charges £750.00
Subscriptions £335.00

Working 8 hours per day, 5 days a week, 45 weeks a year, there are 1800 hours a year. Chargeable % of hours is likely to be between 30 and 60%, say 40%.

£42,000 ÷ (1800 x 40%) = £58.33/hr

This assumes a constant workload. It is very difficult to achieve a constant work ethic and a chargeable % at 40%. Inevitably weekends, late nights supplement the equation. The hourly rate charged depends entirely on personal choice. It may be necessary to “buy work” initially, however when you become internationally sought after you can charge accordingly. You may find that you have to charge £60.00/hr to be profitable.

But whatever you do, Don’t undersell yourself.


Why Good Designers Need To Be Good Problem-Solvers Too

Behind every good garden designer you will find – a problem-solver extraordinaire because no design, whether you’re creating a sculpture, a piece of furniture or a beautiful garden will work unless you crack the challenges the project presents.

As the great 20th Century American landscaper once stated: Function Follows Form which, for the designer, means an alchemy of science, common sense and artistic flair or, if you like, a kind of “magical marriage” that needs to take place.

When we teach garden design, we introduce two entirely polar approaches to designing space which is often a difficult concept for students to grasp. You have a given site, which is a given shape and a building (the house or the office if you are landscaping a different kind of project) and your job, as the designer, is the blend the architecture with biology.

This is no mean feat, especially when dealing with smaller spaces and at the same time you are considering the functional or logical organisation of the space you are also working with the artistic element that will appear to effortlessly blend the building with the land.

The first of our two design approaches is what we call Pattern Analysis Design (PAD). Faced with a site plan, the designer creates an interlocking pattern as they design the garden and then allocate different materials – grass, water, paving, planting for example, to each space. This is the design method favoured by the brilliant British designer, John Brookes OBE, but is sadly often very misunderstood.

The second design approach is Survey Analysis Design (SAD) which, as its acronym implies and without the introduction of Pattern Analysis Design as well, can often lead to, literally, very sad, uninspired designs. With the SAD approach, the designer is looking purely at the functional side of how space is allocated and placing the key elements – the terrace, the garage, the vegetable garden – before considering the overall design of the plot.

The fact is, you need to be able to combine both these approaches to design a space that really resonates with its environment and to do that, you need to understand how people behave in a particular space and keep that in mind as you design.

One of the best examples of this is to think about what people do when they walk up to your front door and ring the bell. They ring the bell and they then step back away from the door. What that means, for the designer, is that the area around the front door is a key space which needs sufficient paving to allow someone to step back but still remain in the door “zone.”

A narrow pathway leading to that front door will force visitors to march along, crocodile style and the person who opens the door will not be able to see everyone who is approaching. Similarly, a path to the bench at the bottom of the garden needs to be at least 1.5m wide to allow two people to walk comfortable alongside each other.

So a huge part of good design requires an understanding and appreciation of ergonomics and the psychology of how people use space. Without this, no design, however impressive on paper, is going to work for the people using that space and without this understanding, no design will work properly.
Introducing The New Student Showcase

When we first had the idea of introducing a new ex-student showcase to our website, we had no idea we would be quite so spoiled for choice with a long list of Oxford College of Garden Design postgraduates who have, often very quickly, gone on to stamp their individual marks on the world of international garden design.

What we realised, as we started to invite our former students to feature in our showcase which goes live later this year, is that we really can boast an amazing and long - 17 years since we first started our postgraduate diploma course in residential landscape architecture - track record of training some of the best-known landscape designers anywhere in the world.

When I started the course, all those years ago, I wanted to do two things; give something back to the world of garden design and share my passion for good design with others but I had no real idea, back then, many of our 300 or so Alumni would be among the next generation of top designers.

Interestingly, the very word Alumni comes from the Latin alere which means to nourish and nourishing raw talent among our students is one of the most exciting aspects of teaching our garden design course which has been described by our industry as probably the most prestigious course of its kind, anywhere in the world.

The new student showcase will launch with the work and urban design philosophy of London-based designer, Charlotte Rowe ( who you will know, if you ever have the pleasure of meeting her, is a one-woman force of nature.

After a long and high profile career in public relations, Charlotte joined our course in September 2003 and within a year was featured in a Channel 4 programme on mid-career switches across a range of different professions. Never one to let the grass grow under her feet, Charlotte capitalised on this exposure and her designs were soon being featured in both the specialist garden press and mainstream magazine supplements.

Today, just 5 years after she walked away with her postgraduate diploma in Residential Landscape Architecture, Charlotte can name her price and pick and choose her projects, both at home and overseas.

