Fancy a backyard makeover? Better join the long queue for a garden designer

Garden designers are having to turn away clients after working from home has led to a huge demand for outdoor living

Last modified on Sat 19 Jun 2021 10.57 EDT

In his mind’s eye, garden designer Andrew Duff can see it clearly: the orchard of apples, pears, cherries and quinces, the beautiful formal terrace, the meandering little paths that lead out into the bordering natural meadows.

But in reality, it will be a month until his current project – a four-acre garden in Oxfordshire – is complete. And with 15 other gardens to design and work on this summer, even in the shade, he is feeling the heat.

“I’ve been a garden designer for 30 years. This week, for the first time, I turned a client away,” he told the Observer. “That was a big deal for me because I never say no. I always slot them in at some point.”

There is an “unprecedented” level of demand for garden designers in the UK right now, according to the Society of Garden Designers. The latest snapshot of the Britain’s landscaping market, published this month by Pro Landscaper magazine, revealed a 166% increase in month-on-month enquiries, with garden designers simultaneously reporting a 140% increase in turnover.

Lynne Marcus, chair of the Society of Gardeners, has been amazed by the demand this year: “I’ve been in practice for more than 20 years, and I’ve never known it as busy,” she said, amid reports that designers and landscape contractors are booked up months in advance. “Anyone asking for a garden now is going to be disappointed. We’re talking about summer 2022 before a garden would potentially be ready, and that’s assuming they go with a design pretty sharpish.”

The reason, garden designers agree, is lockdown and working from home. Duff has noticed “massive changes” in how gardens are being used over the last year. “Because so many people are working from home, they are spending more time in the garden, catching 10 minutes with a cup of coffee there between Zoom meetings. It is an important place to relax,” he said.

In Cambridgeshire, award-winning garden designer Robert Barker is also turning potential clients away, while juggling 20 projects. “In the first year of lockdown, people probably thought they could do the work themselves. And then they realised that actually they couldn’t, and they want expert advice before they spend any more money on the wrong plants or the wrong type of materials.”

He says he has seen a threefold increase in demand over the past 12 months. Many of his new clients found sanctuary in their gardens at the height of the pandemic, and have reconnected with nature while working from home. “They’re people who have a modest budget, who wouldn’t necessarily have decided to use a garden designer in the past. Now, in their mind, the garden is more of a priority than it was.”

Thanks to the recent boom in house prices, suburban homeowners are finding it more worthwhile to spend their spare cash on their garden, he says: “I think some people who can’t make that leap from a three-bed to a four-bed house, because it’s so much more expensive now, are thinking: we have to make the most of what we have.”

The designers the Observer spoke to said decking and artificial grass are falling out of fashion and the popularity of “natural” ponds and plants that encourage biodiversity and wildlife has increased.

Having a space for entertaining in the garden is high up on the priority list of pretty much everyone, they said.

In the London suburb of Hampton, near the river Thames, primary school teacher Julie Kidson is looking forward to enjoying the rest of the summer in her newly designed garden. “We went for laurels and lollipop bay trees – we wanted a contemporary garden with plants that will last all year,” she said.

Kidson said she felt very privileged to have a garden during lockdown, and found gardening therapeutic. “But it wasn’t pretty to look at, and we spent the whole summer in it last year.” This year, she decided to use the money she would normally have spent on a holiday to transform it, and found the advice of her garden designer, Penelope Jane, invaluable. “I didn’t want to waste money on plants that then die. She was able to tell us things like the height a plant would grow to, which ones will spread wide, which will love the shade or sun.”

Kidson said she can’t wait for her garden furniture to arrive so she can invite friends over for barbecues. “It will be a lovely space to entertain in.”

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