When is a garden designer a landscape designer? Indeed, when is a garden a landscape – or vice-versa?

A few months ago I was asked by a magazine to explain the differences between a garden designer, a landscape designer and a landscape architect. They were writing a piece on designers and the research had led them in a number of different directions. I was immediately intrigued: not only was this is an interesting question, but I instinctively felt that it was one that I am probably quite well placed to answer, as I am both a landscape architect and garden designer as well as having a lot of involvement in contracting. What I felt was interesting about the question was that to define the terms, one has to return to the root definitions – what is a garden? What is a Landscape?

Maces Farm, Wyck Rissington. Design by Bowles & Wyer, photo by Steve Wooster
Is this a garden or a landscape?

(see the project page on the Bowles & Wyer website for the scheme above)

Let’s start with garden design. Everybody knows what a garden is, don’t they? Here are some definitions from the web:

1. A plot of ground, usually near a house, where flowers, shrubs, vegetables, fruits, or herbs are cultivated.

2. A piece of ground or other space, commonly with ornamental plants, trees, etc., used as a park or other public recreation area: a public garden.

3. A fertile and delightful spot or region.

Let’s ignore the third one for a moment (although it is interesting – cultural references to paradise). With regards to the first two definitions, there are two common elements: boundaries and the act of cultivation. The words ‘plot’ and ‘a piece of ground’ imply distinct limits to the space as opposed to a landscape which has much looser limits, or no limits at all. Note that plants and the intervention of a ‘gardener’ are (for the purposes of these definitions) a pre-requisite. So without humans, gardens revert to landscape. I love the idea that for something to be considered a garden there has to be a gardener: there is a poetic circularity in the definition. Also note that the definition mentions ‘usually near a house’, although I would stretch this cover any building. And a garden designer designs gardens – simple (although some get involved in other things as well).

Landscape architecture is a completely different story. Instead of thinking of it as one discipline, I view it as an umbrella profession that covers a very wide range of areas of expertise in a similar way to say medicine, or law. In practice, landscape architecture covers landscape planning, environmental impact analysis, landscape character analysis, strategy and masterplanning, and so forth. Landscape design is the design element of landscape architecture; some would argue that garden design is a branch of landscape design. Landscape design is different from garden design in a number of ways, mostly by the reverse of the definitions we looked at above:

  • Scale – landscape design covers projects that are generally of a larger size (but can also be small).
  • Context – gardens are normally (although not always) associated with a building, landscapes need not be, in fact frequently are not.
  • Generally, gardens have defined boundaries, landscapes often don’t.
  • There is almost always an element of management or maintenance (‘gardening’) involved in gardens. This can also apply to landscape, but need not and is a less important element.

There is one really simple definition of landscape – anything that is not in a building. Landscape design is clearly the design of the landscape. By this definition, garden design could be said to be a specialism of landscape design. It is not less of a skill for that, if anything the reverse. There is ‘nowhere to hide’ in garden design. Every element is important and there is no chance of fudging the design. The shift in scale is difficult for many landscape architects to cope with, just as many garden designers struggle with master-planning. So although the two disciplines are clearly related, the area of overlap is not as large as one might at first think.

7 responses on “When is a garden designer a landscape designer? Indeed, when is a garden a landscape – or vice-versa?

  1. Piotr Widulinski

    In y personal opinion difference between the Garden and a Landscape are not about its boundry, accesibility, maintenance, or ownership etc.
    Designing Landscape someone design a Lifestyle and Garden is traditionally a place to groe plants. In the far past, there was n’t such terminology as Landscape commonly used. There were parks where people grew useful household plants or designed Parks for recreation. Today Landscape may not evn incorporate plants. It is surrounding where we live, perform different tasks or simply rest and enjoy forms and shapes around us even that they are not originated from plant material. However presently garden is part of the landscape or landscape can consist only from the garden.

  2. Piotr Widulinski

    In my personal opinion difference between the Garden and a Landscape are not about its boundary, accesibility, maintenance, or ownership etc.
    Designing Landscape someone design a Lifestyle and Garden is traditionally a place to grow plants. In the far past, there wasn’t such terminology as Landscape commonly used. There were parks where people grew useful household plants or designed Parks for recreation. Today Landscape may not even incorporate plants. It is surrounding where we live, performing different tasks or simply rest and enjoy forms and shapes around us even that they are not originated from plant material. However presently garden is part of the landscape but landscape can consist only from the garden. Today we still use garden as a place to cultivate household crop, but often large gardens are called a landscape and are designed by Landscape Designer or landscape architects.

