1) It's bloomin' hard work: I've worked longer days than I ever have before. Despite being determined to have at least one day off a week, invariably I find myself sneaking off to check my emails or visiting clients on a Sunday. Now I'm not complaining, it comes with the territory of getting any new business up & running - I just don't think I was realistic when I started out about how much time time being a designer involved! But it has been completely worth it - despite starting up just as the recession began my business has steadily grown each year. I've had 3 times as many clients this year as the 1st, and the size & complexity of the some of the commissions has grown too.
2) It can get a bit lonely: unless you're lucky enough to work in a design studio, most designers are sole traders and spend many days working on their own. I found as time has gone on and I am getting more gardens built, I spend more time with contractors and clients, so the amount of days I am completely on my own has dropped, especially this year. But there are other ways of beating the loneliness - I have found that joining my local SGD (Society of Garden Designers) cluster group was one of the best. Was able to get advice from designers who had been in practice for a while, attend various events & talks and just have some folks around who understand when things weren't going so well. Many of them are now friends, who I socialise with regularly.
3) Don't be afraid to ask questions: even after gaining a GD qualification, there is lots we need to learn when we leave college. Again, don't think I was quite prepared for how much! But one thing I know is not to try & pretend you know about something that you don't - can get you in all sorts of hot water. Most clients would prefer that you were honest and told them you didn't know the answer right now, but you'll find out for them. Having good relationships with contractors, landscape suppliers and nurseries means you always have someone to turn to get advice from. And this is another good reason to join the SGD.
4) Use on-line resources: I have found websites and online communities an invaluable resource. I have hooked up with lots of other designers on Twitter who regularly pass on useful information, and are just nice to chat to! Sites such as LandscapeJuiceNetwork has forums where you can usually get technical advice. I have written a blog post about this (http://mcquegardens.blogspot.com/2010/03/im-designer-looking-for-work-now-what.html) but having a website is taken as read now. I am getting more recommendations now, but it was setting up a website when I got started that got me much of my initial work. Make sure you update your website portfolio at least once or twice a year, I am in the middle of re-vamping mine completely. Blogging about current projects also lets clients see that you are an active garden designer.
5) Diversity: it can take a while to earn a decent living from being a garden designer, and there are invariably going to be quieter periods in the year, especially over the winter. Apart from just pure garden design there are lots of other ways of working in horticulture and I've realised that I shouldn't discount other ways of making some money. I was offered a lecturing job, and my initial reaction was of terror and to turn it down. I have now been teaching GD and Horticulture students in Project Management, Specification & Job Estimation for the last 2 years. It's only for one term, but it earns me as much money as I'd probably earn from a decent sized design job. I really enjoy doing it and as a result I was involved in working on a show garden at this years Chelsea - http://mcquegardens.blogspot.com/2010/06/fun-at-chelsea-2010.html
Many garden designers I know do garden maintenance - specialised pruning and the like. It's good for enhancing your plant knowledge and some maintenance jobs can lead to planting or full design work.
6) Don't be frightened to toot your own horn: by having a website we are showing our potential clients (and the world) what good work we are capable of. So why stop there? There are lots of ways of getting your name out there - I know a few designers who have had local newspapers feature interesting project that they've worked on and it is potentially free advertising. The first design job that I mentioned above was featured in the SGD Garden Design Journal Review of the Year 2008:
And then another featured in the SGD Review of the Year 2009:
Not bad for someone in her first 2 years of business?! Toot toot.
7) Be prepared to get your hands dirty: I mentioned working hard and not being afraid to ask questions and both of these can be nicely linked together by getting your hands dirty. I worked hands on building some gardens, learning how to lay paving, mix mortar and build decks. It gave me an invaluable insight to a landscapers working day, got me lots of good landscape & nursery supply contacts and improved my knowledge of costs of materials, labour, plant hire. All of these have given me a source of people & organisations to ask advice of and contractors who see you have a practical knowledge of what you're designing are much keener to build your gardens. Many landscapers, rightly or wrongly, have a perception that working with designers is more trouble than it's worth and all we do all day is colour in and point at things (I wish!). By being able to talk to them about technical details and ask the odd question gains a lot of respect, and I really enjoyed doing it. One thing most designers I know bemoan is being able to get good contractors to build their gardens - doing the above certainly helped me. PS This isn't me working hard!
So there you go - it would seem I have learned quite a bit in the last 3 years - I have grown in confidence, my designs have improved and this feels like the best job in the world. Well most days anyway.