Read This: So You Want to Be a Garden Designer

Garden design is often a mid-life-change, follow-your-heart career choice. At least it was for me and for a number of accomplished designers I’ve come to know. I graduated from college with a degree in English and landed my first job in publishing, as an assistant editor at a start-up rock-and-roll magazine. When that folded, I went back to school to get my master’s in English literature and then took an internship at a New Age literary magazine in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I eventually worked my way up to assistant editor.

A job transfer for my husband brought us to Austin in 1994, where I found work managing the editorial department of a business-information publisher. My husband and I bought a ’70s ranch house, and I experimentally stuck a few new plants in the yard; soon we began a family. My next career choice was stay-at-home mom, and in my spare time I threw myself into gardening, which became a creative outlet for me. A garden, I discovered, requires back-breaking manual labor but simultaneously invites soul-soothing relaxation. It offers an escape from the demands of young children and provides places of delight to explore with them. It engages the body, mind, and heart.

As I became a better gardener, educating myself at every opportunity with books, magazines, design classes, garden visits, and experimentation in my garden, I grew more confident and began to help family, neighbors, my children’s schools, and my neighborhood association with garden designs. I began to wonder if anyone would hire me to design for them, and if I could make any money at it. How would I attract clients? Would I know how to make them happy? How much should I charge for my work? Was I really able to make this leap to a new career path?

Around the same time, I started this blog as a way to join the gardening conversations I had followed while reading the earliest local garden blogs (all two of them). Jumping in feet first, I added a link in my sidebar to a rudimentary webpage describing my new design business, and I was astounded when, shortly after, I got my first call from a potential client. Four years and more than 100 clients later, many of them referrals, I marvel at the mid-life career change my love of gardening led me to, and I am grateful to know that it’s never too late to try something new and to become good at it.

Having just read So You Want to Be a Garden Designer: How to Get Started, Grow, and Thrive in the Landscape Design Business by Love Albrecht Howard, I wish I’d had this book to help me get started. However, there is plenty of information useful even to those already in the business. Howard, who herself made a mid-life career change from marketing executive to owner of a full-service landscape and garden design business in Massachusetts, knows first-hand the pitfalls and rewards of the work. With humor, no-nonsense straight talk, plenty of personal anecdotes, and clear-eyed encouragement, she identifies the extensive knowledge base you need to succeed as a garden designer—and as an installer, if that’s also your desire, although she points out the multitude of niche services a designer can focus on, including seasonal patio and deck sprucing, container plantings, design only, garden coaching, etc.—while stressing that this is a service industry: it’s ultimately about working with people. While local plant, horticultural, and basic construction knowledge is essential, when you understand that your business is primarily about interacting with people and you work hard to make them happy, she says, then you’ll be successful.

Howard specifies the nitty-gritty of how to do that: the psychology of working with clients; basic good-business skills like frequent, clear communication and thank-you notes; giving good design presentations; selling your ideas as well as yourself; and handling inevitable problems that arise and making things right. In many ways this is a small-business primer rather than a how-to book. She doesn’t attempt to teach you the design skills and gardening knowledge she assumes you already have if you’ve picked up this book. Rather she focuses on showing you how to become a service-oriented businessperson who also gets to work in a creative, get-your-hands-dirty (literally) field.

I found particularly valuable her chapter entitled “When Things Go Wrong.” Whether it’s a construction error by you or one of your subcontractors, a client who irrationally becomes angry with you, an act of God that destroys a landscape job-in-progress, Howard has been there and offers constructive advice on how to handle the problem swiftly and decisively and make things right. Here and in other chapters she explains how to amicably “divorce” yourself from a long-term client who has proved consistently difficult to work with, how to hire quality subcontractors, and how to be a good boss. She even touches on how, once your own career is established, to mentor a talented new designer trying to get started in the business, and how to sell or gracefully exit your business when you’re ready to retire.

Some of her most helpful advice for a start-up designer is about pricing and making your business profitable. She insists that you start by appropriately valuing your own services:

One of the largest mistakes designers make is to dramatically undervalue their services….At first you will be grateful for every job. You might even be grateful for jobs that just break even. Get over this. And if you have jobs on which you are losing money, stop! You need to make a living, and not a paltry one. I am appalled when I see designers virtually give away their work….I know, I know, you love the fact that you’re a garden designer so much that the money doesn’t really matter, right? Bull. You are good at what you do, and you deserve to make a living.

