The Big Interview: Phil Stovell Garden Design

Phil Stovell
(image: Garden Designer Phil Stovell)

Phil Stovell is a garden designer based in Somerset.

Not only has Phil set up his business in a recession, to add to the challenge, he has also relocated from Hampshire.

Phil Voice asks Phil a few questions about his business and about being a garden designer.

You are fairly new to the landscape industry, is garden design a whole new ballgame?
No, not really. Coming from a design background, I found moving into garden design very comfortable in all. Studying garden design however threw up all sorts of new ways of thinking that challenged me and made me realise that it was going to be a lot harder than I first thought.

How long have you been trading as a garden designer?
I qualified, with a distinction, in September 2010 and immediately set up my garden design business.

(image: Oxfordshire steeply sloping garden – Before)

Did you throw yourself straight in at the deep end or was it a toe in the water approach?
My first project was my own narrow, long and sloping garden which I designed and built myself. This was, for me the best way to start as it gave me a great insight into what is involved in a garden build at every level whilst giving me the opportunity to practice my new found skills.

You're obviously up for a challenge. I understand you've also recently re-located?
Yes, last year we moved house to Somerset from Hampshire and so I had the challenge of searching for new business in a completely new area. It did set me back a little but I was determined to make it work and I felt energised by being able to work in the south west with all of its own challenges, different soils, climates and mix of clients etc.

Even though you are now located in Somerset you are still designing gardens large and small in a wide area of the south. Is there a pattern when it comes to size, value and area?
My projects vary in size, location and complexity but thankfully my design principals have remained consistent and always deliver great results (according to my clients). I now have projects in Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Somerset and the South West.

(image: Oxfordshire steeply sloping garden – After)

How long have you been designing?
Nearly 3 years now.

What route have you taken to get to your current position (i.e. college; self-taught; mentoring?).
I took a Garden Design Diploma at The Garden Design School in 2009-2010. A brilliant course taught by 2 experienced and highly qualified practicing designers, Robin Templar-Williams and Moira Farnham. The course appealed to me because it’s only 9 months and teaches the highest level of design and importantly, the business elements too.

How many designs do you do in a year?
Anywhere between 3-10 depending on the size and complexity.

What is their average build value?
Between £5k - £75k.

Typically how long do you spend on each design?
Depending on the size of the project, between 1-2 days (design only). Add to that, planting design and drawing up surveys can take up to a week to complete.

(image: Oxfordshire steeply sloping garden – longer view)

What gives you most pride, designing the garden or seeing it built?
It is always seeing your design come to life for me. For years, I designed things in two dimensions like brochures and branding for corporate businesses where the design mostly stayed in print. Now my designs live and breathe and I like to revisit them when I can to see how they have changed.

What’s the most pleasing part of your job?
Being able to do one of the best jobs around is generally pleasing but if I was pushed for a single area it would have to be when a job is completed above the client’s expectations leaving everyone who was involved smiling.

What irks you most about the garden design and landscaping industry?
Educating clients as to build costs. Most people seem to know how much a roll of wallpaper costs or how much a new kitchen is likely to set them back, especially if it’s all singing and dancing with lights and hidden cupboards etc. As soon as you step outdoors into the garden I find that trying to explain the value of a good garden design and build is just as valuable if not more valuable to their property. Also, explaining to clients that low maintenance does not mean no maintenance.

Does the Chelsea Flower Show inspire you or is it unrealistic?
I personally find Chelsea inspiring. Any form of stage that showcases garden design has to be good for my business from an awareness level and creatively. I try to go all the shows to develop my own knowledge of planting combinations and to soak up the busy atmosphere. I also have worked with the RHS designing ‘try them at home’ planting plans based on some of the show gardens. You can download them from the RHS website or see some of the illustrations on my website.

(image: Hampshire Formal / Informal garden – on-going)

Do you design every day?
No. I assess designs in my head every day but most days are filled with surveys, drawing up plans or paperwork. Maybe one day when my business has expanded it'll be different.

How much time per day do you spend designing?
When I am designing a new garden, I spend the whole day designing as it is a time where I concentrate on the creativity and focus on the project not being distracted by day to day office work.

What is your most creative time of the day?
Unfortunately for me it tends to be in the evening. I'm one of those people who wakes up in the night searching for my phone or tablet so I can either write down some notes or draw a concept that has just become clear in my head.

(image: Phil's own garden which he designed and built for himself)

How do you get inspired to produce unique drawings every time?
Every garden is different. Even if the size or layout maybe similar in some cases, there are so many variables to work with that provide interest and challenge the concept, it becomes unique through the process. I like to think that my creativity comes from years of design experience mixed with a fresh interest in new materials to work with.

As a designer you have to be creative. Can you define creativity?
Creativity is a personal thing. It’s how you use your ideas and ability to deliver the right concept for the client and their requirements. Producing good designs is one thing, producing a excellent design that is creative and delivers is another.

Who is (or who are) your favourite designer(s)?
Roger Platts and Ulf Nordfjell

Contemporary or traditional...what’s your preference?
I'm a traditionalist at heart but I do have a contemporary edge to my designs.

Do you listen to music (or watch the television) when designing?
Yes, I find it’s too quiet without music or radio commentary (until my children come home from school).

Do you ever get designers’ block?
Yes, but it doesn’t last long.

Do you consider you take risks when designing?
Yes I do take risks in designs but because of the level of design I was taught, it gave me the confidence to deliver concepts without being worried about the validity.

Has a client ever said they don’t like what you’ve designed for them?
Thankfully no.

Hand drawn or CAD?
Hand drawn. My clients always comment on the level of quality in my concept drawings, I find it has an organic quality that is far closer to the outside space that I am designing. CAD is far too clinical for me.

After a busy week, how do you unwind and relax?
Spending time in my own garden with my family.

Who (or what) in your life has given you the greatest inspiration?
My wife inspires me to be a better person. Whatever I try to achieve on a day to day basis, she somehow always manages to inspire me to deliver better.

What is your garden design motto?
Seriously dedicated to delivering exquisite gardens.

What would you like to do more of in the future?
Show Gardens. I had a concept accepted for RHS Hampton Court Flower Show but the sponsor pulled out at the last minute. I am on the hunt for another sponsor so watch this space.

Can you offer any advice to other designers?
I’m quite new to the business so I am not really best placed to be offering advice yet.

Would you recommend garden designing to someone considering it as a career?
It’s a great career but you have to work hard at finding new business to begin with. Like most businesses, once you are established and delivering excellent work, word-of-mouth business will keep you happy for years to come! us your work space and drawing area
I'm in a spare bedroom at the moment but here's my new office under construction.


Phil Stovell's page on the Landscape Juice Network

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