Certificate In Garden Design

Garden Design - exceptionally solid training for garden designers. Learn to survey a site, deal with clients, choose and arrange soft and hard landscape materials, and create gardens that are both aesthetic and practical.

Course CodeVHT012
Fee CodeCT
Duration (approx)600 hours

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Want to be a Garden Designer?

This course has been producing very successful landscapers and garden designers for over 25 years

  • Developed by John Mason (Garden magazine editor and landscaper) with input from over 20 professional garden designers and horticulturists from Australia, the UK and beyond.
  • Revised regularly to ensure notes are always up to date.
  • Supported by a wide variety of unique resources including videos, photographs, online library articles, but most of all, the opportunity for one on one interaction with highly qualified and experienced landscape professionals.

“People working in garden design or as landscape gardeners will find this to be a very comprehensive course. Not only will you learn about construction techniques, garden features, and landscape detailing, but you will also learn how to draw plans and design different types of gardens. Add to that; plant, soil, and maintenance knowledge, and you can appreciate the diversity and completeness of this compelling course.”


How the course is assessed

The Certificate In Garden Design requires around 600 hours of study.

To pass the course, students are to pass the assignments at the end of each lesson, and pass two examinations. The examinations are taken on completion of lesson 15, and then at the end of the course. Exams are arranged at a time and location to suit students. A fee is payable for each exam.

Course Aims

  • Discuss the principles Garden Design.
  • Develop a foundation for systematic identification of plants and systematic determination of cultural requirements.
  • Develop an awareness of different styles of gardening, principally through the study of the history of gardening.
  • Develop the basic skills of landscape drawing as well as developing a basic understanding of contracts and specifications.
  • Identify soil conditions appropriate for a garden design.
  • Identify and properly account for environmental conditions within a garden design.
  • Determine earthworks required for a garden design.
  • Consider the relationship between design and construction when designing a garden.
  • Determine appropriate surfacing for different gardens
  • Determine appropriate garden structures for a garden.
  • Evaluate the functionality of a park design.
  • Evaluate the design of a home garden.
  • Develop an appreciation for the impact that design can have on the cost of a garden.
  • Discuss the functionality and design of surfaced areas in a garden or park, including paths, trails and sporting facilities.
  • Discuss the scope and nature of tools used to landscape gardens.
  • Discuss ways that plants may be better established.
  • Discuss the design of water gardens
  • Discuss the use of Rock, Stone, Brick and Concrete in garden designs.
  • Discuss the appropriate use of lawns in garden designs.
  • Discuss the appropriate use of irrigation in garden designs
  • Discuss the design of natural gardens.
  • Discuss the design of cottage gardens.
  • Discuss the design of children’s play areas.
  • Discuss the design of garden beds.
  • Identify Management skills required to be a commercially viable garden designer.
  • Explain methods of rehabilitation of degraded landscapes.
  • Explain methods of dealing with drainage problems in a garden design
  • Discuss the relationship between garden design and maintenance.
  • Explain how a garden designer should successfully deal with clients.
  • Prepare a significant garden design.

Where can this course lead?

This is an industry that has a deficiency of capable people. Surveys in recent years in Australia, the UK, and some other countries have show an increasing (and growing) demand for landscape and horticulture experts. The duration and content of many government sponsored courses have unfortunately come under financial and other pressures; and industry recognises that there are simply not enough people who can draw good plans and know how to select the right plants for appropriate situations.

This certificate is substantial in content, and duration. It may take longer than some other landscape certificates (offered elsewhere), but in our experience, graduates from this course tend to be able to produce better plans, work with a wider range of plant cultivars, and do the job faster and with greater confidence.

If you can talk to clients with more confidence, present more options for their gardens and produce better plans faster; your career is going to be assured in this industry. 

In short:

  • The work exists
  • There are too few good designers
  • This course takes longer to complete; but that's what is needed to be a good designer.

Examples of tasks undertaken in this course

The following are just some of the activities that the student will undertake in this course.