She also addresses the question most of ask ourselves at some point in any career, particularly one in a creative field: Am I any good at what I do? Once you’re over the hurdle of setting up your business and you actually have some finished jobs under your belt, and perhaps you’ve even received some recognition from peers, you may find yourself suffering from the “imposter syndrome,” as Howard puts it: a feeling that you are a poser, pretending to be something you’re not, and inadequate compared to your peers in the business:

Will my work be good enough? When will I know that my design and installation work is good? Well, first off, good enough for what? Good enough to make your clients happy? Good enough to get you additional clients? Good enough to make it into a magazine? Good enough for you?…That is another question. When is our work good enough to satisfy us?

Howard offers reassurance that the most talented people feel this way at times, and that steady hard work will get you over this psychological hurdle. Practice, practice, practice, she advises. “[I]t is your commitment to doing the work that will make you successful.”

I highly recommend this book to anyone thinking about starting a garden-design business, whether self-taught, as Howard is, or fresh out of school with a design degree. Howard is generous with her knowledge and practical with her advice. Experience, of course, is always the best teacher, but she may help you avoid some of the most common mistakes of running your own design business—or at least teach you how to conduct your business so that you can make things right when things go wrong, which is the most valuable lesson of all.

All material © 2006-2010 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

posted in Books, Design, Who I am

28 Responses

  1. jen says:

    Interesting read, and how funny that you used to live in Chapel Hill! I’m curious, due to the fact that there are people who take jobs where they barely break even or lose money, does that result in a overall problem for the industry? I have a friend who left web design for the same reason, that there were so many people willing to completely undervalue their work, that there was too much trouble involved in getting clients that were willing to pay a more experienced designer a livable wage.

    That’s a very good question, Jen. Perhaps some designers who have been doing this for 10 or 20 years could better answer that question. I know I undervalued my design work when I first got started. A landscape architect friend of mine kindly nudged me not to undersell myself. I appreciated his confidence in me then, and he was right. As I gained experience I gradually increased my rates to a level that felt right. —Pam

  2. Phillip says:

    This book is on my desk right now. I haven’t started it yet but I’m looking forward to it. This is a great review.

    Thanks, Phillip. I look forward to reading your review. —Pam

  3. Daricia says:

    Enjoyed hearing about the book and some of your past history, Pam. With all that talent you have, I should have known you were a UNC girl. Go tar heels! :)

    Umm, I actually got my master’s at North Carolina State University, Daricia. We lived in Raleigh, and I commuted to Chapel Hill for my job. Go, Wolfpack? ;-) —Pam

  4. Jayne says:

    I enjoyed reading more about you Pam, and how you got started with gardening and your garden design business. I also wanted to congratulate you for being in Garden How-To magazine this month :-)

    Thank you, Jayne. Does this mean you’ve gotten a copy of it? I haven’t seen it yet. —Pam

  5. I happened to stop by today…I’m reviewing the same book for APLD’s Designer…my viewpoint is similar and very different from yours. Won’t be published for a bit yet.

    I look forward to reading your review, Susan. —Pam

  6. Liz says:

    Thanks for the review–I’ve been looking for a book like this.

  7. Tom says:

    I got to get a copy of this book. Thanks for the review. I’ve already read So You Want to Start a Nursery by Tony Avent. It’s a great read too. I no longer want to start a nursery, but I still want to make more money from my interest in plants. I’ve already got the design background with a degree in Architecture. Design is design. You just have to know your medium.

    I was wondering if the Nursery book by Tony Avent was any good. I have no interest in starting a nursery, but I’m curious about how the business works so might read it sometime. —Pam

  8. Carol says:

    I received a copy of that book to review, and gave it to, of all people, my garden designer. I thought she’d get more out of it than I would, and it sounds like she will (if we ever get out of the busy season and she gets a chance to slow down a bit!) Right now, I’m just aspiring to be a good client…

    I look forward to hearing how your patio construction went, Carol. —Pam

  9. daricia says:

    They teach English at State? Ha! Just kidding. Actually my daughter went to State and then UNC, and loved both. Both great schools.

    Ha! Somehow I ended up at tech schools for both of my English degrees (Rice for undergrad), but it worked out well for me. —Pam

  10. carolyn says:

    It seems our paths are very much alike, Pam. After I quit my “day job ” I took up my two passions of painting and garden design and I’ve been very happy and successful with both.

