Michael McCoyDilemmas of a designer

While I design gardens for a living, I sometimes wonder if I’m more an educator or an evangelist, as I want nothing more from my design work than to see my clients fully engaged in the nurturing, fine-tuning, guiding and managing of the garden we’ve created – preferably together.

Design by Michael McCoy

The realisation of this desire, which took me at least a decade to grasp and then articulate, has led to one of my biggest dilemmas. That professional design can lead to clients being alienated from, rather than connected with, their gardens.

I guess there’s several reasons why someone might call in a professional designer, most of them being more or less an expression of their sense of disempowerment.

Design by Michael McCoy

Sometimes they’ve got no idea how to achieve the design effect they know they want.

Sometimes they’ve got no idea how to look after a garden, so look for professional assistance in creating a garden that matches their skills, or lack of them in this case.

Sometimes they’ve no confidence in their taste, and want to buy something they can feel sure is cool – or enviable. This is my least favourite group, but happens to be where most of the money is. If you can create, and be the primary purveyor of, the next big thing, then financial success is assured.

Design by Michael McCoy

Design by Michael McCoy6

And sometimes they’re knowledgeable and accomplished gardeners who nevertheless know that they’ll never be satisfied if their gardens are limited to their own abilities. My observation is that the best gardeners are also the ones most frustrated by the limits of their ability. They’re the ones always asking for more from their gardens, and never want to rest on their laurels. This is my favourite group by far. I love starting in a good garden and cooking up ideas with the owner about how it could be better still.

Primarily I see my job as providing empowerment. I therefore never felt more of a failure as a designer than the day when I client rang – one who had previously considered herself a somewhat competent gardener, one that would at least give things a go – and asked where she should put some plants she’d been given. I tried to throw the decision, and even the thinking process, back at her, but she was terrified that she’d ‘mess things up’.

About the same time, it occurred to me that none of my favourite gardens in the world was designed by a professional designer. In every case they were personal expressions of the owner, and lovely or lovable for precisely that reason.

Design by Michael McCoy

It has made me all the more determined as a designer to simply facilitate garden owners to fulfill their own dreams. That might mean teasing out and clarifying those dreams, as well as thinking of creative ways these could be achieved, and providing the practical advice required for execution. But even then, I’ve discovered there’s no easy way of doing this without interrupting the connection between the owner and the space they inhabit. It’s a very, very fine (and time consuming, and non-lucrative) line to walk.

[Note – all photos are of work that has emerged from a collaborative process with Michael McCoy, and the consequent gardens are implemented, maintained and guided to maturity by the client]

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Michael McCoy

About Michael McCoy

I’m a garden designer, writer, occasional garden tour leader and blogger at The Gardenist. I started my adult life as a botanist, then trained as a gardener. Along the way I started writing for The Age in Melbourne, Australia. Amongst a range of undeserved privileges, perhaps the greatest was to hang out with Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter for the summer in 1991. I can make myself sick with longing, just thinking about that incredibly rich and formative time. Since then, I’ve spent most of my time designing gardens, or writing about them for The Age, or Gardening Australia, or occasionally for Gardens Illustrated. My first book, Michael McCoy’s Garden was published in 2000, and the second, The Gardenist, hit the shelves in late August 2012. I also lead a few overseas tours of gardens a year for Ross Garden Tours, which is very cool. Being a dad to three teenagers, there wouldn’t be much opportunity for OS travel otherwise.

22 thoughts on “Dilemmas of a designer

  1. Hi Michael,
    I always enjoy your writing and thoughts. Agree with you that the “best” gardens are often the personal “did it myself spaces.” For myself I’ve found that a walk around the garden with another knowledgeable designer/gardener who will give snippets of off the cuff advice has always worked for me. One fellow suggested thinning branches, massing more under copses etc. It was all part of a casual conversation but he kept dropping real gems of suggestions and it made a big difference. Sometimes I think the design process eg make an appointment and be all formal inhibits creativity. a final thought is that the best gardens I see seem to made by artists, florists and interior designers. They seem to be able to carry their talent out into the garden effortlessly. I look forward to your next post.