  • Find a site to be landscaped. (It could be a park or home garden; it could be a new development or a redevelopment of an older garden).  Visit the site and record pre planning information required to design the landscape.
  • Find five examples of the use of landscape principles.  Using sketches and written descriptions,  describe the way the garden has been laid out in order to achieve those particular effects.
  • Find gardens which represent three different styles.  Submit a photograph or sketch plan of each  along with a half page written description of the style of the garden. Explain any historical  influences, including the influence of those who build to owned the garden. The gardens may be gardens you have actually visited, or can be gardens you have seen in a magazine or book.
  • Copy the drawings of symbols (i.e. drawings which show you how to represent plants, walls, rocks, etc. when you draw plans). Practice drawing these various components of a landscape.
  • Using the pre-planning information collected, produce a design for that area. or part of that area.
  • Take a sample of soil and attempt to name it using the test given.
  • Obtain components of potting or soil mixes; make up different mixes and test their characteristics.
  • Survey an area requiring earthmoving. Draw a plan of the area, to scale, showing the area to be excavated. Calculate the volume of earth to be removed.  Calculate where it is to be put.
  • Find, observe and report on some bad landscape construction work. (You might discuss a poor rockery, a wall which is falling over, or some playground equipment which is unsafe.)
  • Find three examples of bad selection of surfaces in a landscape (i.e. home garden, park, sports oval, tennis court or whatever). Describe the material used and explain why they are bad.   Consider both the aesthetic and functional qualities of the surfacing.
  • Develop a redevelopment plan for an existing park. Submit a photograph of the park as it exists at the moment (otherwise submit a rough sketch).  Prepare a design for redevelopment in line with the suggested changes.
  • Choose an established home garden (your own or a friends), and draw a sketch plan as the garden exists. Explain how well do you think this garden is designed?
  • Find another home garden, needing either a new design or redevelopment. Prepare four rough sketches showing the stages you would go through in designing or redesigning that particular garden.
  • Develop a detailed explanation of how you prepared your costing in the set task. Show the various  components of the costing and explain how and why you costed it this way rather than higher  or lower.
  • Design a trail.  It can be any type of trail (fun & fitness, nature, history, etc.) and may be located  anywhere (a street, park, home garden, etc.).
  • Find and visit some recently landscaped gardens (completed within the last 4 months). Visit up to three different properties. Take note of any problems with the maintenance.  Consider what could have been done to prevent these problems occurring.
  • Design a perennial border along the front wall of a brick house
  • Prepare a plan for the establishment of a large number of trees in a degraded area. This plan should cover at least 5 years. You should indicate clearly what the problem is and how you are going to use the trees to help rehabilitate the area.
  • Design a water feature (e.g. a pond or creek bed) for a bush or natural garden.  Submit plans and a step by step description showing how you would construct such a water feature.
  • Design a rockery area for a bush garden.
  • Design a bush garden using mainly ferns, for a small courtyard of specified dimensions.

Lesson Structure

There are 30 lessons in this course:

  1. Introduction to Landscaping
  2. Plant Identification
  3. History of Gardening
  4. Drawing Plans
  5. Soils & Nutrition
  6. Understanding the Environment
  7. Earthworks & Surveying
  8. Basic Landscape Construction
  9. Surfacings
  10. Garden Structures
  11. Park Design
  12. Home Garden Design
  13. Costing & Specifications
  14. Trail Design
  15. Tools & Machinery
  16. Plant Establishment Techniques
  17. Ponds & Pools
  18. Rockwork & Masonry
  19. Lawn Construction Techniques
  20. Irrigation Design & Installation
  21. Bush Garden Design
  22. Cottage Garden Design
  23. Playground Design
  24. Garden Bed Design
  25. Management
  26. Land Rehabilitation
  27. Drainage
  28. Maintenance
  29. Dealing with Clients
  30. Major Design Project

Each lesson culminates in an assignment which is submitted to the school, marked by the school's tutors and returned to you with any relevant suggestions, comments, and if necessary, extra reading.

How to create impact with your garden designs

Often something very simple can create an enormous impact in a garden. A sculpture strategically placed to catch the eye, or a courtyard wall painted in a vibrant colour might do more to enhance the garden than a whole garden bed full of flowering plants. Here we show you some simple but effective ways to create an impact in your garden using sculpture, water and walls.

A well-placed sculpture is probably the easiest way to create a focal point in the garden. The classical designs have an enduring appeal, and there are many excellent reproductions available. A popular trend is the use of Roman and Greek-style classical columns. The taller columns are used as a decorative feature in their own right, often placed against a wall, while the shorter ones can be used as a plinth for an urn or sculpture.

Contemporary sculptures work well in the minimalist garden or courtyard. Designs are often abstract or eclectic and may be geometric in form, crafted from metal, plastics, fibreglass and other refined materials not usually used in the garden.

For maximum impact, make sure the sculpture has plenty of room around it. Don’t crowd it with a mass of different plants and textures. If you do want to include some greenery for a softening effect, use uniform plantings, either as massed ground-covers around the base or a hedge or wall of neatly clipped climber behind the sculpture.

