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Should we change our approach to aftercare?

Should we change our approach to aftercare?


Helen Elks-Smith MSGD asks how involved designers should be in garden maintenance


In January, I took part in an industry talk at a nursery, where the subject was ‘maintenance’. It ended with much discussion – over an hour and a half – in which we tackled questions such as: Why does ‘maintenance’ matter, and are we using the correct language and terminology? Do design process models reflect the needs of aftercare? Could more be done to educate clients?

Last year, I read Jinny Blom’s article on having her work ruined by inexperienced gardeners (GDJ 164, March 2016), and while I felt sympathy, it also made me think that we designers have a tendency to throw up our hands and say it’s everyone else’s problem.


Great expectations

As designers, we sell the idea of a beautiful garden to our clients. We illustrate our intentions and carry them forward with our vision. The design process, construction and planting all take time, money and energy. And at the end of all of this, we leave clients with... what? A sense of anticipation and a lot of bare soil. Whether the few twigs and leaves planted into large areas of carefully prepared soil grow into a beautiful garden is by no means guaranteed, but at this point many designers hand the garden over and depart, leaving the eventual outcome to the ‘maintenance team’.

Maintenance is defined as “the process of preserving a condition or situation or the state of being preserved”. But while we want to ‘maintain’ the hard elements of the garden, rarely do we wish to ‘maintain’ the soft elements. Unlike the relatively predictable nature of the architect’s building blocks, ours, plants that grow and change, present considerably more of a challenge; and no client would be happy if the gaps between plants, deliberately left to allow the plant to establish and grow, were ‘maintained’, or the shrubs pruned to the original planting size. We need the plants to flourish.

Perhaps the term ‘aftercare’ would be more appropriate and expressive than ‘maintenance’. We apply design principals to create appealing compositions using plant form, texture, scale and colour. As long as the designer, nursery and ground workers have done their jobs, plants will thrive, but greater success of one plant over another can throw these compositions out of kilter. This is complicated by the seasons, and different growth cycles of herbaceous perennials, shrubs and trees etc.

For designers and clients, continuity and position of flowering is often key. In all but the wildest schemes, the communities of plants that we create are perpetually in an unnatural state. Keeping the design intention working across the years needs intervention. The SGD’s own advice for clients, “Engaging a Garden Designer – Guidance for Clients on Professional Fees”, does not mention any designer involvement after practical completion, and this is by no means unique – articles on ‘how to work with a designer’ rarely mention aftercare. Many design practices do provide aftercare, often in the form of plant notes, and others also offer maintenance services, but for designers that cover a wide area, this is problematic.

Even if offered, this is not a straightforward business decision. There are essentially three different roles inherent in the care of a garden, all of which require skill: the ‘maintainer’; the ‘horticulturist’; and the ‘designer’. These roles might be carried out by different people or one. They might be amateurs or professionals – there are gifted amateurs and poor professionals, and it is the skill set that is important rather than the title. I see a range of clients, from those who are happy to manage a maintenance team or gardener or are skilled themselves, through to those who are as intimidated by pruning a shrub as they are by managing others to carry out these tasks.

There is the view that a good manager can manage anything, but my experience does not support this. I see clients employ, and gardens ruined by, poorly skilled gardeners. I also see good maintenance teams and gardeners frustrated by clients who do not recognise nor value their skills. When we are lucky enough to have a client skilled in gardening combined, where appropriate, with the skill to manage others to carry out the works, we see beautiful gardens. Our involvement is straightforward and generally limited to reviews at key stages. But where the client has neither, then we see gardens in trouble.


Customer satisfaction

So why as designers do we need to consider this? Well, we need our planting schemes to deliver the vision we sell to our clients. Our reputations are at least in part based on our capacity to do so. We also need beautiful photographs for our portfolios, and for that we need well-cared-for gardens. We know that good maintenance teams and horticulturists are difficult to find. In my opinion, design training providers, professional bodies and the gardening media all have a part to play alongside designers in helping to improve this. We must continue to discuss this issue, to ask what role does each one have in educating clients on the importance of good maintenance teams and horticulturists, in how to recruit them and the need to pay a living wage.

What should training providers and professional bodies do to recognise the ongoing role of designers in aftercare? Moving forward, is our input to be limited to design, or should we also have a role in recruitment and management of maintenance teams and horticulturists? Increasingly, we see that good design is recognised by clients. The benefits of extending this recognition to good aftercare are clear for clients and designers. Might this be the next big challenge in garden design?

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