  3. Saskia de Wit

    Contrary to the previous remark I think the boundary is a crucial aspect of the difference. but it relates to a more important aspect, which is that ‘landscape’ is already there.

    A garden can be – but does not have to be – designed from scratch, often the creation of an idealised other space, separated by its boundaries from the existing landscape. (Ideally the relation to the surrounding landscape is taken into account and made expressive in the design.)

    Landscape on the other hand cannot be created, it is already there. In essence landscape architecture is always an act of transformation and/or intervention, be it subtle or radical, and the qualities of the existing landscape are – should be – the starting point of design.

  4. Gabrielle

    The difference between a Landscape Architect and a garden designer or Landscape Designer. .
    The first is the definition. A Landscape Architect must have a professional license issued by the registration board: The Landscape institute in the UK. In order to become licensed they usually must have a Masters in Landscape Architecture from a LI accredited university, +/- 2 years of experience and passage of the LI exam. Though there is a “credential” for Landscape Designers/garden designers, it really has no professional standing in the Proffesional career sense, such as architect, lawyer etc. A Landscape Designer can simply call themselves as such and there are no educational or experience requirements.
    “The second way to look at this is the type of work they do. Because Landscape Architects are licensed, they take responsibility for health, safety, correct proffesional appointment etc. in the work they do. They uselly are the lead on large scale projects like parks, recreation facilities, institutional buildings, commercial buildings, habitat restoration projects.” -Reddit. By contrast Landscape Designers/garden designers are often omitted from being able to apply for tender for public realm projects because they have not had the same training in health, safety, environment, planting (especially trees) design and collaboration process and drawing standards (or they employ a Landscape architect to do this for them). I know this because I’m going through my Masters in Landscape architecture at the moment and it has been a real eye opener in how the LI is galloping ahead of the Society of Garden designers and requires a huge effort and commitment to the proffesion from their students that I haven’t really seen in any of the garden design courses. Landscape architecture pushes you and expects your ego as a designer to be left at the door of the university whilst you submit yourself to the dreaded crit, amongst the architecture students too. However you come out of it, in my opinion, humble and critical of everything you do with a great appreciation of theory of landscape and ecologically. Not to mention a whizz on CAD and rhino, adobe and hand drawing!

    1. John Wyer Post author

      Thanks for taking the time to write this, Gabrielle. I must confess to having a foot in both camps here – I trained as a landscape architect and have been a member of the Landscape Institute for almost thirty years. However, I am also a member of the Society of Garden Designers and work regularly in both fields. Bowles & Wyer is a registered Practice with both bodies. I was also an external examiner at Greenwich for several years on both the Garden Design and Landscape Architecture courses: it is a great school.
      I think your first point is not entirely accurate. In the UK, this only applies to Chartered Landscape Architects. Anyone can actually refer to themselves as a landscape architect (setting aside whether they should or not!). The registered member status for the Society of Garden Designers does have some status, but is not chartered like the LI – although I accept that even before it was chartered the LI accreditation was more organised and held more sway in the industry.
      Your second point is also not completely correct. In law, a garden designer has exactly the same responsibilities for health and safety as a landscape architect. They have the same requirement under their respective code of conduct for correct professional appointment. I wouldn’t say it was true that Landscape architects usually lead on institutional buildings and commercial buildings, and the frequently do not lead on large scale projects like parks, recreation facilities, habitat restoration projects; although I wish that they did. Curiously, even when they do, clients often employ garden designers to do much of the detailed work and planting design (as Argent did with Dan Pearson at the Kings Cross development, or Capco with Andy Sturgeon at Earls Court). As a member of both professional bodies and in practice for 35 years, I wouldn’t say that the LI is ‘galloping ahead’ of the SGD – they are different organisations catering to different types of markets and individuals. Don’t let’s forget that the LI was almost bankrupt 5 years ago. Also remember that a large proportion of members of the SGD are actually members of the LI as well. I agree that some courses in Garden Design leave something to be desired, but that certainly cannot be said of Greenwich, where both the garden design and landscape architecture courses share many modules and a final design project in their final year.

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