Everything You Need To Know About Working With A Landscape Designer

A beautiful home is something to behold, but a beautiful home surrounded by a beautiful garden (like yesterday’s home story!) is truly next level.

If you don’t have the chops to design and plant a garden yourself, it can be intimidating to know where to start. What’s actually involved in working with a garden designer? How long does it take? And the all-important question – how much does it cost?

When a reader asked us these questions recently, we realised we didn’t have the answers ourselves, so we asked a few of our expert friends to break down the entire process: landscape designer and Peachy Green founder, Fran Hale; founder and principal of Kathleen Murphy Landscape Design, Katheleen Murphy; landscape architect and director of Svalbe & Co, Katy Svalbe; landscape designer and director of Phillip Withers, Phil Withers; and Garden Life founder and director, Richard Unsworth.

Here’s everything you’ve ever wanted to know about working with a landscape designer!

Amelia Barnes

The garden of Chris Cobbett and Jonathan Cebon. Photo – Eve Wilson. Production – Lucy Feagins/The Design Files.

Amelia Barnes
13th of May 2021

Dear The Design Files,

‘…I hope I am not the only one, but I’d love to read a story about how to work with a landscape designer, including a rough figure on price points. In my mind it’s really expensive, but maybe it’s not as much as I think. When you do run a story like this one…Is it rude to include a guide to what the renovation cost?’


Here at TDF, we get dozens of reader questions like the above asking what exactly is involved with working with a professional garden designer.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the numerous companies, services (and jargon) on offer, so we reached out to some of our favourite designers to demystify the entire process. 

From project costs, to how long it’s going to take, here are your most frequently asked garden design questions, answered!

Phil Withers of Phillip Withers and his team selecting plants at a nursery. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

The garden of Chris Cobbett and Jonathan Cebon is a central design feature of the whole home. Photo – Eve Wilson. Production – Lucy Feagins/The Design Files.

A neat nook of landscape designer Peter Shaw of Ocean Road Landscaping. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

The legendary Phil Withers! You’ll be safe in his hands. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

Where do I start?

The only way to start is by contacting a landscape designer, architect, or horticulturalist whose work you admire. You might find them via a simple Google search, Instagram, asking friends for recommendations, or seeking out a designer whose work you’ve seen published. Don’t be intimidated!  

‘I think we need to get it out there that designers are approachable; well at least that’s how we believe it should be! We all want to see people basking in their gardens and enjoying connecting to nature,’ says landscape designer and director of Phillip Withers, Phil Withers. 

A simple email with a quick description of what you’re hoping to achieve is enough to get the ball rolling. 

‘Let them know if it’s a garden makeover, and if it’s part of a renovation or a new build project. If you have any relevant house plans send those, but don’t worry if not… the designer may call you to find out a little more about the project, and book in an onsite consultation. Some designers charge for the initial consultation, some don’t,’ advises landscape designer and Peachy Green founder, Fran Hale. 

‘At this meeting, the designer will assess the aspect, conditions and opportunities of the site. Following the consultation, you will receive a written proposal which outlines the design scope, the process throughout the design and construction stages and the fees associated.’

From here, you can decide if you’d like to go ahead with the project. 

A Northcote project by Fran Hale of Peachy Green. See the feature here. Photo – Amelia Stanwix.

Fran Hale of Peachy Green visiting one of her projects. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

A range of services are included when you engage a landscape professional, it all depends on your brief and budget! Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

A Peachy Green project. Photo – Sarah Pannell.

What services will the landscape designer provide?

Most landscape designers are responsible for creating your entire outdoor area including planted areas, paving, pools, and play areas.

The exact list of services and the process differs from designer to designer, but Fran provides the following as guide of what’s included: 

– Concept design (the dreams, the visions, the invention stage – where detailed drawings to illustrate the design proposal are prepared) 

– Design development and documentation (where the designer fine tunes the concept, etches out the details, selects materials, and creates construction plans)

– Town planning (preparation and submission of all plans to governing bodies for any permits required)

– Tendering (where the designer seeks out the best sub-contractors for things like paving, and construction of any built elements, and compiles their quotes) 

– Construction management (ensuring everything is delivered as promised and quoted)

– Furnishing (shopping for furniture, pots, art, barbecues and light fittings)

– Maintenance plan (a guide for the ongoing maintenance of your garden)

This Californian-style courtyard in Sydney by Garden Life is proof that no project is too small for a landscape designer. Photo – Nicholas Watt.