    It is very common for creative minds to question or doubt their work. This book should be a great inspiration to those seeking to enter the profession.

    Thanks for your perspective, Carolyn. I’m curious now to know what your “day job” was. —Pam

  11. Debby Boyd says:

    I wished that I could of had access to this book when I first started out. As you said it is important is not to undersell yourself. I was so eager to please and to get jobs that I was giving my plans out with my bids for free. All the other nurseries in town were offering free consulting, plans, etc. So, I thought that was what I had to do also. I quickly learned that many people took the information that was given to them for free and went to the cheapest place in town and bought their plants,then had their yard men do the install. It takes hours to plan and now they have all your hard work for free. I can always be the cheapest bid when all I have to do is quote the job and not spend money for gas to get there, measure their yard, hours drawing, making many long distance phone calls, etc. when given someone else’s plans and quote. As my BFF that owns a car dealership told me ‘The last dealer seeing the quote always gets the deal’. The hardest lesson for me to learn was that my time was worth something and my skills, talent, and eye for color should not be given away, nor could I make a living making free house calls.
    My biggest gripe in the industry is ‘the so called landscape designer’ that places the wrong plants in the wrong place to make it look good. In time, it is either dead or you have an overgrown jungle. People see these disasters and want the same thing in their yards and do not understand or want to understand the problems with that great looking landscape job. The places most commonly I see this is new homes and commercial jobs where they want instant gratification. I see so many bad examples that cheapen our industry.
    Sorry for the long reply. The book just got me going.

    I’m glad to hear your experience as a new designer, Debby. You are right that people will take a free plan and use their lawn guy to install it. Designs should never be given away unless a contract for installation is signed, in my opinion. Howard discusses this and many other practical issues in her book. Every new designer should read it. —Pam

  12. Lori says:

    I am heading straight to Amazon and buying this book. It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for! Thank you so much for posting this review!

    My pleasure, Lori. So does this mean you’re thinking of going into garden design? —Pam

  13. Ewa says:

    Thanks for positive review – I go to amazon and buy it. Its never too late to change career :)

    I hope you enjoy the book, Ewa. Nope, it’s never too late. —Pam

  14. Thank you for the review Pam. I’ve ordered a copy today. :)

    I hope it’s useful for you, Jacqueline. —Pam

  15. Fougères says:

    I need this book! Thanks Pam, for your review. I am still in career one – a physician – but have always dreamed of being a landscape architect.
    Time will tell if I ever leave medicine before I retire, or if I’ll just keep garden design as a rewarding hobby…sigh

    Fougères with

    You have to follow your heart, I think. But the bottom line is important too. ;-) —Pam

  16. I’ve been curious about this book Pam – very nice review! To respond to the first poster’s question of what happens to the industry as a whole when some designers under-value their work, yes, it DOES make it harder to charge a living wage unless you are very well established. Of course this is true for many industries and products once cheaper competition comes in, but I think the design industry is particularly susceptible for several reasons: 1. Design shows give the impression designers can help anyone, not just the wealthy (a good thing) but also that good design is easy and inexpensive (not a good thing) 2. The housing market collapse made people much less willing to invest in their homes, not to mention that where I live, home equity loans were a prime source of funding to finance installation costs 3. Design is an unlicensed profession and anyone can call themselves a designer, making it hard for homeowners to apply a uniform standard of quality. With nurseries, contractors, etc. often making their money on a part of the process other than the actual design, there is an incentive to undercharge just to get the business. 4. As you point out, this is a second career for many and is also dominated by women, many of whom are part of a two income family and don’t necessarily feel intense pressure to make a living wage.

    Having said all of that, you can’t change the market, you can only change yourself. I haven’t lowered my rates (although I haven’t raised them in three years either), but I now offer simpler design packages for those on a budget. That means I need more jobs to make the same amount of income, but I’m not actually working for less.

    I’m so glad to have your perspective on this, Susan. Number 4 certainly applies to me and has made it easier for me to get into the business. But I don’t want to give away my work either, and I believe you have to value your own knowledge and put a fair price tag on it. —Pam

  17. Ewa says:

    This is how personal recommendation works – I bought it!

