As part of an awareness campaign with the National Association of Landscape Professionals, I’m sharing my ”Why I Landscape” story. I hope it encourages you if you are thinking about a career change or trying to figure out what you want to do with your life.
I don’t know many people who have come to landscape design in a linear path. I certainly didn’t. Of course, there are some wise young people who are inclined to study botany or horticulture or one of the related design practices in college, but that isn’t my story. I am one of the many people who seem to find landscape related jobs as an antidote to another era in the their working lives.
When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut. I followed my space and flying dreams for quite a while. I learned to fly shortly after I learned to drive. I pursued a degree in physics, and after college, I happily worked on F-18 flight simulators and I also wholeheartedly enjoyed adventures in launching satellites around the globe.
But then, without good career guidance, I meandered my way into management levels of software engineering at companies that I found deeply uninspiring. I had a series of jobs that left me broken and hating my day-to-day life so much that I often cried my way through my morning routine.
Getting laid off by Nortel Networks (as part of their infamous implosion in 1999-2000) was a blessing for me. It allowed me to find a new path that has been just as exciting and satisfying as chasing the dreams I had as a kid. That new path started with a visit to the Chelsea Flower Show and brings me to where I am now. I’m a garden designer, teacher, author and speaker who generally works in the realm of garden related media and I love my job. It suits my appreciation for design and beautiful things and my love of being outdoors and physical activity. It combines science and art and it has been a career that I can make what I need it to be. I’ve found extraordinary flexibility to continuously invent and re-invent my career path and make it what I need it to be for myself and my family.
It is not an understatement that one visit to The Chelsea Flower show changed my life. It was May of 2000 when I attended the show for the first time and was shocked to see that such an event even existed. Like all visitors, I was amazed by the gardens and feats of horticulture, but more importantly I was awakened to the industry that put on the event. I had never considered that there was any garden related industry – let alone one so glamorous and exciting, that brought together landscape design, horticulture, business, entrepreneurship and media through gardens.
It was eye-opening and revelatory. I knew in an instant what my next career move would be. My layoff package went straight into design school education and I went to work immediately creating my new life as a landscape designer.
I don’t have any regrets as I look back over my career story so far – with one exception. I wish that I had found a mentor. Or that instead of immediately launching my business, I’d chosen instead to work for another designer right after I got out of school. I wish I had not spent so much time recreating the wheel, as you do, when you are starting out – completely green – in a new industry. I wish I could have continued to learn and network with others as much as I did in school, once I graduated.
I knew what I had learned in design school. (I went to the English Gardening School in London, England). I graduated feeling confident enough to start designing gardens. And I had a lifetime’s experience as an actual gardener (an education passed on from my family). But I knew almost nothing about running a small design business and where I wanted to go or could go in the industry.
Obviously, I have since found my way – learning what parts I love and what parts I loathe and mostly how to navigate through it all to find a path that suits me. This is what I love most about this trade; paths aren’t so linear and an undeniable entrepreneurial spirit pervades the industry.
I find it interesting that despite the fact that my dad was a civil engineer in a town planning department, until that day at Chelsea, I had never heard of someone who called themselves a landscape architect – let alone a garden designer. Which gets to the real point of this post.
The landscape industry is growing and there are lots of opportunities for people of a variety of skill sets. I found my way through design and media, but you might find a path in business, or horticulture and gardening, or non-profit management, or something else… the options are vast.
If you want to know more about my experiences, I’ve been answering questions about the industry (with the help of NALP ) on my instagram account. (see “Why I Landscape” #whyIlandscape in my story). If you want to know something, ask away – we will do our best to answer all reasonable questions. Alternatively, you can always post in the comments here too.
Eighteen years later, I look back and I wish I’d been able to ask more questions from someone who went ahead of me. I wish I’d have had more mentoring.
So to round out this post – I wanted to do a little shout out. A few months ago a very brave teenager named Travis Cox contacted me. He is a junior in high school and he loves gardening, gardens, design, writing and lots of the same things that I love too. He has a blog and and instagram account (#onetofollow), and lots of ideas about what he might want to do with his career. And in an effort to figure out his path, he reached out to me.
I did my very best to tell him everything I know about design schools and horticulture programs, and paths he might choose and I think (hope) I was able to expand his ideas and encourage him along his path. It felt good and not only was I happy to spend the time, I look forward to seeing where he goes in this industry. I think I got just as much out of our talk as he did.
If you are reading this and you are a seasoned professional, I’d encourage you to help someone starting out (as much as you can). And if you are considering a landscape career here – know that I have never experienced an industry with more genuinely nice people. So feel confident about reaching out and asking for some help, mentorship or guidance. You will probably find that the people who make up this industry as just as lovely as the gardens and landscapes we create.