    • But not architects, curiously, Peta. I’m totally baffled by how architects often find themselves way outside their comforts zones once outdoors!
      My own realisation of the limits of professional design to make great gardens for others was clarified by a simple remark in the fly-leaf of one of my favourite books on architecture – A Pattern Language (by Christopher Alexander et al). There it says ‘At the core of these books is the idea that people should design for themselves their own houses, streets and communities. This idea may be radical (it implies a radical transformation of the architectural profession) but it comes simply from the observation that most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects but by people’.

  2. Hi Michael. I first met you thru the Mag ‘your Garden’. I learnt to use foliage thru your mentoring and blending with feng Shu theories. I didn’t design my garden it just designed itself. I have a small garden jammed pack – any spare earth finds it suddenly has a plant. However now I am ageing I have to slow down and now my foliage is spiked with tuberous begonias in pots, cycaclem and orchids. Thank you for the inspiration.

    • Yay! Exactly my point. Perhaps (particularly given what I’ve just written in reply to Peta above) I’m no designer at all. My heart is for education – no, not so much education as empowerment

  3. This is very interesting. And it crosses a line between garden making – the ongoing process which impacts the garden design, and the garden designing which is seen as a one off production. Of course garden shows like Chelsea encourage a view of designing as the latter..

    I don’t know how most designers deal with the living future of the gardens they design. I have often wondered and when I have asked the issue has seemed to be very secondary to the initial design process to whoever I have asked.

    If you see the future of the garden’s design as something you wish the garden owner to embrace then you do have the owner’s diffidence and difficulty in taking over their own control and direction in the garden to confront. It would be useful to ask those of your clients who feel they have achieved this how they jumped the barrier of yours to theirs?

    You also reminded me of this piece by Tim Richardson: http://veddw.com/reviews/can-professional-designers-really-hope-to-emulate-those-for-whom-a-garden-is-a-lifes-work-by-tim-richardson/

    • I’m exercising my skills at barrier minimisation – doing my best to keep the sense of ownership firmly in the hands of the owner, and therefore avoiding that moment of handover and all its inevitable difficulties. This is really only possible when working for (with?) that latter group of confident and capable gardeners. If I could manage it, I’d focus my entire business on them.

      The relationship with such a client is likely to be something between that of a mentor and a simple sounding board. I’ll either make suggestions, or they’ll arise naturally out of conversation (like that described by Peta above), and then often leave the client to decide which way to head. Doing so, they’ll (in most cases) retain full ownership.

      Focussing on that group isn’t without it’s challenges, of course. There’s the challenge of marketing to a sector that are not generally buyers of design services, and who need to be fully convinced of your ability to make a contribution to, or even advance, their thinking. Any form of self-promotion tends to be counterproductive, in this sense. Having said that, you’re not often in a position to consciously or deliberately convince anyone of your abilities – they don’t call you until they think you’re the right one.
      There’s the very real possibility that, after discussion, a client will make what you consider to be a poor, or less than great, decision. On the other hand, there’s also the chance that they’ll implement something better than either of you had first thought of – an outcome that is both delightful and annoyingly humbling to the designer.
      There’s the fact that whatever emerges can’t be fully touted as your own work, and all photos of this kind of work have to fully acknowledge the collaboration.
      The dynamics of the design world, in which pedestals upon which designers are encouraged to stand are carefully constructed, cultivated and defended, don’t sit comfortably with this complex, and again humbling, collaborative approach.

      This is a good point to add that all of the above pics are from work that has emerged with capable clients, all of whom have largely implemented, and guided, their gardens along the way.

  4. This is something I struggle with regularly, Michael. You have hit the nail on the head. I am glad to know I am not the only designer pondering such dilemmas!

    I go through phases where I decide landscape design as a profession is flawed, for this main reason. I don’t want to create gardens for people. I want to help people create gardens. This is a different thing entirely.

    I sometimes wonder whether the whole design process needs to be turned on its head to achieve this level of client empowerment? The development, and consequent handover to client, of a landscape plan implies a garden is a static entity. ‘This is the plan, dear client! How pretty does it look? Follow this and you will get a beautiful, low maintenance, garden paradise.’ We all know this is a mad idea. Gardening is not a drawing by numbers affair. There are all sorts of variables that can be the undoing of even the most brilliant landscape plan. Planting, growing, building, maintaining…Oh dear!

