The Garden Guide

Employing a garden designer

There is a wide range of options. Depending on the size of the job and the design character/quality you wish, the relative advantages of the choices are as follows:

Garden contractor/builder

Find out whether the garden firm  'learned on the job' or whether they have staff who are trained in horticulture or garden construction, or both, and whether the training included a grounding in design, drawing and computer aided design. For simple jobs, contractors will not charge a separate design fee. If, for example, they are building a wall, laying a drive and planting a flower bed, the design cost will be inluded in the quoted price for completing the job.

Garden designer/builder

This is the most common method used for medium-sized garden design projects. Design-build firms will produce design drawings, cost the work and manage the construction. Where necessary specialist craftsmen (eg builders, carpenters or horticulturalists) will be employed by the design-build firm as sub-contractors. Garden owners must be clear about whether there will be separate fees for the design and construction phases of the project. Some garden firms operate like kitchen firms and include the design fee in the overall price. Others charge a separate fee for the design work. Since some clients are not happy with the initial design, or decide not to go ahead with the project for cost or other reasons, the fairest method is to have separate fees for the design and construction phases.

Design firms

Some garden design firms, and most landscape architecture firms, work on a design-only basis. This is how large projects are handled. The designers produce three types of document to specify the work: design drawings, written specifications and a schedule of quantities. This approach is more expensive for small jobs but cheaper and better for large jobs, for three reasons (1) the designers spend most of their working lives on design, and therefore become expert (2) by putting the work out to tender, a competetive price can be obtained (3) the designers act as intermediaries between the client and the builder during the construction phase, ensuring that everything is done well and a fair price is paid.

A good compromise

Since most garden projects are 'medium sized', we recommend the following as a good way of obtaining expert advice and paying only for the services which the client requires:

  1. After an initial consultation, arrange a morning or afternoon session with the designer. Sit at a table, in or overlooking the garden, with a pile of books, a laptop, and an A4 pad. The client should talk about what he or she wants. The designer should find illustrations and sketch ideas. Points of agreement should be recorded. The designer should charge an hourly fee for the time spent with the client and then say how many additional hours it would take to prepare a Sketch Design.
  2. A further meeting should be held when the Sketch Design has been prepared, and a further fee paid for the discussion time and for any changes which are requested.
  3. The agreed Sketch Design can then be used in several ways: (1) the client can do all the work themselves (2) the work can be shared between the client and specialists in planting and construction (3) the designer can offer a design/build service (4) the work can be fully specified, as described above, and put out to competetive tender.
  4. Clients can rest assured that they have taken the essential step towards creating an excellent garden: they have commissioned an excellent design plan. Some garden owners can do this themselves, but they are few and far between.