In a small courtyard, bare walls are the most dominant feature. Generally, the tendency is to make the walls disappear behind a screen of climbers and shrubs. However, there are some pretty exciting things you can do to walls:

  • Paint a wall a single colour - not only does it make an interesting backdrop, but a painted wall changes the mood of the garden depending on the colours used. Hot colours (reds, yellows, pinks) make the whole garden feel warmer, more vibrant and active. Cool colours (greens, blues) are more restful and cool the garden down (psychologically). Dark colours give a feeling of enclosure and intimacy whereas light colours open the area up. 
  • Paint a trompe l’oeil on a wall. A trompe l’oeil is an illusion, a painted scene designed to deceive the eye. It gives a quirky, humorous touch to the garden, and makes the garden appear larger than it really is. 
  • Cover the wall with panels of decorative trellis or latticework.
  • Create niches (shallow recesses) in the wall to display urns, busts or small sculptures. Niches tend to give the garden or courtyard a formal, classical look.
  • Place a decorative gate in the wall, perhaps aligned with a fountain, ornament or the main doors of the house, to create an axis. A plain solid gate set in a high wall gives the garden a sense of intrigue - a secret retreat from the outside world, and it teases the mind about what may lie beyond the door.

One of the cleverest tricks for small outdoor areas is using a mirror placed on a wall. The mirror catches and reflects light and thereby ‘extends’ the view giving the illusion that the garden is bigger than it really is.

Where to Place a Mirror:
  • Behind a pond, to catch the movement and play of light on water.
  • At the end of an axis, such as path, to give the illusion of extra length.
  • Against a dark wall, with some light-coloured plants in front of, and below it, to give a feeling of lightness and space 
  • Behind a statue, allowing you to see it from all angles.

It is important to use a good quality mirror with a good backing, as the backing will soon peel off cheaper mirrors when they are exposed to the weather. You can buy purpose-made outdoor mirrors. All mirrors, of course, are at risk of being broken - but if they are placed in a location that is obscure, perhaps partially protected from severe storms, weather extremes, and away from where children play ball games, then the likelihood of breakage is significantly reduced.

Most professional designers consider that water is an essential component of the garden - and for good reason. Water adds an extra dimension to the garden bringing movement, sound, and a sense of coolness which is both psychological and real.

The water feature doesn't have to be elaborate to create an impact. Generally, simple water features work better in small spaces. Some of the most effective water features are based on geometric designs including: circular or rectangular pools set in ground-level paving, raised rectangular water channels, and spheres with bubbling water.

For a real sense of drama a water wall is hard to beat - with water cascading over the wall in a smooth sheet, or catching and splashing over bowls or receptacles embedded in the wall, or spouting from wall jets. Underwater lights add a further exciting dimension to the garden at night.

Borrow your neighbours landscape to make your garden seem larger

Small gardens don’t always need to seem small; after all, big gardens are often simply made up of lots of small garden areas linked together. The trick is to make it seem like your neighbour’s garden is simply the next section of your own garden.

1) Take stock – look at the gardens backing onto your property. Consider their features that can be seen from your garden e.g. walls, pergolas covered with climbers, large trees, and so on.

2) Consider the things that are separating your garden from the surrounding gardens such as fences, buildings etc.

3) Work out how to hide the features that separate your garden from your neighbours using plants and trellis screens.

4) Use visual tricks to extend the garden and link it with the surrounding properties.

Use Plants to Screen the Boundaries
The idea is to make your garden look bigger than it is.  Fences, walls, garden sheds or other man-made objects in the line of view will quickly shatter that illusion. The solution is to plant shrubs and climbers so that they screen the boundaries and hide unsightly features, but without drawing undue attention to the boundaries.

Don’t place plants in a solid line along the fence – this will only draw the eye to the boundary, creating a sense of enclosure. Instead, plant shrubs of varying heights in small groups in front of the fence, so that you look out onto foliage that merges with taller trees and shrubs behind the fence.

Allow climbers such as Wisteria sinensis, Rosa filipes ‘Kiftskate’, Bougainvillea sp., Clematis montana and Solanum crispum ‘Glasnevin’ to spread through trees and large shrubs from one garden to another, so that their flowers disappear into the distance.

Other Ways to ‘Enlarge’ the Boundaries

  • Paint the fence or wall a dull, muted colour – grey or dull green. 
  • Remove your back fence if it goes onto parkland or farmland.
  • Install a gateway or arch that leads into your neighbours garden (providing of course that you are on good terms).
  • If possible, cut peepholes in the fence or foliage so you can see beyond your garden (this may be easier if you are adjacent to a reserve).
  • Don’t remove overhanging branches from trees, shrubs, or climbers that come from your neighbour’s garden.  Doing this will only accentuate the border between yourself and your neighbours.
  • Position benches and seats where you can see beyond your own garden.

