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Join a cluster group & boost your career

Join a cluster group & boost your career

Bo Cook


Bo Cook explains why it’s good to network with other local garden designers


There are many benefits of joining the Society of Garden Designers (SGD) as a Friend, Student, Pre-Registered or Registered Member, from progressing through adjudication to be a full MSGD, to the excellent monthly Garden Design Journal. The one I want to talk about is the local SGD Cluster Groups.

Cluster Group sessions are informative, supportive and excellent networking opportunities. They are run on a voluntary basis by a local Member or Members, and are open to anyone from any county. I am leader of the East Sussex Cluster Group and we have Members who hop across from the adjacent West Sussex, Kent and Surrey groups.

There is no fixed format for a Cluster Group; it is up to the leader and their Cluster Group Members (known affectionately as CGMs) how these sessions materialise. I ask CGMs what they want to have a session on, and this helps me organise the programme of events for the year ahead. Cluster Group sessions are either educational events or peer support meetings. Educational events are adapted to ensure CGMs get a lot of technical and specialist detail.

Speakers are from our industry – suppliers, manufacturers, fabricators, growers, designers and contractors. Subjects range from swimming pool and lighting design to designing retaining walls or understanding siting sculpture. Our speakers have always been very generous with their time and wisdom. This all helps to increase our knowledge base, to ensure buildability in our designs, and also to help manage client expectations. It isn’t just about suppliers selling us their products or services – the sharing of information is key to these sessions. I always say ‘the more technical, the better’ when I’m recruiting speakers.

These Cluster Groups also allow us to add contacts to our little black books, and contribute greatly to developing good working relationships. It is really important in this business to make contacts and stay in touch. This helps with office productivity, as well as design and build support. A peer support session is essentially a group session with an open floor. Subjects include tricky clients, difficult sites, a technicality not experienced before, etc – even design support is asked for and offered. We have also had an open discussion on fee structures. Peer support sessions allow us, as designers, to get to know each other and to be able to support and be supported.

For me, though, the real benefit to joining a local Cluster Group is the peer-to-peer networking. Many of us garden designers are solitary animals. We often work alone in our studios, day in, day out, only talking to contractors and suppliers. Now, every month, we have the opportunity to talk to other garden designers, some of whom have become friends. The support that has offered has been so valuable to many of our Cluster Group Members.

Getting to know other designers has opened up many more opportunities too. I recently took part in a design clinic for a country show because of the contacts I had made through the group. And a few of us, who have around the same level of experience, also have a regular lunch meeting to run through issues and ideas. It has greatly improved my life as a garden designer.

If you don’t currently attend local cluster sessions, do consider it. The more people who attend, the more vibrant and active the group will be. The life of a Cluster Group is hugely dependent on members taking part. Join more than one if they are in easy travelling distance.

And if you don’t have one in your county, set one up. I raised my hand in the absence of one in East Sussex, and it’s the best thing I ever did. If you want to chat about setting up a Cluster Group and would like some tips and ideas, please get in touch – I am happy to share my experiences.


If you would like to know more about SGD Cluster Groups and setting up your own, get in touch with Bo at  

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