Garden designer Sharon Hockenhull

Sharon Hockenhull is a double RHS award-winning garden designer and landscaper based in North West England and mum of two. We find out why she launched her career, and how a spot on BBC breakfast landed her a famous commission!

Have you always worked as a gardener?

No, after studying for an English degree in Manchester, I went on to work in publishing as a proof reader and then as copywriter. I then moved into design and production, working on magazines, career directories, adverts, branding and marketing business flyers.

How did you make the move from design to gardening?

My interest for growing things started when I left home for university and gradually developed alongside my career path in graphic design. The backyards of houses I rented as a student were filled with pots. I remember sowing sunflowers, pansies, marigolds and planting lots of bulbs in an attempt to brighten up the yard, and I really enjoyed it. I became hooked on gardening magazines and BBC’s Gardener’s World, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to know.

I started doing a few short courses in gardening and garden planning before studying for the RHS General Certificate part time over two years. I loved the experience and realised that a career in garden design instead of graphic design would be the perfect way forward for me.

When did gardening turn from a hobby to a business?

In 2003, when I was 12 weeks pregnant with my eldest child I was made redundant. The news was a major bombshell as I’d never expected to be in that position. But now I’m very grateful as it was the catalyst that allowed me to start a garden maintenance business and begin my journey into the world of garden design.

When I was first made redundant I took on some freelance graphic design, not quite knowing how to make the leap in my current circumstances to a gardening position. It was after having my second child in 2006, I decided that it was now or never. I put an advert in my local paper, offering my services as an RHS-qualified lady gardener.

The response was really good and I began my own maintenance round. Most customers were just looking for garden tidy ups, but some wanted their borders redoing, so I designed planting schemes for them. A year later, a customer asked for a quote to design their whole garden, and that was my first leap into designing, project managing and landscaping a garden.

Having a background in garden maintenance has really helped my business. It allowed me to connect with real gardens and how people use them, and also to understand what they struggle with maintenance-wise. Although most of my work today is design and landscaping, I still keep on a couple of maintenance clients as it keeps me active and I really enjoy the peacefulness of gardening.

How did you get your first big design break?

I wanted to try and bring in more design work, so in 2009 I funded (with the help of family and friends) a small back to back garden at the RHS Tatton Flower Show in Knutsford, Cheshire. My design demonstrated how fruit could be grown in a garden in a contemporary way and was awarded a Silver Gilt medal.

By sheer luck, at the time the BBC were looking for somebody to talk about the grow your own movement and BBC Breakfast contacted me to see if I would film for their live slot. They came to the flower show and filmed me from my garden. I was very nervous as I’d never done anything like that before, but very proud that I did it.

As it happened, the renowned Italian cook Antonio Carluccio was watching. He’d recently bought a new house in London with a garden that needed looking at and was inspired by the idea of my modern fruit garden. His PA contacted me, I travelled down to London to meet him and he commissioned me to design his garden. I was over the moon and felt very honoured to be designing his garden.

How does your business work around your family?

Starting your own business with young kids gives you the flexibility to be there on the school runs, although I do have help – my great mother in law picks my two children up a couple of times a week so I can work a full day. It’s amazing how much extra work you can get done in those extra few hours. It is a juggle trying to get that work-life balance and it is a struggle to get everything done.

This year I exhibited at the RHS Birmingham Flower Show and was away for three weeks solid – only returning home for one evening briefly. The home schedule for sorting school drop offs and pick ups was more complicated than the garden build schedule! It was a tough few weeks for my husband and children but they were so supportive and very excited to visit the garden when it was completed. I have to say, that as they get older (they are now 10 and 7) it becomes easier. They understand why I do the show gardens and they love the additional responsibilities, like making sure dad gets them to school on time!

How important is it to be a good role model for your children?

Both my husband and I see ourselves as important role models for our children. We try to teach them to appreciate the simple things in life. I take them to my allotment and get them involved in sowing seeds, picking the veg and flowers. We have chickens who they love and help clean out, which becomes an extra responsibility for them when I’m away. They also see us working really hard on a daily basis, which I hope instils in them a sense of being busy, committed and following your dreams.

Where do you want your business to go?

I’ve done amazingly well so far and have some big milestones in my portfolio, but it’s taken a while to get here. The next few years will be really interesting as I’m now attracting more and more design work. At the moment there is only myself doing the design, project managing, maintaining and implementing planting schemes. My aim is to bring in an extra person to help spread the workload and free up time to take on more projects.

I started my business during the first year of the recession and have really felt the cut backs in the crossing over from gardener to garden designer. Having your garden designed is a massive luxury for people and is usually one of the first things to put on hold. However, I have felt that over the last year and a half things are really picking up, already this winter, (always a slow time for the gardening calendar), is looking much busier for me than previous years.

I have a couple of mottos in life, one is to just keep chipping away, two is that you need to step out out of your comfort zone every now and then, it keeps you on your toes and is the best way to learn new skills and make progress.

You can learn more about Sharon’s work on her website.