Tricks that Landscape Designers Use

  • Install a trompe l’oeil trellis screen framing an image or a mirror to give an illusion that the garden extends through the wall.  
  • Use mirrors elsewhere to create illusions.  For example, if you submerge a mirror at either end of a narrow pond that bisects your garden, it will look as though you have a continuous stream running through your garden.  If you place a mirror inside an archway towards the end of the garden so that it reflects foliage, it will look as though the garden continues beyond the boundary.  
  • Use murals to create the illusion of a garden gate or archway on a garden wall.
  • Paint foliage onto a garden wall that resembles the existing visible foliage at the end of your own garden, or that of a neighbour’s garden that backs on to yours.  This will create continuity between the gardens.
  • Create the start of a pathway leading into next door’s garden but hide the fact that as you turn the corner, it hits a brick wall.
  • Use similar plants to your neighbours’ so that it ties your garden in with theirs.
  • If you live in a terraced house or semi-detached house, encourage climbing plants on the back of your neighbours’ or your own house to grow on both, or several, properties.
  • Install a pergola that extends from one garden into another.

Bringing the outside in

You can make a garden seem bigger by creating the illusion that something beyond the garden is within your property. Alternatively, you can make the garden seem as though it is inside the house.

How to Extend Your Garden

  • Knock out a wall of the house and put in a big window.
  • Cut plants back from windows so you can see out - maximise your ability to see the garden from the house. 
  • Redevelop the garden - prune, plant, etc. to create vistas from the house. 
  • Position features in the garden (fountain, statue, trompe l’oeil, mirror etc.) that can be seen better or with more effect from inside the house.
  • Remove curtains, replace frosted glass to improve view outside, and then build a fence outside to maintain privacy.
  • Think about having a shower or bath and being able to look straight into the garden – it can be a great feeling, as long as people walking down the street can’t see in as easily as you can see out!
  • Add garden lighting outside so that the garden looks a picture at night.
  • Place plants with large leaves in the foreground and plants with small leaves in the background.  This will create the illusion of depth. 
  • The illusion of depth can also be created by having light coloured foliage in the foreground and dark foliage as a backdrop. 
  • Create the illusion that your neighbour’s trees are part of your garden – plant shrubs on your side to camouflage the fence and merge with the foliage in your neighbour’s garden.
  • Frame an attractive view such as a distant mountain with an arch, pergola or trees. This draws the eye beyond the immediate garden.

Deciding How to Extend Your Garden
Think about the type of room and the type of view you get from that room:

  • What outside view do you want to be looking at when you are eating a meal, lying in bed, sitting at a desk, etc?
  • How does the colour scheme in the room fit with the view from that room?
  • How does the style of the room fit with the view? (You don’t want to be sitting in a liberally furnished room looking out at an ultra modern, minimalist garden).

What next?

To be successful in garden design,  you need imagination, passion, persistence and a willingness to do whatever it takes to succeed.
If this describes you; we can help you to get a start.

You need to build a foundation of basic knowledge and skills first, understand the science and artistic method that underpins garden design; and to know the materials that are used to build a landscape. This means learning about everything from soil and stone to timber and plants

This course could lead to:

  • Starting your own business in landscaping
  • Working for a landscaper, or in a nursery or garden centre - many people in this industry lack plant identification skills.
  • Work as a gardener - many gardeners have absolutely no formal training and it shows!
  • A hobby gardener turning a passion into a profession.
  • A substantial step toward further education.

Want to Learn More?

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Martin Powdrill

25 years working in Telecommunications, IT, Organisational Development, and Energy Conservation & Efficiency, prior to setting up his own Permaculture consulting business. Martin has a Bsc (Hons) Applied Science (Resources Option), MSc Computer Studies, P
John Mason

Parks Manager, Nurseryman, Landscape Designer, Garden Writer and Consultant. Over 40 years experience; working in Victoria, Queensland and the UK. He is one of the most widely published garden writers in the world.
Jacinda Cole

B.Sc., Cert.Garden Design. Landscape Designer, Operations Manager, Consultant, Garden Writer. He was operations manager for a highly reputable British Landscape firm (The Chelsea Gardener) before starting up his own landscaping firm. He spent three year
Adriana Fraser

Over 30 years working in horticulture, as a gardener, propagator, landscape designer , teacher and consultant. Adriana has spent much of her life living on large properties, developing and maintaining her own gardens, and living a semi self sufficient li
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