Interview with Sarah Plested – Open Learning Garden Design Student of the Year 2016

Interview with Sarah Plested

Sarah Plested, owner of Bramley Apple Design, was our Student of the Year 2016 for the Open Learning Garden Design Diploma. We caught up with Sarah three years on to find out what she has been up to since graduating.

What were you doing before KLC and why did you decide to study with the school?

After a career in marketing I started up a garden maintenance company alongside studying for the RHS Level II Certificate in Horticulture as an open learning course. After running the business successfully for a number of years I became more interested in the design aspects of the job and also became aware that I wasn’t getting any younger and I needed a career that was physically less demanding. I recognised that in order to feel confident transitioning to garden design I needed a diploma in garden design and after researching various courses, I chose KLC OL as it enabled me to continue with my business at the same time as studying.

What were your highlights of the course and did you face any challenges?

The main challenge of the course was finding the time. Unlike my previous OL course, I couldn’t sit in bed at night reading notes etc; I needed time at the drawing board. Most of the units were completed during the winter months when the maintenance work quietened down. As much as I enjoyed hand drawing it became obvious that it wasn’t the most efficient way to produce plans and if I was to make the business profitable, I was going to need to learn CAD. I enjoyed the later units the most when I used my new CAD skills, particularly creating the designs for the hospital and show gardens. I was also able to use two client projects for the units which killed two birds with one stone!

Do you have any tips or advice for current students on managing their course alongside personal commitments, and staying motivated on an open learning course?

I already had a successful horticultural business and my goal was developing it further to provide a sustainable income. I think staying motivated depends on the end goal, if you are working on the course with a view to a career change then write a business plan that includes your diploma and a transitional timeline that is achievable. If there are no concrete plans, then something will always take priority over your course.

Did you undertake any work experience or internships during or after the course?

I joined the SGD soon after starting the diploma and I’ve attended many of their courses during the years I’ve been a member. One of the challenges of Open Learning is the lack of hands-on experience and so I spent many hours on site with a very tolerant landscaper (who now builds the majority of my projects) asking questions and I visited gardens regularly for inspiration on style and planting combinations.

How has your career in Garden Design evolved since graduating?

Each project is different and so further develops my skills set, knowledge and experience; I don’t think you ever stop learning as a Garden Designer. I have a steady stream of projects, mostly residential and they range from medium sized urban gardens to larger country sites. The majority of projects are in the local area, but I have also developed contacts in North London and completed a number of larger projects in that area. I also design for a local landscaper who works with developers and I design show home gardens and marketing suite areas. I am a pre-registered member of the SGD and have passed Stage 1 of the adjudication and run the SGD Basingstoke and Reading Cluster Group. I am also an associate member of BALI, a member of the Chartered Institute of Horticulture and a member of the APL. During the last couple of years, I have been developing my writing skills and written articles for a number of lifestyle and industry magazines. I have spent the last year having mentoring sessions from an FSGD member on business development which has been very useful, and I continue to identify gaps in my knowledge which forms my annual plan for CPD.

What projects have you been working on recently?

Earlier this year I designed my first roof terrace garden which was a huge learning curve including trying to keep the plants alive during the ridiculously hot summer. I’m coming to the end of phase 1 of a large project in Hatfield that has involved hard and soft landscaping and will be rounded off with the planting of eight specimen pleached Carpinus cubes later this month. Phase II is the outdoor pool garden and entertainment space within an enclosed walled garden.

I’ve also recently completed a front garden and driveway for an Arts & Crafts property in Potters Bar using resin bound gravel for the first time; the design plans for the contemporary rear garden are in progress. Closer to home, a new site design for a thatched cottage and extensive grounds to incorporate another cottage on site, create a woodland garden, new dining terrace and formal garden are nearly completed and this morning I was getting my head round construction detail drawings for a water feature for a project in Odiham. In between these larger projects I have been working on a couple of small soft landscaping designs and plans for show home gardens for local new developments, one being a controversial development in my own village. A pretty large number of projects at the moment, so there won’t be a holiday in the diary any time soon!

Do you have any tips on starting your own garden design business?

I think confidence is the biggest issue, even with a diploma under your belt, those first few projects can be extremely daunting. For a lot of designers, the construction and build elements are where there is the largest lack of knowledge and experience and you rely on landscapers who you may not be familiar with or experienced enough to know whether they are doing a good job. I was very cautious about asking questions, worried that my lack of knowledge was glaringly obvious, but I’ve learnt that even when you feel confident in your ability, each project is different and there is something new to learn each time. Don’t be afraid to ask the stupid questions, most landscapers and suppliers appreciate your efforts to understand and it actually demonstrates a respect for their skills and expertise. I think Garden Designers are a little like GP’s, you need to know a bit about everything, but you can’t know it all, that’s what the specialists are for!