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.
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.
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.
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.
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]