How to Become a Landscape Designer

Career Advice From A Professional

Student learn about pruning from an experienced mentor
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Some people enjoy landscaping so much that they wish to go beyond the DIY level; they aspire to become professional landscape designers. If that describes you, then it will be helpful for you to hear what steps a particular individual now successful in the field took to get there. Professional landscape designer, Paul Corsetti tells his story in the interview that follows:

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. You need to recognize what type of soil you're 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 and easier on a client’s budget, while still achieving 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 enter the field?

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. 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 didn't 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 don't 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 yourself the hard questions:

  • 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's 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 (High Park). I called it "getting paid to learn 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.

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, 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 his business, Garden Structure. With a bit of help and coaching from him, I have not looked back since.