How to Become a Landscape Designer

Career Advice From A Professional Landscape Designer

Student learn about pruning from an experienced mentor
BartCo/E+/Getty Images

Some readers of my Web site enjoy landscaping so much that they wish to go beyond the DIY level; they aspire to become professionals. Such readers often seek advice on how to become a landscape designer. While there’s more than one path from which to choose to become a landscape designer, it’s helpful to hear how particular individuals became successful in the field. I recently conducted an email interview with professional landscape designer, Paul Corsetti.

The results of the interview are contained in the following Q&A:

Q. What’s your impression of online programs geared to someone who wants to become a landscape designer but who isn’t able to attend school full-time?

A. I think that as long as the program being taught is based on solid knowledge of landscape design, it is a great start for the theory of design. A good program should be hands-on to teach students by doing actual projects, rather than to read and research how others did their work.

Q. What kinds of skills should someone looking to become a landscape designer particularly focus on honing while "working their way up," be it in school or on related jobs?

A. I’d recommend focusing on acquiring a wide range of abilities.

Learning your plants and how to work with difficult soils is crucial if you want to become a landscape designer. One needs to recognize what type of soil you are designing gardens for.

If no thought is put there, you may have a failed garden and a bad reputation in a few years.

When working in the construction end of things, a landscape designer should make notes on material quantities, installation practices and any difficulties encountered. The more difficult an installation is, the more it will cost the client in the long run.

A landscape designer may have a wild imagination and excellent creativity, but when you design boulders to be placed in a yard where they have to be craned in over the house, the client will ask some serious financial questions! Another thought is to make notes of how long it takes to do certain jobs. I often get asked how long the construction time frame would be to implement my designs.

A good landscape designer should almost think like a contractor when designing… knowing how a construction job will function and knowing when to spot that a contractor is at his limit of labor skills, which might hinder your project. Is your design too difficult to construct or did you find the wrong contractor? That should be a question you can easily answer as a landscape designer.

When the landscape designer looks for ways to make a job go smoother for the contractor, easier on a client’s budget and still achieve a fantastic looking landscape, that landscape designer will get more referrals for future work. When the design is difficult and the landscape designer becomes even more difficult, your phone may not ring so often.

Q. Are there any particular landscape design schools you would recommend for someone wishing to become a landscape designer?

A. I can tell you about the landscape design school I myself attended (Ryerson University, Toronto), although I can't offer many recommendations beyond that because I have not kept up with any of the programs since being in school. Ryerson University offered a diploma program of 3 years and then eliminated it to turn the landscape design program into a degree ( 4-year study). I took the 3-year program and then did an additional 2 years in the Landscape Architecture degree program.

Technically, in Ontario, I cannot advertise myself as a landscape architect unless I am a member of the O.A.L.A. (Ontario Association of Landscape Architects). At this point in my career I don’t have a Landscape Architect's stamp or membership with them, so I have to refer to myself as a “landscape designer.” When looking at my work experience, one would say I have not gone the traditional route in becoming a landscape designer.

What is left in Ontario that still has a good reputation is the University of Guelph. What will make a good landscape design school is basically the details of the program that a student learns and how well the professors involved can teach.

Q. Tell us about your own experiences in landscape design school. How did the landscape design program most help you on your way to becoming a landscape designer?

A. Basically, in landscape design school, we went through a lot of practical work. We would have actual towns or cities contact the school and offer up projects to be taken on by the students. I can think of a few projects where we actually sat in on official meetings and presentations of landscape plan concepts, meeting with urban planners and such. It was a great experience to teach us what things were like under fire.

In landscape design school we sometimes had competitions for design projects and were given a certain time limit to complete them, like say a set number of hours. Some projects were strict in that sense: complete it on time or don’t bother. They did that to display real world deadlines and teach you that, no matter how much work you did, if you did not complete it on time, you would waste your time, money and effort in the real world.

As a thought about the online programs to become a landscape designer versus in-school, full-time learning, it was working with your peers in landscape design school and working closely with your professors that taught me the most. You learned to work as a team and accept input on your designs. Criticism is a hard thing to swallow, but when you put your project up on a display board in front of all the other students and 3 professors -- and they sit there shooting holes in your design that you may have spent 20 hours piecing together and falling in love with -- you learn quickly that you do not know all there is to know. Recognizing the value of criticism towards your work will make you a stronger landscape designer. Criticism challenges you to do better with your work and makes you sit there and look at what you draw and ask the hard questions to yourself:

  • Would this pass in that panel of review?
  • How many holes could they shoot into this project?