    Yes, and that’s why publishers like bloggers to review their books. :-) And that’s why I won’t recommend a book unless I personally like it and find it useful. I hope you find this one as useful as I did, Ewa. —Pam

  18. michelle d. says:

    Thanks for the review Pam. I’m also looking forward to reading Susan Cohan’s review. I’d be interested in reading this book when it hits my local library. I’m not one who started my design career mid life, but for those who did or are thinking of doing so, I would think a well rounded perspective would be helpful. There were many issues that were not covered in my academic training that I think are worth discussing such as ‘divorcing an unsatisfactory client’ and other ‘on the job training’ situations that pop up over the life of our careers. Might as well pass on our 30 years worth of experience to those who are just starting out.

    Yes, there’s a lot of practical knowledge that comes from doing a job for 30 years. I am glad that designers like Howard are generous about sharing what they’ve learned and are willing to mentor others, even those who may not have the formal training. Thanks to the Internet, blogging, and Twitter, I’ve met quite a number of designers who are generous in that way (including you). —Pam

  19. jen says:

    thanks for the feedback Susan, I had a feeling that, as you said, these problems come with any profession with “design” in the title!

  20. David says:

    I enjoyed the review and others’ comments equally well…thanks. And I not only started in the hort field right out of college (’88), but I am also an LA (landscape architect) registered in a few states. It sounds like I can glean plenty of jewels from the book Pam reviewed!

    Only thing I can add to all the great comments is even more than “design” in a field’s title, anything with “landscape” or “garden” in it automatically devalues many of us to the pop-culture addicted society we live in.

    But I maintain, “This shall soon pass.”

    Thanks for your comments, David. Your last is a good philosophy for so many irritations in life. —Pam

  21. Jean says:

    Since I’m doing a mid-life switch as well, I found that book on Amazon and came “this close” to buying it. Now I wish I had and I probably will, even if I never devote myself full-time to garden design. I learned so much just this spring with my garden coaching business. I think this book will help round things out. Thanks so much for reviewing it. See you soon in Buffalo!

    Good luck with your career changes, Jean, and I’ll see you next week! —Pam

  22. ChrisG says:

    Hey Pam – thanks for sharing your story on how you got to where you are now. Interesting and impressive story…

    Well, I don’t know about impressive, but the round-about route is working out just fine. Thanks for being interested. :-) —Pam

  23. I liked reading your evolution and thought process for your business. Am glad you found the courage to start the career of your dreams.

    Me too, Kathleen. I find it to be very rewarding work. —Pam

  24. Mary Beth says:

    I run a wholesale nursery (and am an avid – or rabid – gardener on the side) I can’t tell you the number of calls we get for design services. Look forward to reading this book.

  25. Abbey says:

    Thanks for the post. Your story is really encouraging. I have a writing background as well and recently started experimenting with landscape design in my own yard. I love learning about plants and arranging them to get the most out of an outdoor space. Your blog has been a great resource for ideas about what’s possible in South Central Texas.

  26. michelle d. says:

    Hi Pam,
    It’s been awhile since this great post came to my attention.
    I picked up this book at the library last night.
    I was hooked by the first few pages when she described her husband time spent working at the Case Estates at the Arnold Arboretum.
    That is one of the places where I did a horticultural internship.
    I skipped the middle of the book for now . After being in the biz myself for some time now I thought I could skim that later.
    Where I experienced confusion was in the business end of the book.
    She obviously works in the capacity of a landscape contractor but there is not mention of attaining this.
    She also is writing contracts for large scale hardscape installations and again, there is no mention of actual contracts but uses the word ‘estimates’.
    This is, so far, where I find the book to stray off the path of operating as a garden designer and into the field of landscape contracting.

  27. Toni says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I just recently started a garden blog (, and through a “garden blog” search, I stumbled on your site. I need this book! I, too, used to have a “real job” (as a court reporter), but left that several years ago. I had been gardening for years, but after becoming a Master Gardener in 2005, a design business was born! I had no idea how quickly it would grow. I found myself with more business than what I could handle, yet still I suffer from the “imposter syndrome.” Everyone tells me I need to charge more for my services. I ended up doing so much of the physical part of the business, too (installations and pruning) that I injured my arm. So now I need to re-evaluate what services I will offer in the future. It is so difficult to let go of the installation when I am afraid the garden won’t turn out like my design if I don’t do it. Control freak maybe? Anyway, taking time to evaluate while I let my arm recover. Since I can’t work, I might as well read a good book like Howard’s. Thanks for the recommendation. Really enjoyed your website and blog.

  28. I am curious to read this book now…especially the ‘What can go wrong’ section. A great landscape contractor will always make their landscape designer look good but of course there are issues that will arise and to handle them with grace is a well honed skill.