Passion for design and plants ignites Phillip Withers’ entrepreneurial spirit
Phillip Withers combined his strengths and passions to build a garden-design business he loves.
“I’m a landscape designer and run my own business. We design gardens that have a function and are not just aesthetically pleasing. We focus on how people use their gardens, where the energy comes from, how the garden works and where water and compost come from.
Then we consider other functions. Can it produce a yield for the family to pick and eat? Is the garden simply made up of plants or does it include herbs, vegies and fruits you can use to prepare a meal? Finally, we connect to space. We create somewhere nice for you to visit outside.
I was always passionate about art and design and didn’t know where I was going with it when I finished school. I liked drawing and art. I was also very driven in terms of entrepreneurial pursuits. I didn’t completely enjoy working for other people. As soon as I could get creative I was happy.
I studied fashion and computerised design first. I started making clothes and screen printing. I thought that was what I wanted to do. I was young and naïve. I tried to make a fashion brand that didn’t make a lot of money but I had a hell of a lot of fun. After some time overseas I returned to work in gardens. There is such a therapeutic nature to it.
"I was pretty driven. I focused on designing for others and learnt how to do that well. In the long run I wanted to do my own thing."
I decided to study the Landscape Design and Sustainability course at Swinburne. It was a catalyst that pushed me toward thinking about what we are creating and why.
The lecturer at the time, Miriam Downes, was very sustainability driven and very clever. She made something click in me. I thought, I need to start making my decisions like that, to think about the materials we use and where they come from. She lives and breathes what she talks about. There’s nothing better than someone who lives by practice.
I knew I needed to have a good understanding of soft landscapes (plants) and hard landscapes (surfaces like decking, paving and screens). I was naturally interested in plant research but needed to develop my hard landscape knowledge.
To get into the industry you need to get those fundamentals right: learn about plants, hardscapes, how to use design programs, and how a garden works and what to put in it.
I was pretty driven. I focused on designing for others and learnt how to do that well. In the long run I wanted to do my own thing. I finished the course in 2011 and became one of four finalists that built a garden at the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show. That’s where I made the decision to start my business. I started in 2012 and we’ve now done three professional gardens at the show.
I really love plants. But I like being able to make that connection to people – to talk to someone about their story and what they want out of their garden, have a yarn and bring that brief to life. It’s fun.
There are more and more opportunities as time goes by. I’d like to create some giant environments. It could be to help out a whole new village or revegetate an area that hasn’t functioned properly and build a more sustainable environment.”