Who Does What?

I was amused, relieved, and a little embarrassed a few weeks back when a respected and long-standing Landscape Architect stated, in a meeting of industry leaders, something along the lines of ‘what the public don’t really understand is that Landscape Architects don’t design gardens.’

He wasn’t having a go at his industry.  He was simply stating that, of the wide range of projects that LA’s get to work on, gardens don’t loom large.  They may not loom at all.

My embarrassment simply came from the fact that I hadn’t seen it quite that clearly myself, and felt like I should have.

This happened to come at a time when I was also grappling with a similar revelation that while garden designers design gardens, there’s still a disconnect between what they design and what the keen home gardener recognises as a garden.

Barewood - a wildly charming owner-designed garden in New Zealand
Barewood – a wildly charming owner-designed garden in New Zealand

Hosting ABC TV’s Dream Gardens has left me in awe of the work done by many garden designers in Australia.  I’m astonished by the enthusiasm with which these designers take on really challenging sites/conditions/budgets and turn out solutions that don’t look at all like the brain-bending exercises in problem solving that they often are, but look like acts of genuine creativity, and even artistry.

But the truth is that most work done by garden designers is for people that have a minimal interest in being personally involved in either the design process or the subsequent maintenance of the end result.  As an observer, this amplifies the genius of the solution, and makes it enormously admirable.  What it can’t do, or can rarely do, is make it more lovable.

As a designer myself, it came as a very sobering shock when I realised that (almost) none of my favourite gardens in the world were designed by professional designers.  They were the deeply loved, nurtured, and sometimes objectively faulty creations of committed owners.

Great Dixter - the perfect bland of a professionally designed layout planted with intense, owner-idiosyncratic planting
Great Dixter – the perfect bland of a professionally designed layout planted with intense, owner-idiosyncratic planting

It seems to me that there’s a stand-off between keen, hands-on gardeners and garden designers.  The owners of home-designed gardens can criticise the work of garden designers as generic and soulless, while professional garden designers can see all the literally amateurish faults in the home-designed garden.  But there’s a place, and even a need, for both.

There’s also a case to be made for the benefit of more overlap between these two worlds.  Most garden designers I speak to love nothing more than when a client discovers a love of gardening as a result of having a good garden installed for them.  So garden design clients can move towards garden lovers.

What is less clear is how, or in what way, garden lovers can benefit from the knowledge and skills of designers, without threatening their ‘ownership’ of the end result, or the individuality or idiosyncrasy that they could implant there?

Moritake - an owner-developed and owner--nurtured garden designed with professional assistance
Moritake – an owner-developed and owner–nurtured garden designed with professional assistance in New Zealand

I’d encourage any really keen home gardener who is setting out on a new project, or considering an overhaul of an existing garden, to find a designer who’ll spend a few hours with them, simply talking through the opportunities and challenges of the site, as they see them.  It can be a stand-alone consultation from which there needn’t be any further obligation.  Even garden designers use garden-designer friends to bounce ideas off, and to fine-tune creative solutions.  I know, as I’ve both used designer friends, and have been used by them, for this purpose.

Alternatively, if a home-owner is really keen to stay in charge, but would like some assistance, I’ve created a design coaching course that will guide them through the decision-making process, details below.

There’s a lot of invaluable wisdom and experience that a garden designer than bring to any garden design project.  But I’m equally convinced that, in the infinitely complex recipe that makes up a truly lovable, moving garden, theres at least one ingredient that can only be supplied by a committed, adoring owner.

Details of Garden Design Coaching can be accessed here, or by clicking the link in the menu at the top of this page.  Please note that courses are restricted to six places only, and there is only one remaining place for our course starting late July.


  1. I was a graphic designer before retirement, but I actually don’t think designers ever really retire. How can you tell your mind to stop designing!

    I have transferred some of my design energies into a new, large, country garden, and boy what a fabulous challenge that has been. I now do most of my own propagation as well, and I have found that the less precious about this I have become, the more successful I have become.

    I have started to apply principles familiar to me with my garden. Rather than ripping out failures or mistakes, I just try to figure out how I can make them work first.

    I would have loved to have had the funds to employ a garden designer, much as I would have appointed a photographer or other specialist in my past life, but then I would have missed out on a lot of fun.

    Interestingly, myself and other designers often commented on how stressful it was to design our own identities and collateral material, joking that we should just appoint our favourite designers to do it.

    Thanks so much for your blog. I hope you do another of those series for the ABC.

  2. So well said Michael…..you’ve hit the nail on the head!

  3. Love the term ‘owner designer’! My husband and I had a plan designed for us, but we’re doing the planting up ourselves. And, as a result, there are some things we’re changing, whereas we’re sticking with other things the designer recommended. At some stage, hopefully we’ll have something that looks good, which we love and maintain – when we can get the planting finished that is! It’s going to take awhile.

  4. Hello Michael,
    OMG, this is so inspiring and beautiful. I wish I could have something like that in my garden. Michael, It would be very helpful if you’d write a post on vertical gardening and put it in your Australia category. 🙂
    I’ve bought a house and deiced to make my own Zen Garden. I ‘ve been doing some research and I realized that https://elmich.com.au/ seems to be the best solution to this. What do you think? Looking forward to your answer.

Leave a Comment

More Blog Posts

PLANT OF THE WEEK #89: Lespedeza thunbergii

I vividly remember the day I thought I had to get better acquainted with Lespedeza.  How could I forget? It was a day of ridiculous perfection on Lake Como, Italy, and the garden at Villa Melzi was a ...

PLANT OF THE WEEK #100: Euphorbia 'Copton Ash'

One of the great ‘discoveries’ of my unwatered ‘steppe’ garden has been Euphorbia ‘Copton Ash’. I’d admired it, from a distance, for several years.  It’s always hard to recall why you ...

Two ill-fitting hats

Is the function of your garden to be primarily a background to your life – the space you sit in when you dine outdoors, or the stage you set for your afternoon G and T? Or is your garden meant to be ...