October 17, 2023
Suelan Allison’s journey as a garden designer is a testament to the remarkable transformative influence of nature and design. Her shift from a fast-paced career on the stock market to the serene and contemplative realm of garden design was both unexpected and exciting. This transition was driven by a profound realisation – the positive impact that being surrounded by plants had on her autistic son.
No! I always loved plants, but I was a programmer on the stock market for 13 years. Then I became a single mum, as my partner and I divorced. I changed tack to work as a freelance photographer to give me the flexibility to work around my young son. My focus was always on him, so when he was diagnosed with autism aged eight it was a stressful time. I’d take him to the garden centre as he’d calm down whilst we were there. We’d look at and talk about the plants and I remember thinking, “I’d love to work with plants, they’re so calming”.
Yes, I knew I wanted to expand my knowledge and skills. I enrolled in a horticultural course at Capel Manor College in Enfield and obtained an RHS Level 2 certification in horticulture and garden planning. While the theoretical aspects of the course were a bit challenging (so many plant names!), I found the practical aspects incredibly enjoyable.
I finished my course and set up the company in September of 2021 so it’s almost two years old now. My photography didn’t make me a lot of money, but I loved it. I took all the admin experience from that and translated it into my gardening business.
I thought, “Don’t think of it as a business. Just think of it as you’re helping people who need help in their garden, and they’re exchanging money for it”. I just want to enjoy what I’m doing and make some money.
My first client was the head teacher of a school in Hackney - she had a large house, and she needed someone to help out. I was so nervous! I knew exactly what needed to be done, but it’s so different in practice than in theory. Thankfully she was really happy with what I did! Many gardeners go in and just chop things up, but in horticulture, we learn to let the plants have space rather than just cutting them down.
When you’ve got a garden that you want to look appealing, you need to consider the sun, the soil, and overhanging trees. You want to make it beautiful, but you don’t want to take too much away from nature. The aim is to create a garden that is aesthetically pleasing but provides food for pollinators.
If you’ve got a garden that’s been left to do its own thing, it sort of tells you what it wants to be there. It can sometimes be hard explaining to clients that they might want something, but it might not survive in their garden.
Sometimes the female clients question you a lot. I often wonder if I was male if they would question my work less. I find women come to a female gardener as a last resort - a previous gardener has hacked up their garden or made a mistake, so they come to me.
Ultimately, my goal remains the same: to provide excellent garden design and maintenance services regardless of gender, and to continue breaking down stereotypes in a field that should be inclusive and open to everyone.
I love getting my hands in the dirt - I love planting. It’s not the easiest thing, because you’re bent over but there’s nothing I love more at work than planting up a new garden.
I love sweeping as well…it’s very therapeutic!
I live on the 6th floor - so not as much as I’d like! But I’ve got a little balcony, and I’ve got about seven pots of roses, rosemary, and a few other little bits. I’m surrounded by loads of house plants too.
I get so much satisfaction from revamping neglected gardens, they’re the most interesting projects for me. If you get a garden that’s overrun with weeds, and the client has the budget to spend, that’s the dream.
I love advising on what works in their environment,working with the landscaper and doing the planting up - it’s full creative control. I do enjoy maintenance, but I like it more when I’ve created the garden.
One project that stands out for me is the transformation of a garden in St John's Wood. Initially, it was meant to be a maintenance job, but it turned into a challenging task due to a previous designer's poor plant choices. Through dedication and research, I turned it into a bit of a masterpiece, which boosted my confidence and made me realise once again that gardening cannot be a rush job.
Always bring a garden to life for someone who doesn’t know what to do with their garden but wants something beautiful. I don’t see the gardens that I work in as my clients' gardens, I see them as my gardens.
Everything is going to be OK. It’s gonna be a wild ride, like really wild, but it’s gonna be ok! When we’re young we worry about a lot of things that don’t matter. We only learn lessons later in life. It’s about the journey, it’s not about what you want.
You can find Suelan and her company Lady des Fleurs on Instagram @ladydesfleurs.
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