I went from doctor to garden designer

After working as an NHS doctor for many years, Peter Reader wanted a change of direction and garden design was a natural choice.

I was a doctor for 25 years, in hospitals and as a GP, and I always enjoyed the time I spent with patients.

During the last eight years, I also moved into medical management. Initially, this was great because I was actually engaging with the services on offer, working to change and improve them for patients. It was important to have a doctor's voice on the inside but over time politics kept winning out and all the services and improvements kept being disrupted by structural change. So I became more and more disillusioned and felt that the good I was doing was all being wasted.

As I became more fed up and frustrated with my work in the NHS, I started thinking about what else I could do with my life.

I've always had green fingers

As well as the frustration of my work in medicine, I was also passionate and enthusiastic about the idea of working in horticulture. So I wasn't just thinking about moving away from being a doctor but towards a career in gardens.

Plants have always been a big thing for me. From the age of about five or six, we had our own little patch of ground and I used to grow lettuces, radishes, marigolds – that kind of thing. I often helped my dad in the garden and when I was 13 I started working in the local nursery at weekends, too. I really enjoyed learning about plants and the requirements that they have.

I remember going to an interview for medical school and when they asked what my favourite bit of biology was I lied and said it was human biology, when actually I enjoyed plant biology best. So in some ways I've always preferred plants!

I love the countryside as well. You can learn an awful lot from looking at nature and colour balance and proportions. It's amazing how often nature actually ‘designs’ beautiful gardens in the countryside.

Choosing a new career

During the 80s, 'garden designer' became a proper career. With Alan Titchmarsh's show Ground Force, having an outdoor living space became more important to people, and I could see that working in this area might be right for me. Once I started thinking that way, I got itchy feet to do that rather than medicine.circular patios

Because this would be such a big change I wanted to make sure that it was right for me, so I did consider other options too. I looked briefly at stonemasonry because that is creative and I'm interested in history, but the training is enormously long and you need a workshop to get set up.

Garden design was the obvious choice because I like being creative. Also, it gave me the opportunity to work with other people - I enjoyed working with teams in the NHS and when you're doing garden design you work with the clients, with the contractors who are building the garden and there may be architects, sculptors and various other people involved as well.

From stethoscope to shears

In some ways, making the career switch was quite difficult. I grew up in a family of pharmacists but originally my brother and I were both thinking of doing something in horticulture. But my parents said, "It's not well-paid and there's no career structure so you might find it quite limiting."

So I went for medicine. When you train in medicine you're taught that it's the only thing to do: why would anyone walk away from it? As I'd been trained to work in the NHS, I also felt guilty that leaving it early was perhaps letting people down, which made it hard to move on.

Any concerns I had were very much overridden by the sheer excitement of moving into garden design and the wish to leave the NHS and all its frustrations. I needed to do something different and garden design was something I really, really wanted to do.

bench and flowersEveryone, particularly my wife, was very positive about the switch and excited for me. All my friends knew I loved gardening and so they could understand why I wanted to do it. There was an interesting split between people I knew in the NHS who said, "Oh wow, that's fantastic, I wish I could do it!" and those who weren't in the NHS and thought I was making a crazy decision.

I had to find the right training

In medicine, you do a set degree and then follow a very clear career path. With garden design, that's not the case. There are people who just set themselves up as garden designers with no training and there are others who do degrees.

I was conscious that there were skills and techniques that I needed to know and understand, so I signed up for a one-year course, which was about how much time I could afford to take out before starting to earn again.

I chose the KLC School of Design, which I thought had the best blend and balance of skills and training. The KLC garden courses are based in Hampton Court Palace, which is a fantastic place to learn garden design. My course leader had strong professional connections with the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and a number of top designers so I made some good contacts.

I put my medical skills to good use

There are lots of transferable skills from my time as a doctor that I can bring to garden design. As a GP, communication with people is really important and the same is true of garden design. When you talk about a certain sort of garden – say a flower meadow – five different people will have five different images of what that is, so you've got to be able to really understand what people want and explain what you mean.

I use software to do a design but people find it quite difficult to look at a plan and visualise what it will be like in real life so I need to translate that.

People tend to think about gardens in terms of objects. They say, 'Oh I want a pergola' or 'I want a barbecue' or 'I want a flower bed'. But when you're designing a garden you need to consider how people are going to move and walk through it and what that space is going to feel like. They may want a barbecue in a specific place but that might not work in terms of the atmosphere they'd like you to create. So talking through that is important.

Professionalism, teamwork and a good work ethic are all attributes I've brought with me from my medical career. As a doctor, obviously you're professional and you've got to get things right. With garden design you have to make sure the designs are going to function well. You do technical drawings to show how things should be built as well so they're not going to fall down in five minutes!

I also find that my understanding of organic materials is a help to me in my new career. When you're working with people as a doctor, you are working with sensitive living beings and it's the same with plants.

Making garden design work

Although I spend most of my time designing, I do get my hands dirty once in a while. Peter gardeningA lot of the designing is with plants, so for each garden I draw up a detailed planting plan, then when the plants arrive I'll be on site laying those out and you often end up changing things around a bit. I really enjoy the plants themselves and so keeping in touch with them is really important to me. It means I get to work with the guys who build the gardens too, which is great. Being paid to go to a nursery and choose plants for someone is a real joy!

When a garden's being built, I visit the site regularly. I enjoy seeing the design take shape and I need to be around in case any unexpected problems arise.

I'm influenced by top designers like Tom Stuart-Smith, Andy Sturgeon, Cleve West and Sarah Price as well as by historical garden design and, very importantly for me, by nature itself. I'm very taken with the gardens at Gravetye Manor, which were designed in the 19th century by William Robinson. He came up with the idea of having more formal planting nearer the house but blending that with some natural planting as well. Then, as you move away, it becomes more and more naturalistic. These days, it's not unusual to plant bulbs underneath an orchard or on the edge of a wood but that was his invention.

For me, good design is a blend of naturalistic elements with formalised control around them, such as box hedges or hard landscape level changes to give structure.

I don't miss being a doctor!

I don't miss medicine at all. I don't miss the lifestyle, either, especially the commute! Now, the travelling I do is to lots of different houses and gardens, which is interesting.

flower and butterflyWith garden design, you can be out in all weathers, which can be fantastic or cold and wet. As I work from home, not in an office, I have to be careful not to become isolated. Because of this, I make an effort to visit gardens, meet other designers and attend educational and trade events – and of course, RHS shows – so I'm constantly being stimulated and challenged. It's really important not to end up just tweaking the same designs and plant combinations – you need to stay fresh.

Business was slow to begin with, as you'd expect, but I'm really busy these days, which is great. I've only been going for just over two years and I've been designing solidly throughout the winter, which tends to be a quiet time of year.

I love the teamwork of garden design, and I really enjoy being on site with people and seeing how the garden's growing and taking shape. I'm very happy with my new life – I have no regrets.

Photos by Emily Reader and Peter Reader

To find out more about Peter's designs, visit his website.

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