What is Garden Design?

What is garden design? When it's something you have been doing for more than fifteen years, it's a question you often ask yourself. On the one hand, the phrase 'garden design' is frequently one of the services offered by a landscaper. That's a bit like a builder offering to design your home or a mechanic offering to redesign your car. (There are probably lots of exceptions where this works out very well.) On the other hand, there are 'garden designers' who don't know much about plants. They like the idea of the 'outdoor room', they have ideas about colours and materials, but not about how things grow. Plants, even in this era of lighting, paving, screening, sound systems and fake grass are still the dominant ingredient in gardens. Would you go to a doctor who said, "I love bodies, and how they look and feel, but I don't know much about how they work, what things are called... that's technical stuff for body experts, not people like me who just love the design of them." Then again, there are fabulous plant experts who know all about plants, and how and where they grow, but who have little interest in how to arrange things and create spaces. 

So if a garden designer isn't a landscaper, isn't a horticultural expert and isn't a creative arranger of 'outdoor space', what exactly - or who exactly - is a garden designer? It's probably a mix of all three, in equal measure. In the old days people were called 'landscape gardeners' and they combined practical know-how with an understanding of plants and the natural world. They were working on a big scale, like flooding valleys and putting temples on distant hills, and their ideas mainly aided people in showing off their wealth, power or excellent taste - or all three. But as time passed, more people could aspire to owning and enjoying a garden, where advice was no longer needed on how to terrace a hillside or plant an arboretum. These days, we need someone to tell us how to hide the neighbours windows; someone to tell us what flowering plant / evergreen plant / not spiky plant / fragrant plant will grow against a north / south / east / west facing wall that won't die / get too big / fall over / need constant care; someone to suggest how we should configure the clothesline / sandpit / barbeque/ herb bed / bins / bikes / compost / lawn / patio. It's like a big puzzle with a defined number of pieces to be moved and then fitted neatly into a defined space.

These days, maybe the concept of 'garden design' should be replaced with 'garden advice' or 'garden help'. The end product - or 'design', for want of a better word - is pretty well dictated by the owner's requirements and wishes, mixed with the physical elements of the site. Most of us want the same things from our gardens: somewhere to sit and enjoy a few minutes of sun at the end of the day; a lawn maybe, for children to play on, for sunbathing, for the joy of greenery, for the dog; a herb bed; a view to be appreciated from the new extension; something for birds, bees or butterflies; somewhere for the children to kick a ball, make a den or grow some veg; somewhere for the laundry; a bit of screening here, and here, and here; something to hide that dreary wall; something to stop that neighbour from peering in over the fence; somewhere for the slide, the trampoline, the barbeque, the table and chairs; a greenhouse, a tool shed, a log shed; something that isn't too expensive, isn't hard to maintain, is colourful, is evergreen, is fragrant, is hardy...  These are the owners' requirements. Put them into the mix, factor in the orientation, soil type, prevailing winds etc. and, hey presto - there's a start on the process.

If this makes garden design seems like a formula, then that's because it's the case - to a degree. A thousand different cakes can be produced from a limited number of ingredients and procedures. Subtle changes can be made to produce very different results. A delicious cake can be made from the simplest of ingredients. Follow the recipe carefully and the end result will be excellent. There's no need to reinvent the wheel if someone has already done it all before.