See the full feature here. Photo – Nicholas Watt.

This leafy North Fitzroy garden created by Amanda Oliver Gardens is another of small but abundant design! Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

See the original feature here. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

My garden is pretty small… Is that a problem?

The short answer is no, however, it’s important to note that a small garden doesn’t necessarily equate to a small job in the designer’s eyes. 

‘I often use the coffee table analogy – it still has four corners and four legs which all take the same amount of time to make as a dining table, there’s just a little less material involved,’ says Garden Life founder and director, Richard Unsworth.

Small gardens can also sometimes throw up additional challenges that can drive up the cost, such as access difficulties, or overshadowing from surrounding urban buildings. 

If your space is very small and has minimal built elements, plant styling can be a more cost effective solution than establishing a whole new garden.

‘There’s now a plethora of choice when it comes to pot selection – lightweight, slimline troughs, and tall narrow planters to maximise floor space. Keep material selection to a minimum – don’t overdesign the space,’ says Richard. ‘Avoid using small elements just because you have a small garden – play with scale to help the space appear visually larger.’ 

Anastasia Elias has a home garden like no other! Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files

Despite being a green thumb herself, Anastasia worked with a landscape designer to achieve her vision. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files

Bespoke Landscapes were the perfect collaborators to realise Anastasia’s design, helping her with structural requirements and keeping the vision within reach. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files

Katy Svalbe of Svalbe & Co. worked closely with her green thumb clients to create this lush and wild-looking Redfern backyard. Photo – Nicholas Watt.

Working with a landscape designer is an intimate process. Many pros cite their great relationship with their clients (plus a shared passion for nature) as they key to the project’s success! Photo – Nicholas Watt.

How much is this going to cost?

Landscape design is a major addition to any home often involving multiple trades (in addition to the designer), and taking several months to complete. 

With that in mind, the Sydney and Melbourne-based designers we spoke to said ground-up projects tend to start at a minimum $40,000 for the full scope of works (design, labour and materials). 

Elements that drive up the price include pools (landscape architect and director of Svalbe & Co, Katy Svalbe, says anything larger than a plunge pool typically adds an easy $100,000+ to the budget), uneven sites, and complex site access.

Richard explains, ‘It’s very hard to give generalised budgets, and it all depends on the scope of works, but in confined gardens where we need to create new flooring, walling, as well as planting, lighting, an integrated barbecue, seating, etc, it’s not hard to spend between $100,000 to $150,000.’

Some designers calculate their fee as a percentage of the total build cost (typically between 6-15%). Others like founder and principal of Kathleen Murphy Landscape Design, Kathleen Murphy, charge by the hour.

Here’s a breakdown of project costs for the full scope of works (design, labour and materials) based on these designers’ experiences creating residential gardens Sydney and Melbourne: 

– Courtyard or garden accompanying a modest-sized cottage, duplex or terrace: $40,000-$70,000

– Total refurbishment of a garden or courtyard and upper-level balconies around an existing residence (including modifying an existing pool): $120,000-$250,000+

– New gardens, paving and deck accompanying a new freestanding house (flat site with no pool): $150,000-$250,000+

– New gardens, paving and deck accompanying a new freestanding house (sloping site with pool, terracing and pergola and more): $300,000+

Even if you’re working with a lower budget, it’s still worth reaching out to a designer and asking what’s achievable. 

How long is it going to take?

According to Katy, if the project is relatively simple; your preferred designer, builder and landscaper are available; plants are in stock; and no development approvals are required, the process can be as quick as four to six months. Where development approvals are required, a minimum 12 month timeframe is more realistic.

When the plants in your garden will start establishing themselves is another question, and depends on what existing plants were used, the soil preparation, the size of newly-installed plants, the time of year installation occurred (autumn is best, says Katy), the irrigation system, and degree of ongoing maintenance.

‘From my experience, newly-installed gardens generally find their feet 12 months after installation, but tend not to feel ‘full’ or be anywhere near fulfilling our vision for them until they are at least two to three years old,’ Katy says. 

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