How to become a garden designer with Pollyanna Wilkinson

Pollyanna Wilkinson, the award-winning designer and the face of Studio Pollyanna, shares her journey to becoming a successful garden designer and founding her own studio.

Author: Pollyanna Wilkinson
Published Date: 5 April 2024
The English Garden
I’m always so envious of those people that grow up knowing what they want to do as a career. Those that say they knew since they were knee high to a bee that gardens were their calling. I meanwhile, hadn’t a clue. I studied psychology at university and flirted with a variety of industries afterwards. From a brief stint in management consultancy, to an even briefer stint in event management, before settling in for a decade of business development in the legal sector. I never felt this was my calling, but it paid well and the social life that came with working in the city (pre the days of working from home) lent itself to a twenty something new to London.

When my children came along, I was faced with a question asked by many new mothers: what to do? Leave the workforce to look after my children, or pay for childcare? I knew I wasn’t willing to pay for someone to look after my babies for something that I wasn’t passionate about, and so my quest to find my calling began. After much soul searching (and career coaching), I realised what I wanted to pursue. My mother and brother both work in interior design, and my family are filled with keen gardeners, so it’s honestly shocking it didn’t dawn on me sooner.

And so, after my second little boy arrived, I applied to The English Gardening School to study for a diploma in garden design. After this I went on to Merrist Wood to study RHS Practical Horticulture, and set up on my own as a designer.

In truth, I would have liked to work in a studio, and this is what I would recommend all new students do to get started, but at the time flexible-working and part-time roles were few and far between, and the obligations and costs of new motherhood came first. And thus, my business grew with my children. This was eight years ago, and it feels that times have changed. The courses are more extensive and the need for an in-depth understanding of the software even more essential. So, in today’s world, how do you become a garden designer?

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First of all, go in with your eyes open. A vast majority of our role as garden designers is ironically not in gardens, but in front of a computer. The fun bit at the end, the planting, and the photography of the beautiful, finished gardens, the wafting around plant nurseries selecting plants, is a small percentage of the job. And when you do find yourself outside, it can be long days in the mud and rain, with a portaloo and soaked clothing. Glamorous it is rarely. If you’re sold on the fact you’ll spend more time drawing up the technical details of a garden on a computer than in the great outdoors, next up we need to talk about education.

My first advice is to get yourself on a good garden design course. They are not cheap and most are a year long, either full or part-time, and realistically they need to be in order to equip you with the knowledge needed to work for yourself and/or a studio. Not only will the course give you a brilliant knowledge base, its  also fantastic for your network. Your course mates who will become your support system for years and years to come, and the teachers who will make introductions to studios, encourage you to apply for show gardens, and offer guidance for years to come. It’s an investment of time and money and, in my view, it’s a non-negotiable.

You’ll likely have anywhere from an introduction through to a thorough education in Vectorworks, Sketchup, InDesign and/or Photoshop in your chosen course, but it really doesn’t hurt to teach yourself these before or after your course too. You’ll be calling on these programmes daily as a designer, and learning how to design on a computer saves so much time. I adore hand drawn designs, but it takes a lot longer to redraw an entire plan by hand each time there is a change, rather than click a couple of buttons, and you will find it soon becomes very financially inviable to do otherwise. If you hope to work in a studio, then these computer skills are essential and it’s fair to say an interview is unlikely without at least Vectorworks or Sketchup.

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And then there’s the plants. Get to know your plants! You’ll be doing this for the rest of your days, and learning about plants is never ending (and part of the joy). You can do this any number of ways, from RHS Courses, to reading, to taking yourself to the garden centre and testing yourself (it works); but, nothing compares with practical experience. It’s not enough to recognise plants, you need to know how they grow and behave. So, get your hands dirty in the garden, or volunteer if you have the time, and you will be amazed how quickly you absorb  knowledge. Get yourself to gardens too, open gardens, RHS gardens, the open days in the summer led by the open garden schemes. These are a great way of figuring out your design style and you will start to notice details.

What do you do once you graduate? Well, in my view, I would strongly urge you to consider working for a studio. I went out on my own straight away and the learning curve was steep. Not only in garden design, but in running a business, communicating with clients, pricing correctly, establishing terms and refining the deliverables. It can also be very lonely, and work (and money) is inevitably unpredictable in the early years. That said, working for oneself is incredibly liberating after years in corporate life, which is the appeal for many. Just know it’s going to take a while to pay off, both literally and figuratively.

Joining a studio meanwhile, is going to be another version of going to garden design school. You are going to learn so much, on how to design, how to work with clients, what materials work and don’t work, what plants to use, and you’ll have a steady salary, no pressure to find your own clients, you’ll be working on far larger projects than you would otherwise, and you’ll also have the knowledge and support of those that have been designing for years. And in return? Be loyal. Stick around, give your time and commit to the studio for long enough that it’s mutually beneficial. You may find that being part of a team is far more enjoyable than working solo anyway – so give it a try.

And oh my goodness – you’re going to love it!