I don’t have that pressure with my professors anymore; instead, it is with my clients now. If they don’t like it, will they refuse to pay me? Will I have to start over or be fired for not getting the idea of what they want to see?

One of the things I enjoyed most in landscape design school was learning the graphics and rendering of drawings. It was a pleasure to learn how professionals did landscape drawings and then take that experience and make it into something that was my own and unique to my hands. I started my university program right out of high school with a great understanding of art and color use. I was able to apply that knowledge to the work I was being taught to do. When I was shown how to use markers to render my drawings, the fun began!

Q. Tell us about any related jobs you may have had after landscape design school working for someone else, before striking out on your own career as a landscape designer.

A. While I was in landscape design school (5 years) and a little bit after I was done with the program, I made the attempt at doing my own contracting in landscaping. I discovered that it took a lot of resources and skilled workers to keep this job up. I had done some contracting work on occasion, but the hardest thing was finding the skilled labor to complete the jobs. I ended up having to get rid of people and finish the work all by myself. Long, long hours and massive headaches prompted me to stop getting myself into these situations. At one point I decided to stick to being mainly a landscape designer and doing consulting work and let a contractor deal with the construction of my designs.

I worked for the City of Toronto as a gardener in a large urban park called "High Park." I called it paid learning for Horticulture. In landscape design school I was taught to identify trees and shrubs, and the names and colors of a lot of them, as well. But how to work with them, prune them, plant them and tend them was not something you could learn from books. In that job I taught myself how to prune large overgrown shrubs and tend to delicate perennials. I was also taught about watering them and keeping things alive during harsh and hot summer droughts. The diversity of the hills and flat areas in the park taught me a lot about microclimates in a landscape and how different conditions could support or kill different plants.

A. From there I was given a job offer by an acquaintance at his stone and landscape supply yard. He ran a landscape contracting business as well, and I thought this would be a good job for me to begin building my business clientèle. I found myself working long hours and moving a lot of heavy stone. The job allowed me to gain a lot of product knowledge in stone and building supplies pertaining to landscaping work, as I worked in the sales end of the business.

My boss then asked me to try out sales work by selling his landscaping jobs with the other end of his company. This was where I was taught to price jobs in detail and present contracts to clients. I believe it was this job that taught me how to deal with customers on a one-on-one basis. My landscape design school program combined with my product knowledge and horticultural background made me able to suggest so many things and give the client a great understanding of the work.

I left that job because of the distance it was for me to travel and the long hours I worked. I joined up with a landscape maintenance company and did that job for a bit. They were getting involved with Home Depot Canada to provide landscaping installation services. I once again took on the role of a sales rep for one area. Again I found myself having to sell the job and build it for the company -- and work for a meager wage while doing so.

I had to sit down and ask myself, "Why did I spend 5 years in landscape design school to be doing this?" That was about the time I met up with Lawrence Winterburn at a fall show where we both participated (in separate display work). He liked my designs and he must have liked me, as he said we needed to talk! So we did. I decided after talking to him that it was time to start up my own business and join up with Garden Structure. With a bit of help and coaching from him, I have not looked back since!

Q. Discuss your typical interaction with a landscape designer (shopping for stone) during your work as a stone sales representative.

A. Usually, this job was very straightforward. The stone products come in standard sizes and colors. Most landscape designers would just call up and see what you had available, then send the client or the contractor over to look at things and make an order if it was what was needed or preferred.what you had available, then send the client or the contractor over to look at things and make an order if it was what was needed or preferred.

On the odd occasion, a landscape designer or architect would walk in and really not know what they were looking for. I refer to this as the "cart before the horse" type of design. That is where a landscape designer puts an idea down on paper, sells that idea to the client, and the client falls in love with it. Then the landscape designer has to go look for a product that fits the idea. This ends up costing more money for time spent on research, and then having to redesign the idea because they cannot find a product.

I ran into that a couple of times in the stone yard. A landscape designer sold a Japanese client on an authentic Japanese garden design, but then could not find the right color of stones! Knowing what was readily available in your local area, before you set out to design something that requires you to ship stone from Japan, would have helped immensely!

Q. What lessons did you learn from your employers that you now use in your work as a landscape designer?

A. Never to undersell myself and always ask for a deposit! Also, when a client calls me to inquire about my services and fees, they are essentially interviewing me. But at the same time, I will ask them important questions that will help me determine if they will really need me as a landscape designer. I am interviewing them in return so that both the client and myself do not waste each other’s time and money.