Other alumni who have achieved a similar high profile alongside respect from their peers include Sarah Price who studied fine art before joining our course and who, after winning three RHS medals during her rapid rise to the top, has just landed the prestigious honour of designing the Olympic botanical garden for the 2012 games.

I have always maintained that once trained, our students need to work as designers for between three and five years before they finally find their own style and way of interpreting the design ethos we have taught them. Just as a writer must find their own “voice”, a designer needs to find that special something that makes their work unique and it is seeing the early emergence of this magic ingredient in our student designers that gives me a real buzz every time I walk into the classroom at the start of our academic year.

We’ve Got Our Own Milk Monitor!

You’re know you’re really back in school when one of you is elected class “Milk Monitor” and for the first time on our Post Graduate course, we’ve appointed a Class Liaison officer who we affectionately refer to as our Milk Monitor.

Joking aside, its proved a genius move for the students currently studying with us for their diplomas in Residential Landscape Architecture (garden design) because this is a fast-paced course and keeping up with the schedule can prove tricky unless you are super-organised or have someone who is.

That’s where our milk monitor comes in. She’s the link between the tutors and the students and because she comes from an IT background, she’s got the whole class on Skype so they can keep in touch in between lectures which we run on Thursdays and Fridays.

The reason I mention this is that I’ve noticed this out-of-school support has played a key role in helping the students this year achieve the highest marks of any intake over the last 10 years. Of our 17 students, we have just one male who I was concerned might feel out-of-the-loop amongst so many women but instead, this group has really bonded and in no small thanks to their Skype connections.

Another reason I think this particular intake is doing so well on the course is that all of them attended one of our “taster” four-day courses before signing up for the year-long Diploma course.

I run these courses at regular intervals throughout the year (March, May, July and again in September) to give prospective students a real taste of what to expect once they commence training and for anyone even thinking about garden design, either as a first or second career, I cannot recommend doing the four-day course first highly enough.

Firstly, it gives you the chance to dip your toe in the water and see for yourself whether you have any aptitude for design. This is especially important for those prospective students who are not coming to the course from an art or related background.

It also means that those students who have taken the taster course and confirmed for themselves they have some design ability can really hit the ground running once we start the full-time course which, as I mentioned, really is very fast-paced.

We admit we cram a lot into our diploma course but that’s because I want to be sure we are given our students the very best training in a highly competitive field; in other words we give them the “edge” and the careers that our previous students go on to forge for themselves bear testimony to that.


Oxford College of Garden Design Introduces Its Post-Graduate Students to John Brookes MBE – A Man Described As One Of The Most Influential Garden Designers of the 20th Century.

I had been asking for years but what with one thing and another, it had just never quite happened. So imagine my delight (never mind the thrill for our students) when the man who’s been described by many as “The greatest living contemporary garden designer” agreed to spend the entire day with us in the classroom at Oxford Brookes University as part of our popular Postgraduate Diploma in Residential Landscape Architecture course (

Now it’s not often I get to see my post-graduate students star-struck – many of them come from highly successful previous careers, albeit in different fields, and so have been accustomed to mixing with The Great and The Good - but there was a definite air of excitement as they arrived in class on the big day with their cameras, their John Brookes textbooks for him to sign and their own garden designs to show the man himself.

I was trained by John and so know that although he can be, initially, somewhat shy, with the right audience he will soon warm to his theme and that anyone with an interest in garden design who is lucky enough to meet him in person will come away deeply inspired.

The students were not disappointed. John presented a MasterClass in Garden Design which included his thoughts on how the subject has changed, even in his lifetime and what the next big trends are likely to be. He very generously gave us a whole day of his time and not only critiqued the students’s own work (for those who asked him to take a look) but talked us through many of his own past and present projects.

A designer, teacher, author and lecturer, John has designed well over 1,000 gardens for clients all over the world and was awarded both an MBE for services to horticulture and garden design in Britain and an Award of Distinction by the American Association of Professional Landscape Designers.

He says “I like to create a simple bold design which I then plant up generously.” As with all gurus, he makes it look easy and sound simple but our students understand that achieving that apparent simplicity demands a high level of skill and design ability.

You can see John’s design skills and learn more about his extraordinary contribution to garden design by visiting

I’m not sure if I’ll ever manage to persuade him to come and inspire my students in the same way again but I do know he had a good time spending the day with them, sharing the insider tips he has picked up along the way and that each and every one of them walked away with a deep respect for the genius of my former teacher and mentor and a man I am proud to call a friend.