I have been talking to and working with some young designers (not that I am overly old) over the last few months regarding getting their careers started and starting to shape the direction in which they are looking to head. All of these discussions have had me thinking about where and how gardens get designed. I seem to keep coming back to the fact that a lot of what we do as designers revolves around designing for now.
The whole concept of ‘designing for now’ actually scares me a little. Designing for now on the surface is not ideal. Gardens need time to grow and evolve as a living changing installation. As I got into this I started to rethink a lot of the processes we go through as designers. I even started to get on my high horse and wanted to make a point of only designing gardens that are going to grow into themselves over time. The high horse scenario soon fizzled out when I worked out the commercial viability of cutting out a large percentage of our potential market. I realised we do design for now to a certain extent. Clients often need instant solutions to problems they inherit from a particular site. Coming up with creative solutions is part of the challenge I enjoy about designing unique gardens.
I went through our back catalogue of projects over the last year as I began to ponder what makes us design for now and came up with a few solutions and explanations.
The first thing I started to notice was the amount of new house projects we either are working on, or have worked on in recent years. The phenomenon of big double story houses on small blocks in housing estates, is coupled with clients moving into these houses at the end of the build where the builders have had sole access to the site, which doesn’t allow any landscape contractors on site until handover. Clients receive a beautiful new home with a concrete alfresco area and driveway as hard surfaces and mud or compacted clay for the rest of the property.
A few weeks living in this sort of situation normally results in the clients deciding that they have to do something about this now. Once you get on site you stumble across the design issues that need attention, such as privacy from overlooking windows, and the urgency to fix the problem often results in constructed screening rather than planted screening solutions. Often a lack of space also makes planted screening difficult. When you have 3000mm from the back of the house to the back fence, using a screening hedge often seems like a lot of space to lose out of an already small area, then add the fact it will take a couple of years to mask the issues it is intended to mask.
“We want big plants for instant impact” is a common statement. A lot of gardens fail through this statement. Big plants going into soil that has been a building site for the last year without good quality soil preparation can result in failure and a big dent in somebody’s wallet. As a designer I think it is imperative that we are horticulturally responsible for the situations in which we are planting. Correct selection and use of tree, shrub, ground cover and climber species is one thing that we will be judged on in years to come, rather than what it looks like at the completion of the construction of the garden.
Part of what we do as designers is education. It is a difficult thing to add to the design process however if we educate the right ways to install gardens correctly and allow them to grow over time, rather than an instant garden fix, we will all reap the rewards of watching these beautiful gardens grow and evolve.
The next part of the puzzle I started to think about is a designer’s role in ‘designing for now’. I find it interesting in the world of the internet and websites how much urgency there is to get gardens up on websites to showcase a designer’s work. I seem to keep hearing about career defining jobs.
I personally have had a couple of projects that have had a large impact on adding depth to my career. The first was a large scale project in Wonga Park, Victoria where I had the opportunity to design a large garden including swimming pool and spa, large entertaining area, driveway and screen planting while being able to keep certain view lines out towards the Yarra Valley. This particular job opened up larger scale properties and projects for me to work on.
The other garden that made an impact was a job that some of you may have seen, as it was opened twice for Garden DesignFest in 2010 and 2012 in Balwyn. This project is a 1970s architecturally designed house and art gallery. The garden was designed to look like both it and the house have been together since the 1970s.
The interesting thing about these two gardens is, at the time of design and even during construction I had no idea the impact that these two gardens would have on my career in the coming years. Some jobs come along and you really hope that they will be the next career defining project. The truth is these jobs are very few and far between. If a job is designed to a client’s brief, it fits with the house and the lifestyle of the client, it is aesthetically pleasing, solves any problems/issues, is well planted and horticulturally correct but most of all, the client loves it. Then, in my book, it seems that project is worth putting on your website.
One thing I try to remember while designing gardens is the fact that I do not have to live in the house. This can also break your heart as a designer, when feature elements get removed from a design. The trick is to keep them locked away in your memory bank and bring them out on the next project for which they may be suitable. As a young designer I was so excited to win another project and work with a new client. I look back at my folio after 10 years of designing gardens and feel privileged and amazed at some of the ideas that have come out of my head, and into reality. It is a long road for young designers. Sometime it doesn’t feel like you’re going anywhere, then all of a sudden you have worked in the Middle East, designed some beautiful gardens, met some fantastic clients and designed second and third gardens for them and won awards with show gardens.
The only gardens that should truly be designed for now are show gardens or pop-up gardens. These gardens generally only have to last a week. A show garden doesn’t take any human traffic over/through it. These gardens are built to be looked at rather than used; essentially these gardens are a set design. A real garden needs to be built to withstand the elements, the test of time as well as human traffic and the way we decide to use each individual garden space. With a show garden you know when things are going to be in flower, when things are going to start to go into autumn colour. All of these things need to be taken into account to produce a show piece that advertises what it is intended to advertise. An instant snap shot for magazines and the general public is what you want from this style of garden. Please don’t get me wrong, I love designing show gardens. Perhaps it is the urge to be the centre of attention coming out in me but more so I look at these gardens as advertising for the possibilities of what we can do in real gardens if people are prepared to put the time and effort into the project.
I have learned from all of this thinking there is a certain balance to uphold however, more importantly, the garden you are designing now should have your heart and soul in it. But be prepared for heart break. Be responsible with budgets, materials and plants. Designing for now is a short term solution that we all have to do sometimes in regards to certain elements in any given garden. Educate your clients with good horticultural practices and correct ways to prepare and install gardens, including the hard landscaping elements. Design gardens for their future growth giving them the chance to live and evolve into the idea that was originally in your mind. Watching and learning how things work and change, and even fail, will give you the background to be able to go on and help educate and problem solve in the future. Design for the future and the rewards from that garden will be even greater than you ever imagined.