In it for the lawn term

Great gardens are rarely the result of a finite project. Rather they flourish through an ongoing collaboration with the designer. Tim Richardson reports.

November 06 2011
Tim Richardson

“What on earth are we going to do about the garden?” It’s the question many people find themselves asking once they have bought a property and, several years down the line, just about sorted out the interiors – only to realise that the views out of the windows are not up to the same standard. It is at this point that homeowners may turn to a garden or landscape designer.

However, there is a salient difference between working inside and outside, and that is timescale. It is not simply that good gardens can’t be created overnight (remember that terminally naff 1990s phenomenon, the garden makeover?), but that the best results can only be achieved if the garden is viewed as a process rather than a product, and as a collaboration between designer and client.

Some gardens – particularly formal town gardens – can be achieved relatively quickly and then left to develop on their own. But in most cases, client and designer are feeling their way, so that their relationship becomes far more important than it is in many other professional situations. Garden designers do not tend to do a job and then disappear, as an interior designer or architect might. They are in it for the long haul. This means that successful garden designers are, by and large, extremely easy to deal with compared with other creative types one might hire. They have to be. And in many cases, they become fast friends with their clients.

So what advice can top designers offer potential clients? James Alexander-Sinclair is one of the most charming and affable garden-makers out there (that’s partly the old Etonian in him, as he freely admits), but he is adamant that it’s not just the designer who needs to make an effort: there has to be a real connection between designer and client from the start. “It’s extraordinarily important that you like them, and they like you,” he asserts, “otherwise it takes all the joy out of it. Part of the fun of garden design is working with a client. What I sometimes say to students is: ‘You should never work for someone you don’t like. Apart from anything else, they might not pay your bill!’

“I have a client in South Northamptonshire,” he continues, “who I started working with in 2004. Initially it was quite a big makeover of the garden, but then it just grew and grew. He had some fields, so we said, ‘Let’s make some ponds.’ Now there are ponds, as well as trees, new wildflower meadows, ducks and all that sort of thing. Although my client doesn’t know much about gardening and never gardens himself, he adores it, and loves sharing it as well. Now he even opens it to the public for the National Gardens Scheme [charity].”

Generally, designers will return to a garden they have designed once or twice a year, but Alexander-Sinclair comes back to this one on a monthly basis, partly because he is based in the same county. “Proximity is something people ought to think about,” he says. “If the designer is nearby, they are obviously more likely to be able to drop in.” This can even be the deciding factor. “I had one client who said that when he was thinking about a new garden, he went through all the websites of the leading designers and liked a lot of the work he saw. ‘So why did you choose me?’ I asked. And he said, ‘Because you were closest.’”

Most designers will charge an hourly rate for return visits, but give telephone advice free of charge. Sometimes they will even provide a gardening team from their own staff to do the regular maintenance.

For Dan Pearson, a first interview with a potential client is nuanced by the fact that “at the back of my mind, I know I am thinking of working with them for a minimum of two to three years, and up to 15”. It has to be said that clients are rarely aware of this potentially epic timeframe – which is probably a good thing.

“I tend to avoid clients who are looking for a quick fix,” he says. “You are assessing people to see if they are in it for the long haul, because we see gardens as an evolution. Otherwise, it’s an empty exercise.” Pearson adds that it is also important for a designer to be an “agreeable” person to work with. “We never steam in there saying, ‘This is a Dan Pearson garden’,” he says. “It’s much more collaborative than that.

It may be discomforting for potential clients to know that their meeting with someone they are looking to hire is a “mutual interview” – but the designers working at the high end aren’t short of work. In fact, the garden and garden design business tends to boom in times of recession, as people retreat into their own domains, preferring to spend their money closer to home.

Among Pearson’s longest-standing clients are the owners of The Old Rectory in Gloucestershire. “They are wonderful,” he says, “in that they always want everything to be just right. We finished the garden about five years ago and now there are two excellent gardeners there who go in one day a week, which is enough to keep it in a state of perfection. I go back twice a year. The gardeners don’t see my involvement as a threat – which can happen sometimes – but as a part of their job.”