Q. What kind of individual makes for a top-flight landscape designer?

A. A top-flight landscape designer listens to the client and knows the difficulties of construction. When you design with creativity and ignore those two factors, work will come slowly in your career. Also, a top-flight landscape designer will be confident and sure of themselves and will tell the client what they need to hear rather than what the client wants to hear. If a landscape designer just becomes a yes-man to the client for the sake of getting paid, the design will suffer!

Q. Give an example where the client felt the landscape designer failed to live up to the contract, and how the landscape designer deftly resolved this conflict, to everyone’s satisfaction.

A. I will just say that there was a time when a contractor I worked for failed to live up to his code of conduct and ethics. His crew cracked the edge of an asphalt driveway on a job where I was the landscape designer and sales rep for the job. It was a hassle for the client to deal with the contractor and get the driveway fixed to their liking. It got to a point that they were looking at me like they could not understand how I can work for someone like him. I was told to my face that if I wanted a reference for future work, no problem; but that the contractor would never get one!

I felt so bad for what these folks had to endure that I had to do something for them. During the design and budget stage of the project, they eliminated some plants to bring the prices down. One of them was a Japanese maple which I felt the yard really needed but was forced to work with the budget they gave me. So towards the end of the job, I went to the nursery and found a small Japanese maple, bartered for a good price on it and bought it with my own money. Then I went to the client’s home while they were at work, found a spot I felt it belonged in and planted it. They called me that evening to thank me for it and were very appreciative of what I had done for them.

Q. Describe the manner of a successful landscape designer in dealing with clients and others who work in the field.

A. Talk to your client, get an understanding of them and what they want to see in their landscape. Never speak in a condescending manner towards your client or the contractor. Everyone is a professional at their own trade or career. You are there as a landscape designer hired to show them what is to be done.

Q. Tell us about the work done by the landscape designer in a typical project that involves the collaboration of multiple professionals. How does the landscape designer interact with the other professionals and with the client?

A. A landscape designer needs to listen to what the job requires, in terms of what a client wants. Then the landscape designer needs to figure out if things are too difficult to be built or if there is a better way to build something, based on feedback from the contractor. The interaction with the contractor is often roughly as follows:

  • Here is the design, this is what I was thinking should be done...
  • And explain the construction process and why you want it to look that way
  • Then stand back and listen to the contractor
  • Contractors will then indicate either how they think they can build it the way you described...
  • Or that they have a better solution that gives the same look

Then you put it to the client and ask if they are happy with the look of what is being discussed. The same holds true when dealing with an architect in the mix where the house is being newly designed. Put your ideas on the table and be ready to have them dissected or rejected. You need to listen to reasons why it won’t work or why someone does not want it done…could even be a city official that is protecting a tree.

It is sort of like each person is given their 5 minutes to explain what they want and then, as a committee, a final solution is decided on. If your design ideas or suggestions are strong enough to hold water and give the client what they want, the landscape designer should not have to defend the design. I’ve always found that courtesy and the ability to say the same thing 5 different ways helps. In the end, after about the 5th time repeating yourself, you decide to word it in a certain manner to the person who is not budging on the idea. And that manner is to make them think they came up with the idea!

Q. Give us a synopsis of how a typical project might unfold for a landscape designer working independently (i.e., not in conjunction with a contractor). For instance, how do most homeowners in need of a landscape designer find one -- through the grapevine, in the phone book or on the Web?

A. Most customers will find a designer through all three things: Web, phone book and word of mouth. A smart landscape designer will network themselves properly with contractors and when work comes up, the contractor refers you to the client. It will all depend on where a landscape designer sinks their resources into for advertisement. Word of mouth is a slow way for a landscape designer to do business. The Web is hard to advertise on due to finding places to link yourself to so people will see you. The phone book can be costly as well. Most of my advertisement is done online or through contractor networking and that seems to be working for me right now.

Typically a client calls you up and discusses what they need or are looking for. Again, it is like an interview between the two parties (landscape designer and client). What I do is offer a consultation to the client at a cost and then go on to discuss drawing costs. I usually will put the consultation fee towards a drawing deposit if they choose to go ahead with me for a drawing. The key thing for me is to ensure I do not waste my time by driving over to a person’s house, giving them 2 hours of my time and expertise, only to have them say they will think about the drawing and send me home with no money to pay for my time. This is how I make my living and put food on my table under a roof I pay for, therefore my time to travel to a house and chat is worth money.