    The standard design process, used by most designers I know, including myself, supports this madness. I have come up with a number of alternatives, but the money side of things gets tricky – Time is our commodity as designers, and time is essentially what gardens and gardeners need to become great. But time is expensive. And once a design is drawn up and the pretty plan handed over, it is hard to convince clients of spending more money on a designer to hang around and talk about plants.

    I love design and I see it, when properly applied, as a very valuable contribution to any space/object, be it a garden, home or product. However, to be truly valuable in a garden it has to be collaboration between designer, client, and that wonderful/beautiful/erratic madwoman, Mother Nature. She always has the last say.

    Great article, Michael. Thank you.

    • Well said, Georgina.
      I sometimes think that ‘handing over’ a new, young garden is like handing over a baby, and then leaving it to be tended, nurtured – literally brought up – by the client.
      That, of course, brings out the question of who’s baby it is. In virtually every private-garden situation, it’s unquestionably the client’s baby (hence the dilemma brought out in the Tim Richardson article that Anne points to above). All I ever was, at best, was a surrogate parent.
      I think I also, perhaps unwittingly, avoid some of the worst of these trappings by not providing ‘pretty’ plans. My plans communicate the concepts only, and will nearly always pale in comparison with the strength of the verbal communication that accompanies them. I’d really like my clients to understand what I’m attempting to achieve on their behalf, and therefore hopefully empower their part of the process.
      (Which leads me to make the totally uncalled-for point, in parentheses, that I reckon that Edna Walling’s highest artistic achievements were her watercolour plans. She made lovely gardens, there’s no doubt, but her plans were to die for. If she was still around I’d get her to plan my garden, hang the consequent artwork on the wall, and make my garden to suit myself.)

  5. This is very cheeky of me, but I would love to take this discussion to the audience on thinkingardens, (http://www.thinkingardens.co.uk/

    I wonder if either of you, Michael or Georgina would be prepared to write a similar piece for us? I think it deserves the widest talking/thinking about..

    If you’d be so generous, could you contact me? My email is on the thinkingardens site.

  6. Hi Michael & Georgia,
    as usual a very well considered examination of what its like to be a Garden Designer with the conundrum of ultimate “ownership” that of course belongs to the resident client, regardless of client type as you describe (very accurate on these Michael and in my experience, completely agree with the profiles you’ve shaped BTW..). Georgia also, you’ve given an airing to vexing foibles of a static design process that implies finished gardens set in aspic and belies the truth of how they really are … as you say they are instead dynamic, ever changing and never “over”.

    So regardless of any empowering “self design” contribution by the client before, during or after the so called garden is “finished”, I’m going to throw a spanner in the discussion here by adding I’ve noticed a thing or two between active push marketing and client selection that relates expressly to attracting preferred informed clients who are in the “knowledgeable and accomplished gardeners” profile.

    It’s hardly rocket science but I’m going to state the obvious here .. I’ve noticed the minute I changed from passive pull marketing (& yes thats what every Blogger, piece of editorial, advertising etc is engaging in..where the reader has to come physically to the content) to push marketing with the same client oriented planting/garden making content, inquiry from those informed clients became a much less hit & miss affair. For them to make an approach two things had to be in place.

    The inquiry came through the pre-qualifier of high, driving, burning interest in a garden made from plants, one, and two, it was fuelled by high stakes discretionary spending where they couldn’t afford to make an expensive mistake on the garden; as part of major house renovation or even a new build, IF they had to go back to their financier for significant additional funding half way through the building process.

    There were a few other things going on here …I would further point out that no matter how talented the designer, if their offer (heavily disguised by plants & garden making content..any whiff of shameless self promotion is a deal breaker here..) is not put regularly enough in front of the informed client they cannot remember who that designer is … with so much else whirling around in most people’s feverish digitally addled heads these days, after a year or so its just a bridge too far to remember our names.

    This observation also speaks to the premise that people like to buy they don’t like to be sold to also … BTW.

    So what I would say to every Garden Designer and what is universal to all consultancy is simple –
    Wordpress (or Rapid Weaver) + Campaign Monitor (or Mail Chimp) = attraction of Informed Clients

    Resulting gardens are made more easily with client and designer on the same page from the outset because the clients wants what they saw in those blog posts, that avoided client harassment supplanted by content they were already interested in …NOT information about the designer. This results in the client and designer remaining on the same page throughout their relationship and the long shadow this casts includes the architect and builder even though they might not be on the same page but at least in the same book .. !!

