Thinking About a Change of Career? Read on….

September 27, 2012

Years ago when I first launched the California School of Garden Design, I determined that our market for a short-term garden design course would be      people already in the landscaping business, like a landscape contractor looking to expand as a design-build firm, or a horticulture student interested in studying to be a landscape architect.   And this is still definitely the case; but…. over many years and many courses, we learned that in fact our student profile was made up of about 40% from this market, while the other 60% consisted of people from all walks of life who were looking for a change of career.

It’s fun, exciting and challenging to teach a class that may have a 50-year old  office professional who has decided they want to become a garden designer sitting next to a 20-year old fresh out of school who is about to embark on landscape architecture as a career.

In many ways our 4-week landscape design course is perfect for working professionals who are looking for either a career change or possibly a second career after retirement.  But in other ways, the very intensity and fast pace that makes it possible for you to start your new career quickly can also present its own set of challenges.  So I decided to write this blog article as a means of offering advice and guidelines for anyone looking at a mid-life career change – and I believe it applies to anyone who is about to chart a course-change regardless of the job you are training for.

So if you are someone looking to go back to school to learn a completely new career here are some tips to make it a little easier for you.

  • This is the worst, and you won’t like it, so let’s get it over with right away.  You are going to have to brush up on your math skills.  Think about doing this before you start our course, rather than after you start.  We are talking here about simple algebra formulas for the most part.  Because landscape design is not just about where to place plants, it is about engineering as well,  there are elevation changes to consider, drainage directions, steps up and down, decks to plan.  For all this, you need some math knowledge.  And I can tell you straight up, if you have been out of school for 20 or 30 years, you will have forgotten every little bit of math you ever learned back then.  This will put you at a disadvantage, and slow down your progress in a fast-paced, intensive course such as ours.  So go to the library and check out a college algebra book, take a class or go on-line and see what you can find on the internet to help you brush up on your math skills.


  • Another thing that is challenging for my career-change students who have not been in a learning environment for a long time is just that – being in a learning environment after a long time away.  You forget what it feels like to really have to concentrate on a lecture, or follow along when the teacher is showing you how to use your drawing tools and templates.  Then you get stressed-out and frustrated with yourself, and that makes it worse.  But you need to realize that this happens to everyone, and the best way to deal with this stressful situation is to just take a deep breath, and have patience with yourself.  You will get the hang of it, and you may need to ask the instructor to repeat what was just said, or show you something again.  Eventually, you will adjust to being in a classroom situation and you’ll be fine.


  • If you’re serious about escaping from behind a desk and getting out into the fresh air and the field of landscape design, you will need more than our 4-week Fundamentals of Garden Design class under your belt.  Our course is a wonderful starting point, because when you graduate you will be able to design and draw up plans, meet with clients, explain your plans to contractors, and more.  But it won’t teach you everything you need to know, because there isn’t time.  So I would advise you to also look into your local college to see if they offer classes in horticulture, or look for Green Gardener or Master Gardener programs in your area.  You will need to learn about plants, the Latin names for plants, right plant- right place.  Visit nurseries and familiarize yourself with plants and plant combinations.  And there are many excellent books on plants and how to use them in the landscape.  We like the Sunset Western Garden Book for anyone living west of the Rockies.   Study irrigation and construction methods.  Take a soils class.   You may also wish to learn a landscape CAD program as many landscape design firms work heavily in CAD.  Examples of available software are VectorWorks; AutoCad; Dynascape; Pro-Contractor just to mention a few – there are many others to research before you purchase.  For the record the design at the left was hand drafted and hand rendered by Marcia D. – a former student.


  • While this piece of advice applies to both landscape design professionals and those wanting to become designers, it is especially important if you are new to the field – join a professional organization in your area.  The Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) is a nationwide group, with chapters in all states.  You can find them online.  Find out where your closest chapter meets, and then join.  Attend the meetings and events they sponsor.  You will meet all sorts of other landscape professionals, including contractors and materials suppliers as well as other designers, and you can start building your professional network right away.  And I can’t stress how important it is to have a good network in place of people you can trust and work with to further your design projects.  You will get referrals this way, and refer work to others.  And you will learn a lot.


  • One thing to be aware of with any school or training program – you’ll be instructed in using the tools of the trade.  It still takes a lot of work to build your business and niche within the profession.  Look to find portions of the industry you can take advantage of.  In California (indeed much of the West) irrigation design and management is a growing market.  We’re all aware of the old adage “don’t put all all your eggs in one basket…”  In tough economic times it’s a good idea to be able to offer a broad range of service – and in good times it doesn’t hurt either!
  • And remember to have fun.  Yes, it’s scary, it’s the Unknown, and it is an intensive 4 weeks, but it is also exciting, an Adventure.  You are taking a chance on yourself, meeting other like-minded people, perhaps forming some professional relationships before you even start your business.  You’ll be drawing, using art supplies, exploring plant nurseries, learning a completely new skill.  So remember to have fun.  Relax and pretend you are a student, because, guess what…for the next 4 weeks, you are!

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