Garden designers reveal their blots on the landscape

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Many garden designers land in the industry after years of soul-searching, sacrifice and career-change — often from something more corporate, more desk-bound and less preoccupied with the business of beauty. But while most would argue that a job transforming underwhelming outdoor spaces into inspiring natural havens is a privilege, it’s not one without its challenges. Chief among them? The client. 

Garden designers are often mediators: people who understand the inherent alchemy and challenge of ground, soil, element, space and plants, hired by those who don’t — and who often simply want to make their back garden a place that better fits their specifications. While dream clients will deliver briefs from heaven — a request for a natural swimming pond, wildlife-friendly planting, more trees and, on a good day, a request for the designer to do whatever they fancy — troublesome ones will woefully misunderstand the capabilities of what a garden can do or be.

The aftermath of RHS Chelsea can be designers’ busiest time of the year, as the non-horticulturally minded remember that their gardens exist, actually. I spoke to a few to find out what client requests they secretly hated. 

“Most garden designers’ hearts will sink when the list is largely accoutrements that go into a garden, with no real time spent on the fact it’s a garden,” said one anonymous designer, whose projects start at about £100,000 for an urban garden and can “easily hit £1mn” when tennis courts, pools and outbuildings are thrown in. “When people want to shove in a load of stuff to make it a utility space; if it’s essentially treated as a giant outdoor playroom.”

He rattles off a list: “Trampolines; loads of play equipment that’s viewable from the house, so you have a climbing frame staring at you from the window; swim spas; a massive, massive lawn; driveways with turning circles but no planting; a basketball court.” The worst offender, he says, is a ping-pong table: “That one drives me nuts because that needs a giant empty void of paving to allow for it.” 

Among the designers I spoke to, requests for plastic grass topped the list of most-hated client requests. Designer Jack Wallington, who has written books about embracing pollinator-friendly planting, says he turns down gardens wanting AstroTurf.

More surprising, however, are the requests for designs that will eliminate invertebrates altogether. “There have been requests in the past where people have said, ‘I don’t want any wildlife. I don’t want any bees. I don’t want any insects’,” Alexandra Noble, who has exhibited at Royal Horticultural Society flower shows and specialises in residential designs, tells me. “You just think, ‘Well, that’s impossible’.”

Possible, but nevertheless annoying, are client requests to fold in hangovers of the garden that existed before a designer got to the plot. “Something that happens all the time is that the clients will have some kind of ragtag, say, olive tree that’s hanging on for dear life and it has to be included,” Noble says. “Part of you thinks it’s probably better off going on Gumtree to be collected by someone with a sunnier garden.” Another designer recalled a resentful existing maintenance gardener who refused to look after the plants introduced by their design, leading to awkward conversations when they died.

Harder to argue with are the “impulse-purchased garden ornaments — those statues that come from garden centres”, says Noble. “It’s frustrating because, as designers, we might spend days deliberating on certain elements, and then we have to kind of shoehorn these things in.”

Beloved — if incongruous — ornaments also come high on designer Jo Thompson’s most-feared client list. Wallington, meanwhile, has particular ire for a prolific outdoor seating solution. “Chunky plastic rattan furniture: it’s the antithesis of elegance. It can completely ruin the look of a garden.” 

Something else that united the designers I spoke to was clients being too prescriptive. “You always despair a little when a client sends loads of Pinterest links of what they want their garden to look like, so you’re not actually designing it, you’re just translating a load of pictures, and they expect you to carbon-copy something from California,” says my anonymous source.

Or “a client telling me that their friend has done a four-week garden design course and they’re going to look over my design and give them feedback”, says Thompson, repeat RHS Chelsea Flower Show gold medal-winner, when I ask her for her most-loathed requests.

Noble admits to being confused when she arrives at a job to be greeted by meticulous designs already created by a prospective client. “They’re probably better off approaching a landscaper,” she says. “There’s no creativity left in the project.”

While wildlife may be welcomed by designers, pets can prove more troublesome: especially those whose mess hasn’t been picked up off the lawn before someone went in to measure up. “We’ve had requests from clients who have several animals but don’t want muddy paw prints on their paving,” one designer tells me. “I suppose they think we are magicians.” 

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