Becoming a landscape architect

Surviving life’s challenges to achieve success and becoming a landscape architect.

Karen Laing 

Looking for something new.

Having completed a degree in fine art while my children were still at school but becoming increasingly independent, I worked for some years as a community artist, tutor and teacher. I found more and more I was facilitating other peoples creativity and losing touch with my own and was looking for a way to earn a living that taped into my creative strengths. This was before I had thought about becoming a landscape architect.

The first steps

A life long gardener I had never seen this passion as a way of making a living. Then a friend gave me an application for a competition to design a show garden for the Avant Gardens Festival held at New Hopetoun Gardens in 2007.

I was selected as a finalist and we built the garden, it was so exciting I was like a kid in a sweet shop with all the plants and I realised that this was something I would really like to make my profession. So the idea was fixed that I was becoming a landscape architect. The garden was featured on BBC Scotland's Beechgrove Garden. 

At this point I was still more artist than garden designer. I was lucky enough to then get a part-time job at the Beechgrove Garden on the gardening team while completed a few garden design modules at the Scottish Agricultural College.

Winning ways.

I was picking up bits of work then another competition came along with the  Royal Horticultural Society in 2008 fronted by Chris Beardshaw. It was offering a scholarship. I entered and was selected to take part, which was an excellent opportunity.

I was able to build a show garden at RHS Malvern with only  a thousand pound budget. I had to do it as a normal competitor and managed to achieve a silver medal. Having gone to all the effort for RHS Malvern I then entered the garden into Gardening Scotland and won a silver gilt, best show garden and best newcomer that same year.

The best laid plans....

By 2009 my sons were now students and had flown the nest. The men in my life had all left home and I thought. Me too! I upped sticks and relocated to Edinburgh that October  to take up post graduate studies in Landscape Architecture and begin a grand new adventure to becoming a landscape architect.

I had it all sussed. I downsized and went mortgage free, put aside a two year pot for fees and living costs. Plan A being to then go where the work led on completion of my Masters.

Well forget about plan A, B, C and D Plan X hit me square in the face before I got a chance to blink.

My studies had just begun when news came from Aberdeen that my mother had been diagnosed with bowel cancer, a disease which I had seen consume and take my mother-in-law some years previously.

I do not know how to articulate the shock of being told that someone I love so very dearly had this devastating disease. And to hugely oversimplify the very excellent news is, that was over 3 years ago and after two bouts of surgery her prognosis is very good.

In May of 2011 I completed my Masters. So my dream of becoming a landscape architect was coming true. Then that June my younger sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. I felt helpless as she went through the protracted diagnostic process and had her first surgery.

However a very diligent radiologist at the Western General found a discrepancy when reviewing my mammograms and to my shock I was diagnosed with breast cancer as well. And my lovely mother had to sit it out in Aberdeen while one daughter had surgery in Essex and the following day the other had surgery in Edinburgh.

That was September 2011.

Spinal injuries garden

The last couple of years have proved to be challenging but ultimately positive and as my strength builds again I am getting into some fascinating projects. Currently I am working on a couple of very exiting large domestic gardens with some small corporate work in the pipeline.

I have also just completed my second community garden which was on the beautiful island of Colonsay and broadcast in July on the Beechgrove Garden.  The last few years have taught me to grab opportunity whole heartedly when it comes along, to live life fully and enjoy the moment. 

I recently completed a project with The BBC Beechgrove Garden creating a community garden in Colonsay. 

Why employ a landscape gardener?

You may well ask why employ a landscape architect when there are "landscape" companies out there that say they can do it all? Well there are some companies that do include experienced and qualified horticulturalists, designers or architects on their team, but they are few and far between.

Would you ask a brick layer to design your house or a steeplejack to design a bridge? I hope not. So when it comes to designing inspiring functional outdoor places that grow and flourish and stand the test of time, should they not be designed on a solid foundation of experience and knowledge enlisting that same professional competence that ensures all the aspects of hard and soft landscape are brought together safely, pragmatically and insightfully with plans and schedules grounded on horticulture practice, landscape architecture, design theory and artistic excellence.

With a background in fine art and experience in community art projects, I understand how to use art within the designed landscape to great effect and I have received medals for show gardens that integrate artwork at the heart of their design.

And the future?

My dream of becoming a landscape architect has now come to fruition and I would love to design parks or large estates – so if you know of anyone with a stately home and money and they would like a new grand garden I would love to meet them.

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If you found becoming a landscape architect interesting then link to try something new.