Pearson concedes that things can still go wrong even in situations where client and designer have entered into the arrangement in good faith. “We had one project that went on for two years, and the client was just not engaged. I felt that all along. We went back and found that they had put an awful piece of sculpture in a space we had agreed would be empty.” The controversial sculpture heralded the end of that particular relationship.

Rosemary Alexander, founder and principal of the English Gardening School and one of the most experienced garden-design tutors in the country, agrees that if client and designer “are not on the same wavelength, it is not worth pursuing”. Like Pearson, she acknowledges that a designer’s relationship with the client’s existing gardener is also crucial. If they clash, the gardener may “nobble the designer behind their back”.

Alexander’s advice to clients is first to do some serious research into the styles of various designers, including, ideally, visiting gardens they have designed. Only then should a meeting be arranged. Then there needs to be consideration of the house itself. “House and garden should reflect each other,” she says, “so a client ought to consider whether a designer’s style will suit the architectural style of the property. A visual by the designer will usually show this.”

If that doesn’t work out, Alexander – being the principal of a design school – says there is always the option of the client doing a course in garden design themselves. It is indeed noticeable how many people who have commissioned a garden then go on to train and pursue a career in garden design.

Arne Maynard is another designer who lays particular emphasis on client relationships. In fact, he is so discreet about his clients that he is far less well-known than his impressive portfolio of work might suggest – though his garden for Laurent-Perrier at next year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show will no doubt raise his profile. “I have clients of 20 years’ standing,” he says, “though the majority of my projects were started 10 to 15 years ago. I’d say I am still in touch with about half those clients.”

Maynard has a very clear system when taking on a new garden, which involves first walking the site with the owners and listening to their ideas, as well as airing his own. “We brainstorm,” he says. “You might talk about losing some trees or putting in a new terrace, for example. You have to sell your ideas and be enthusiastic, and that is infectious. The client then gets enthusiastic and gets involved with the design, and I very much listen to what they want.”

Maynard then produces a written brief, with moodboard illustrations (though not a plan), for a set fee, and if that’s accepted he sits down with the client and produces numerous other sketches. “The design process is quite lengthy,” he says. “From the day we are commissioned until we start digging, it’s usually about a year.”

Maynard’s work for Lord Manners at Haddon Hall in Derbyshire began eight years ago with a redesign of the garden at his private house on the estate, named Bowling Green. It extended to the garden of the hotel in the grounds and is now embracing the restoration of the Elizabethan garden at the Hall itself, including topiary and wildflower meadows.

“We’re putting the atmosphere back,” he says. “What is nice is that we get deeply involved with the estate. For example, the craftsmen make all our garden furniture, gates and stonework. They make their own lime and collect sand out of the river that runs through the estate, as they have always done, so that if we repoint the brickwork it’s exactly the same as it was in medieval times.”

For Maynard, the horticultural education of the client, too, is all part of the designer’s job. “There’s no point doing the garden if it’s not going to be looked after,” he says. “Most clients don’t know much about gardening to begin with, so if there’s a vegtable garden I will usually try to get them out there planting straight away – just so that they can experience the thrill of growing something. Most of our clients have gardeners, but it’s still best to get them involved. Ninety per cent of them end up coming to the nurseries with us to choose plants – and immediately, it becomes their garden.”

Maynard usually drops in on a recently completed garden a couple of times in the first year – “you have to check things such as the proportion of self-seeded plants, whether it is right” – and thereafter he or a member of his team will visit annually. This “after-sales service” is not a cost-effective option for garden designers, on paper at least, in that it can mean long-distance travel for one-off remuneration. But Pearson, for one, says it is worth it. “It can be incredibly valuable, in that you often get new customers through existing clients, by word of mouth. And if you have a good garden that is up and running, that is great for your portfolio.”

It is also, of course, the best way for designers to ensure that the gardens they have designed develop in the ways they had hoped. In a profession that is all about the creation of beautiful and meaningful places, that is perhaps the most important aspect of all for both the designer and the owner, who can now live with it, enjoy it and truly own it.