Anyway, once the client agrees to have me do a drawing, I give a rough time frame for completion of the drawing and settle up with the deposit. For larger projects where the client may be unsure about what they are looking for, I will draw up a rough concept before completing the drawing and give them a second visit before I hand over the completed drawing. It is easier to change a few garden or pathway lines than to rework planting lists and details of the completed drawing.

Q. What materials would a landscape designer bring to a client’s home for a consultation?

A. A landscape designer should be armed with a sketch pad or notebook to write details in and sketch up property measurements. It is good to have a measuring tape and measuring roller wheel, as you never know when you are doing take-offs for 2-acre estates without a survey map. A good portfolio is well received, too. You should also bring a smile and handshake…proper business practice, which is courteous and polite. Never wear clothing that makes you look like you rolled out of bed and drove to their house.

Don’t smoke on site in front of them. Do not accept alcoholic drinks during the first few meetings. When the client invites you over for a BBQ after the job is complete, a beer or two is ok to have. Leave your shoes at the door unless otherwise directed by the client.

Q. Give a general idea of what the contract would consist of between the homeowner and landscape designer.

A. The contract should contain your complete address and business name, as well as the agreed upon prices of whatever you are offering to do work for. If you take a deposit, you sign that it is received. And show what the balance will be once you deliver the drawing; that way, there is no confusion or argument. The contract should have terms for the client to agree with in accepting you to do the work for them.

Q. If the landscape designer needs to work with a crew for the project, please address how such a crew is hired, paid, insured, etc.

A. I’ve never actually run a job this way. I tend to stay away from headaches like that and let the contractors come in on the work and deal with the hassles of insurance, crews, and equipment. I usually stand on the sidelines just watching the work as it happens and if I see things wrong or the client has a question, I will pull aside the contractor and discuss the issue. My method of operation is to get contractors who know their stuff in place to deal directly with clients. They agree to implement my design for a set cost and the clients deal directly with the contractors for fees and so on. When it is a design issue, I do my best to resolve it.

Q. What’s the most important advice you could give to someone interested in becoming a landscape designer?

A. Design with your heart and create with your mind, not with what everyone else is doing. AutoCAD can make some landscape designers get lazy to where they copy and paste things from old designs and just repeat the same things in the new ones. Keep your designs original, keep your ethics and morals in a truthful place when you practice your trade.

Travel the world! See how things are done in other parts of the world and base your ideas on that. Look at Nature to teach you more than you can possibly read in any book. There are so many things in Nature that will show you how plants like to live and how landscapes should look. When you stray too far from that you decide to become a modern artist that uses landscape materials as a medium rather than a landscape artist that uses Nature as the medium.

Q. I see from your bio that gardening has always been a part of your personal life. The same probably holds true for many an individual intent on becoming a landscape designer. Discuss some of the most important lessons learned from one’s own gardening that can be applied to one’s career as a landscape designer.

A. Plants are like people: If they are not happy, they will shrivel up and die. When you garden on a personal basis, you are reminded of soil needs, watering needs and sunlight or shade needs. You see how one plant can struggle in one spot and thrive in another spot. You learn the interconnection of the land to that plant and what the relationships are which keep a plant thriving.

The gardening aspect of your personal life keeps you connected to that relationship that plants have with the land. When you go to a client’s house for the first time, you look for signs of stress in existing plants. You look at the soil conditions with a sense of confidence. You question, “Could I make my plants grow in this soil? Does this soil need help or will I have to find plants that will thrive in this soil type?”

When you learn those lessons, you know that when you hand over a garden plan to a client, it will work!

The second most valuable lesson you learn when tending your own gardens is: Weedingweeding, and weeding… then watering… then weeding some more! So if a client asks for low maintenance gardens (which is a modern day myth!), you can advise them accordingly. It is easy to create 2400 square feet of gardens in your drawing, but it is the client that has to tend to it afterward or pay someone to do so.

Keeping in mind how much work it takes, you can then ask your client, "Are you up for this task, or should we be making smaller garden beds? Should we be using a weed barrier and mulch? How about a sprinkler system to keep things watered?" The idea is to spend less time working in the garden and more time enjoying it.

About Paul Corsetti, our expert on becoming a landscape designer:

Through 8 years of working in the trade along with achieving a degree and diploma in Landscape Architecture through Ryerson University, Paul has gained vast experience in the landscape industry. He is able to plan elements of design work with his years of experience spent as a professional gardener, a contractor, and a stone sales rep. In coordination with “GardenStructure.com” and his design company “Hands In Nature, Landscape Designs”, Paul is able to bring this knowledge forward to his clients.