Graduate announced as winner at Society of Garden Designers Awards

Last month saw the Society of Garden Designers Awards Ceremony take place, where 2022 Diploma in Garden Design graduate Julia Hill won in the Student Design - Commercial category with her project ‘Water and Steam’ for clients London Museum of Water and Steam.

We caught up with Julia about the award, why she decided to become a Garden Designer, advice for people starting out on their Garden Design journey, plus much more!

What inspired you to study the Diploma in Garden design?

My career has had quite a journey. From graduating with a First Class Honours Degree in Visual Communication, I worked in the creative advertising industry for 8 years. Leaving this, I retrained to become a primary school teacher and worked as a senior leader and class teacher for 12 years (including through the global pandemic which was tough). During this time, I decided I needed to get back to my creative roots and chose to retrain as a garden designer and have not looked back since.

What led you to choose West Dean KLC School of Design?

Researching courses during a lockdown turned from curiosity to serious consideration and during the process I came across the KLC course. On paper, I loved the structure of the programme and being able to work through the seasons was a real selling point. The variety off projects on offer was inspiring, providing opportunities to delve into many aspects of garden design that would be easily transferrable to the workplace. Meeting tutors as part of the process gave me confidence that I would be in good hands for the duration of the course and supported throughout my journey there.

Can you share a little about your time studying at West Dean KLC School of Design. What do you think were the most valuable lessons and skills you gained during your time there, were there any particularly memorable projects or experiences?

There were so many memorable experiences, from the week’s work placement at Hampton Court and learning from experts at West Dean to being a volunteer at the RHS Chelsea and Hampton Court Flower Shows. KLC tutors have a fountain of knowledge, so being able to learn from them and have the opportunity to talk to a wide variety of people from the industry was really valuable. With such a wide variety of projects on offer, there was always the opportunity to work across different client bases and spaces; two particular projects I loved were for a community space at the London Museum of Water and Steam and for the garden at Benton End, which is steeped in artistic and horticultural history.

How did studying the diploma in garden design support your development as a professional garden designer?

The course is structured to teach skills and build upon these as the course progresses, all of which are relevant for professional practise. As well as the design projects, the course has 2 research projects - one planting; the other construction. Both are vital aspects of design and need consideration from the moment a project commences. Having the knowledge of these two elements on top of the design principles gave me confidence when starting out in the industry.

Winning the Society of Garden Designers award is a remarkable achievement. Can you tell us a little more about the project, what it meant to you and how it has impacted your career?

I felt incredibly proud to win the SGD Award, which really acknowledged the dedicated efforts I put into transitioning careers. Being acknowledged by industry experts for my work is a significant achievement.

The public garden at the London Museum of Water and Steam was an interesting shaped site and one that needed to be carefully considered to be able to maintain its heritage as well as be attractive for today’s visitors. The design addresses the needs of a wide range of visitors, from families to regular community groups; to consider such a wide variety of needs for a design made this incredibly special to work on. The space allows people, whatever their age or physical ability, to be outdoors together, to play, interact and enjoy time together in a safe space. Having interacted with children and adults with additional needs and disabilities to be able to bring something into this garden for them was a pleasure and something I believe was executed well in the design: flexible seating, accessibility, sensory gardening, a community hub and being a safe space all contribute towards this.

What does a day in the life of a garden designer entail?

I love my job and the day-to-day variety it entails. I would love to say I am outside all the time, but that is a common misconception! Although much of the work is computer based, working in a small studio means you need to get stuck in to a variety of tasks. A day can include anything from making initial design sketches, working some of these up in CAD, putting together plant combinations, talking to contractors, visiting nurseries and of course talking to clients. I am so lucky that I am part of a collaborative team, where sharing ideas and learning from each other has become part of the culture.

Looking ahead, what trends or developments do you foresee in the field of garden design, and how do you plan to work within this evolving landscape?

One prominent trend is the increasing emphasis on sustainability and climate resilience. As awareness of environmental issues grows, clients are seeking designs that not only enhance the beauty of their outdoor spaces but also contribute positively to the wider ecosystem. More and more we are considering hard landscaping and planting that can not only tolerate drought, but ones that can thrive in wetter conditions too.

There has been a rise in demand for multifunctional outdoor spaces that cater to diverse needs and activities. Clients are increasingly seeking gardens that serve as extensions of their living spaces, providing areas for entertaining, relaxation, recreation, and to reconnect with nature. Versatile spaces offer escapism, no matter the size will become sanctuaries to delight the senses, and promote health and well-being with their immersive and restorative qualities.

More often, client briefs are featuring productive growing spaces, reflecting a growing interest in homegrown produce and plant cultivation. And as new generations of gardeners create a wealth of digital content for inspiration -  from tutorials on cultivating easy-to-grow plants and setting up indoor gardens to tips on seed sowing and transforming harvested produce into culinary delights, there will be a greater shift in how we make the space we have work hard.

How do you approach the balance between aesthetic appeal and functionality in your garden designs?

With every project comes a different brief and for me, gathering as much information at this stage is key to the design process. Understanding the people and the place I am designing for becomes a catalyst for the spatial layout and style of the garden, where every garden is unique. I love creating places that work hard, compliment the wider landscape and that will give pleasure to the people and wildlife that use them. I love to experiment with new ideas - plants and materials and with each design I aim to try something new, which could be as subtle as a planting colour combination through to researching a new material that perfectly suits a purpose. The most important aspect is creating a space that people will use and love, will be able to manage themselves as well as being as sustainable as possible at each stage of the process.

What advice would you give to aspiring garden designers who are just starting their journey?

Get stuck in, get stuff done! The course will keep you busy, so put in as much as you can and you will get that back. Say yes to as many opportunities as possible - go and spend some time in a nursery, visit gardens, get to shows.

When starting your career, you are not going to know all the answers - in this job it is key to ask questions and continue building your knowledge. Be aware the role is multi-faceted - yes you will be designing, but also presenting to clients, working on costings, visiting sites and talking to suppliers to name a few. Most importantly you have come into this career because you have a passion - have fun!