    And as to garden ownership, yes it is theirs, this precious dynamic combination that we work so hard to bring to life. That they, the clients take ownership is highly desirable and the ultimate achievement I agree … That they would still want our opinion after its “finished”, is the power of creating something far greater than the sum of its parts and yes, THAT is empowering for both client and designer.

  7. I seriously think we all need a weekend workshop of pull vs push marketing, Peter. I need to replicate those outcomes!

    I’d also like to clarify that I don’t mean, in my piece, to in any way devalue the perfectly valid processes of designing for clients that have no interest in gardens whatsoever, or to suggest that the collaborative process that I lean towards is inherently a higher call. It is nothing but a personal preference to want to work with people who are either fully engaged, or engage-able, primarily because I love gardens and gardening myself, and love people who love gardens and gardening, but secondarily because of the belief that owners alone hold the power to lift their gardens way above the level of a purchased product.
    Yes, there’s great art gardens that can be evaluated by an altogether different scale, but in the home garden, my favourite scale of success is the extent to which the garden reveals the character of the owner.

  8. Thanks Michael,
    yes push in favour of pull, is a direct umbilical chord to the “knowledgeable and accomplished gardeners”, so preferred by designers who’s imperative is to work with clients who are “fully engaged, or engage-able” to make something special together, as you say, these gardens are far “above the level of a purchased product”.

    But this isn’t for any highfalutin ideals of preference … I’m talking professional SURVIVAL here. If one wants to avoid the confines of a well padded cell and preserve reach to a modest but satisfactory income, the name of the game is to be noticed my those already interested in an unobtrusive informative way that’s content driven around the clients pre-existing interest.

    God knows, we can’t MAKE them interested Michael.

    THAT path terminates in predestined reservation within that padded cell especially for the designer, if the client is not at least as interested as the designer in the out coming garden. For “planty” designers who think taking on a client with less interest in garden making than would fill a thimble, are guarateed a rocky ride, chained together on the front bench seat of a truck full of nitroglycerine; and it won’t be the designer whose driving THAT’S for sure !!!

    The designer is putting their opportunity ahead of the client’s profound lack of interest in garden making and THAT is the designers blind sided contribution to many a disastrous outcome. If one just scratches the surface of the average debacle, its there every time… they have the WRONG client and while they are blunting themselves with that client they could be having a much nicer time with an interested one who also has the means to fund it.

    If designers would just took a little more care with their marketing effort .. there would be a lot more beautiful music to be had…

    Push not pull … its life or death to me baby.

  9. As a competent and experienced gardener – but definitely not a landscape designer! – I’ve enjoyed this discussion and found it thought-provoking. I’ve written in my blog before about my complete lack of expertise in design (even though I’m very good at growing plants) so when I decided to have large expensive timber constructions in the new area I didn’t want to get it wrong, so asked my friend Andrew Quixley to help. He was able to tell me which dimensions would work best, suggest materials, build the structures so everything was square and sound (they wouldn’t have been if I had done them!) and so the proportions looked right, and provide finishing touches such as chamfering edges, which made a huge difference and which I’d never have considered.

    As an experienced and competent gardener, if I hired someone like Andrew (or Michael, or Peter) to design the ENTIRE garden for me, I’d want ideas about the arrangement of trees and shrubs to create pleasing spaces, foliage textural effects and colour – but I would definitely choose all the plants, guided by those parameters of space and foliage/flower, because I have the knowledge to do that myself.

    I’d like help with the placement of focal points and their size (but I’d choose the features), plus suggestions for materials, and have all significant construction work done by them too.

    And afterwards, how would I judge the success of the partnership, if I’d had a well-known landscaper design the entire thing with me? Maybe in the response of visitors to my garden:

    I wouldn’t want (admiringly), “Wow, a Michael McCoy garden!”

    Nor would I want (politely), “You did this yourself.”

    The response I’d prefer is (slightly puzzled), “Wow, I like this! It reminds me of someone…” (pause). “Sorta like Michael McCoy’s stuff… but it’s not, is it?”

