‘The pandemic lit a fire inside me’: how three high-fliers retrained as garden designers | Gardens

‘The pandemic lit a fire inside me’: how three high-fliers retrained as garden designers | Gardens

A table and chairs covered in lichen; a grubby patio; an overgrown bed teeming with weeds … those of us with outdoor space all have corners that need attention. And as many of us continue to work from home, spending more time in the garden and entertaining friends, there has been a growing demand for professionals to visit and beautify our gardens and terraces.

But, as reported earlier this summer, there’s a waiting list: the average garden designer has experienced a 25% jump in inquiries over the past year, and, according to the latest figures, has seen their turnover increase by 203%. The Society of Garden Designers reports a 62% increase in its student members since the pandemic began.

So it’s no surprise that more and more people are taking up garden design as a career, spurred on not only by demand, but by the impulse to re-evalute their working lives. Three garden designers new to the profession explain why they swapped spreadsheets for seeds.

Sonya Pinto, 39, former City lawyer

Sonya in Coombe Wood, Croydon. She left a career as a lawyer in May 2020 and took up garden design.
Sonya in Coombe Wood, Croydon. She left a career as a lawyer in May 2020 and took up garden design. Photograph: Ben Quinton/The Guardian

I took a deep breath before I told my boss in May 2020 that I was leaving my stable law career to become a garden designer. But the pandemic had made me stop and think: is this really what I want to be doing in five or 10 years’ time?

A career in law is exciting and varied, and I loved the pace of my job. But for a long time, I have known I wanted to do something more creative and spend more time outdoors. Also, I have two young children. When we went into lockdown and I stopped commuting, I assumed I’d get to spend more time with them, but it didn’t pan out that way. I ended up using that extra time working.

I’ve always been interested in gardens, along with art and design, and am a keen amateur gardener. I’m lucky to have what feels like a large garden by London standards, and am in the process of creating a mini wildflower meadow towards the back of it, to encourage the local wildlife.

Once I realised I could enrol on a course professionally recognised by the Society of Garden Designers, I handed in my notice. With everything in disarray during the pandemic, making a big change suddenly seemed less monumental.

I started at Oxford College of Garden Design last September. We’ve studied garden history, planting design and construction plans; we’ve got to grips with software packages, planning applications and tender documents. I’ve even had a lecture on contract law, which I obviously felt pretty comfortable with. I’ve found my experience as a lawyer useful in other ways, too: I’m not daunted by large-scale projects and I understand the importance of good client relationships.

But after 15 years of a largely desk-based job, I am looking forward to swapping office clothes for a hard hat and boots.

Zoe Claymore, 30, former civil servant

Zoe Claymore
Zoe took up gardening at home to get through lockdown. She turned professional in March this year. Photograph: Ben Quinton/The Guardian

At Ofsted, my workload was high and fast-paced. During the pandemic, I started working from home, and my garden – a small, sunny urban plot – was a solace. I was out there gardening every morning and lunchtime, which took me by surprise.

One day, I measured it, drew up a site plan and just started designing it. I didn’t read a book or watch any videos; I just got stuck in and played with ideas. I dug out weeds, felled a blighted tree, planted veg, a cherry tree and hedges, built raised beds and watched my garden evolve through the seasons.

The pandemic made me realise that gardening, being outside and being creative were really important to me. When I nurtured a plant, I felt nurtured in return. It took me out of myself: I felt part of something bigger – and that was very healing. I think the pandemic woke people up to the importance of making the most of outside spaces.

I had already realised I didn’t like working indoors all the time – getting headaches staring at a screen. But in lockdown that feeling grew stronger. I wanted to work for myself. I wanted to see the fruits of my labour. I left my job in March 2021 and offered my garden designing services to friends and family. I quickly got half a dozen jobs designing everything from small front gardens to parts of a country estate.

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I also designed a community allotment bed at Hampton Court Palace for the Royal Horticultural Society. I planted marigolds, beetroots, alpine strawberries, salvia. For me, it symbolised what gardening during the pandemic has taught me: that life is vibrant and fleeting. When you connect with a garden, you realise that nothing lasts for ever. But also that there’s always something to look forward to: the plant that dies down this summer will return next year.

I look back now and think how the pandemic lit a fire inside me. It made me realise you only live once. I’ve started a course at Inchbald School of Design and I know switching careers was the right decision. This was something I needed to do, for my soul.

Felicity O’Rourke, 45, former airline pilot and stay-at-home mother

Felicity O’Rourke
Felicity obtained a garden design diploma last December; she won a silver medal at the Hampton Court flower show this summer. Photograph: Gavin O’ Rourke

It was difficult to juggle my job as a pilot after I had my second child, in 2010. I realised I didn’t enjoy it any more. The sense of liberation that flying gave me was gone after eight years. So I took a career break and became a stay-at-home mum.

In 2016, when my youngest was two and I was 40, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had to have major surgery and that’s when I became fixated on modifying our garden – a small, south-facing plot with raised flower beds. At times of stress, you revert to comforting experiences you had when you were young. I come from a family of amazing gardeners and have wonderful memories of picking blackberries on my grandfather’s allotment and eating peas out of the pod.

I had just started my garden design diploma at KLC School of Design in Chelsea Harbour when the first lockdown began; I graduated last December with distinction. This summer, I won a silver medal for a conceptual show garden in the Global Impact category at the Hampton Court flower show. My garden, called Extinction, featured a plane crash. As a former pilot, that’s what I immediately associate with the word “impact”.

The garden was designed to highlight the threat of climate change and our exploitation of the natural world. Through the wreck of the fuselage, people could see ancient primordial planting: tree ferns, ginkgo biloba and other ancient species. These plants have all survived past mass extinction events and will no doubt survive the next one. But we may not. The idea was to make people realise that.

It was a real honour to win an award for my first show garden. Seeing how emotional people felt about it – how it communicated with them – was amazing.

I feel as though, because of Covid, we’re at a turning point. We’ve proved we can make some drastic changes to our society as a result of an imminent threat. We could do that in response to the climate crisis too. (felicityorourkegardendesign.com)