In her beautifully crafted book “The Garden-An English Love Affair” Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall as the title trails, concludes that a love affair with a garden seems to be an especially English form of love. As an Englishman with Scottish roots I don’t know about that. My own love affair with gardens stems from a combination of factors. I was born in Chelsea, home to the most famous annual flower show in the world; I have made regular visits throughout my life, right from being a toddler, to several of the Royal Parks; I spent my school years in the sylvan delights of Surrey where I was introduced to the wonder of wildflowers by a very knowledgeable and enthusiastic teaching staff. But more than anything my love of gardens stems from having to make do in my formative years with cultivating plants from seed in a few containers on the small balcony of our family flat. My elder sister and I won awards for our tubs of Nasturtiums when I was only five and that modest success was the catalyst for my love of gardens and of the beauty of plants, shrubs and trees.
After school, I qualified as a Solicitor and fairly quickly acquired expertise and experience as a media lawyer. For a period of forty years starting in the early 1970’s I worked as a lawyer /company Director in the UK entertainment industry providing advice across a wide range of the media activities including feature film, theatrical, music and especially television production and exploitation. I loved working closely with the producers who dreamt up the ideas for our programmes and took great satisfaction from helping them get their creations to the audience and, every now and then, in celebrating the industry awards that they and their creations attracted. During this period I worked in succession for ATV, ITV, the BBC and Channel 5 and was lucky enough to work for and with people who made my career challenging, rewarding, and satisfying and most importantly of all really enjoyable.
In the run up to my sixtieth birthday my thoughts turned increasingly to the desire to take on a new challenge; I still loved my career as a television lawyer but felt the need for a sea-change in direction whilst I was still “young” enough to be capable of making and enjoying such a change. It was then that my love of gardens came to my assistance and I hit on the idea of qualifying as a garden designer. My wife and I had had the long, thin garden of our first mid-terrace matrimonial home in suburban Surrey landscaped by an experienced garden designer in the late 1970’s and had marvelled at the combination of flair, skill and knowledge he applied to transform it from an overgrown, tangled unsightly mess into a stylish, colourful, attractive and relaxing garden which had added greatly to our enjoyment of the property and coincidentally to the value of our little home. From that moment, I really appreciated the role of the garden designer and was attracted to the thought of becoming a garden designer myself one day. So the seeds for such a change were in fact sown a long time ago.
Not everyone felt that my proposed career change made sense. One friend quizzed me about it saying “What possible connection is there between being a media lawyer and a landscape gardener?” to which I replied “None at all. And that is exactly why it’s a good solution for me “.
I considered carefully the courses being made available by numerous garden design schools in and around the London area and was lucky enough to not only find a good one being run just a few miles from where I then lived in Cobham, Surrey but also to secure a place on it. In September 2008 I started a one year course with the renowned Garden Design School under the expert tutelage of Robin Templar Williams and Moira Farnham, both highly successful and widely respected garden designers who share an infectious enthusiasm for garden design and teaching its principles to others. The course, likened by its operators to a three year degree course in Garden Design but without the history, ran for 34 weeks with tuition each Tuesday. It comprised lectures from Robin and Moira and a number of guest experts, practical demonstrations and a series of design assignments as well as the task of assembling substantial and very helpful soft (plant ) and hard ( stone, brick, etc ) landscape portfolios. The number of students was limited to eighteen to enable the tutors to provide guidance and support to each individual. As it happened, all but three members of our class were female. The weekly lectures were supplemented by about 24-30 hours of independent home study. It was a really enjoyable course throughout even though it was very demanding at times, particularly when the pressure was on to complete one of the major design projects by the appointed deadline.
I’m very pleased to say that I completed and passed the course and was awarded a Diploma in Garden Design in September 2009. The garden design industry in the United Kingdom is unregulated so no courses are approved or accredited by the Society of Garden Designers but it is accepted by all of those who are knowledgeable about such matters that the course I completed was one of the best on offer and of a very high standard.
Since early 2010 I have run my own small garden design business and completed garden design projects of varying shapes and sizes. I really enjoy the whole process of garden design and landscaping but particularly meeting new people and agreeing with them a brief for their garden’s design and seeing my designs implemented .And I also really enjoy revisiting the completed gardens periodically to check on their evolution–you are taught to design with a view to how a garden will look three to five years ahead when the trees and plants encompassed within your design have matured.
The fees I charge for my garden design services are in line with the fee levels recommended by the Society of Garden Designers. They are fair and reasonable but not surprisingly very substantially lower than the commercial fees charged by lawyers! Needless to say, I was totally aware from the outset that this would be the case and have no problem with it; I’m in a new profession and need to be competitive. And of course I no longer need to wear the expensive working clothing, shoes and accessories that were the hallmark of a senior media lawyer having abandoned these in favour of much more practical ( albeit sometimes still designer !) jeans, jumpers and wellies suited to the occasions a garden designer needs to be on site.
And I have also traded in annual visits to Edinburgh for the television festival and to Cannes for the television sales markets for visits to the Chelsea Flower Show, the Hampton Court Flower Show and regular visits to RHS Wisley. And my professional reading diet is no longer the Law Society Gazette , The Lawyer and the Times, Law Reports but the Gardener, the English Garden, and the Society of Garden Designers Magazine.
I remain very happy that the main professional occupation of my life was that of a media lawyer but I’m also very happy that I have followed that up with a modest but equally enjoyable late career as a garden designer. The business experience gained by me in the television industry has proved to be very useful in running my own small business .And the very different challenges of garden design have provided me with the stimulation and variety I sought in a change of career and given me the opportunity of meeting a whole new circle of friends and acquaintances.Those who work in and around the garden design industry are a dedicated and talented bunch.