    • Hi Helen,
      well I think you’ll find that most Landscape Designers who would work best with you as a complementary skill set, would have a construction led approach, with, as you say, your Softscape soilworks, planting features etc … (Garden Designers; implies a garden made from plants and usually is driven by an interest that comes to garden making from the softscape end hence tend to relate to the description Garden Designers)

      A match made in heaven.

      And as to visitors responses, if the above combination has gone as well as I think it would, then I’m pretty sure most visitor’s responses would be positive. Resting as they would with the visitor’s desire to remain in that space as long as possible, regardless of whose work it resembled to them … no ?

      Would that visitor stay longer in that garden if they knew it as a work from a “design name” …. if they did then their interest might be limited to that
      name (s) and not the work that name produced.

      If they walked into the same space that they thought “very kool” and was told it was the work of an “design un-known” and consequently exited … don’t you find this rather calls into question their interest and that they really don’t know what they like until they can gauge a reaction from others .. ? It would appear by demonstration, to be limited to the “design name” its attached to. Even if they walked into the same garden, were less than impressed with the “design name’s” work and stayed anyway with the express purpose of being seen by others at the time, associated with that “name”.

      Vile isn’t it … but that’s Status Anxiety for you and there’s nothing new in avoiding even the faintest whiff of it in new clients as Michael is suggesting in his piece, IF, as a Garden Designer one wants to make something special that one’s client will take ownership of ..

      Anyway Helen, people will think what they want and it’s really none of our business … if they do like it, good…. if they don’t like it, good. The best way to avoid Status Anxiety riddled clients is to take responsibility for attracting client acquisition through the filter of THEIR garden making interest in design, planting and complementary construction/features.

      Word Press (or Rapid Weaver) + campaign Monitor (or Mail Chimp) = attraction of garden interested clients

      With a Garden Designer on plant selection, (who had expertise in construction also or with suppliers with that expertise) I think it would just be a matter of making the final selection from a range of planting options that would do the same job .. So if you were after an ultra fine grass for year round foliage you might choose from 1 of a few miscanthus for the right height and then get contrast using a thick rubbery clump former like one of several kalanchoes to suit…. but the decision would be yours every time as to which one as you would presenting to the design process as an informed client who would certainly want to take ownership of the out coming garden .. :))

      • Hi Peter

        Interesting, but you read more into that than I intended :-). Perhaps it was poorly phrased: all I meant regarding my judgement of the success of the RELATIONSHIP is that, because I’d choose a designer based on the flavour of his/her work, I’d like it to reflect some of him/her, as well as some of me.

        You only need read some of my past blogs on this site to see I’ve said (many, many times!) that what you do in your own garden need please only you, and who cares what anyone else thinks. Like Michael, I’m very much into anything at all that empowers gardeners at any stage of their development. I was simply looking for a way to more objectively illustrate whether the finished garden reflects both of us, or just one – Michael aims for it to entirely reflect the owner, but if I asked for help I would need the very things added that I’m unable to achieve on my own, and which I like about his own design style:-). So the garden will – and IMO should – reflect some of Michael as well. 🙂

        • Taking your idea of the ‘visitor test’ to a professionally designed garden for you, what I’d like them to do, above all else, is to find the garden so irresistible – so captivating and compelling – that they’d be asking you ‘So can we take our coffee out here?”, or “Can we eat out here?”.

          If they were sufficiently conversant with design thinking or design talk, I’d then hope that they’d recognize a quality of thinking, rather than a type of thinking, or even who did the thinking. The truth of design is that so much of it is pure problem solving, rather than simply thinking up fun, creative or provocative ideas, to the extent that I’ve sometimes considered that it’d be more honest to call my business Michael McCoy Corrective Landscapes. Most of the time you judge how good your solutions were by how inevitable they look; the extent to which no one even sees the design problem – or the consequent solution – that may have caused sleepless nights.

          And as for wanting some signature of the designer, I’ve absolutely no objection to that. I don’t have any desire to be the anonymous, invisible contributor, as such, I just don’t want to impede the full ownership and engagement of the client. Since you would have expressed your desire for evidence of the designer (being, in our story, the perfect client with the most insightful brief), then that’s what you’d get.

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