The NI mum who lost her dream job during lockdown but found a blooming great alternative

A mum who lost her “dream job” during lockdown has turned the pandemic into a positive by becoming a self-employed garden designer.

As Covid restrictions made people socialize outdoors, Donna Fletcher from Laurelvale in Co Armagh was able to step in to help them revamp their gardens.

The mum-of-two says hot tubs and firepits have been top of many people’s lists, along with pizza ovens and even outdoor kitchens.

Donna has made a profit during her first year in business, after being encouraged to take the plunge by her younger brother Alex, and now says her redundancy turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“I got my dream job as a project manager for the North Coast portfolio of the National Trust in November 2019,” Donna, who is originally from Coleraine, explains. “I was absolutely over the moon.

“But then Covid hit and I was furloughed. Then, in July 2020, the (National) Trust restructured project management departments across the UK, and I was made redundant.

“Devastated was not the word. I was absolutely gutted — and really scared. I have two teenagers to support, Mason (13) and Ellie (15). How was I going to find another job during a pandemic?”

Donna (45) has a degree in landscape architecture from Leeds Metropolitan University and had worked on large-scale projects for decades, designing parks and other outdoors spaces for local authorities.

This included a stint with Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council.

But she’d never considered working for herself until, after losing her job with the National Trust, her brother, Alex, suggested it.

She explains: “Alex and his wife Lorraine run their own business, a catering firm called L’s Kitchen in Coleraine.

“They really supported me and encouraged me to think about going it alone. They helped give me the confidence to try.”

Donna contacted Go For It NI, a programme that provides free advice and mentoring for new start-ups, and drew up a business plan.

Just three months later, in October 2020, she officially launched her own company Greenspace Landscape Consultancy.

“I saw an opportunity,” she recalls.

“The pandemic meant that people were spending so much more time in their gardens, and because they’d not been able to go on holiday in 2020 they had a bit of extra cash to spend on doing up their outdoor spaces too.”

Donna offers a range of services, from designing gardens that clients can then do the work on themselves to overseeing building projects with trusted landscape contractors, and even coming up with planting plans for individual beds.

Her focus is putting people at the heart of it all, creating sustainable environments across a broad scale of projects for people to enjoy and value as places to live, work and visit.

From horticultural blank canvases or complete transformations, Donna is keen to create functional spaces that put her clients’ needs first and foremost.

Since starting her business she has overseen small revamps in people’s back gardens and larger projects in public spaces.

She says the business took off really quickly; her start-up costs were low and she’s able to be flexible too, working her hours around her family.

Donna begins with a site visit and initial consultation, asking people how they use their garden and what they want to achieve, before going away and creating a design.

“The unveiling of the design is the nerve-wracking part,” she laughs.

“Of course I want people to be happy with it and to be able to see my vision.

“The best part of the job is getting to see the finished project, absolutely, and how delighted the clients are with their finished garden.

“I recently won an award from online home design platform Houzz for Best in Customer Service 2022, which I’m really proud of.

“The majority of my clients are in Northern Ireland but I can design gardens anywhere; I recently did a park in Wimbledon, London, from my kitchen table here in Laurelvale.

“I’ve been really blessed with how quickly the business has taken off; I can’t believe how good it’s been.”

Donna says that since the start of the pandemic she has seen the way people use their gardens change.

Even now, as we move towards fewer restrictions and a new normality, many families are still opting to spend more time outdoors, and people who are still working from home may even be using their garden as part of their office space.

“I’ve had a lot of requests for hot tubs — everyone wants to plan in a hot tub,” Donna laughs.

“A lot of people are also keen to include a shelter of some kind, because of course here in Northern Ireland the one thing we can’t guarantee is the weather.

“Those awnings that slide out from a wall are very useful, or at least a space to be able to put up a gazebo.

“Firepits are also popular, because in our weather the other thing we need to do is keep warm.

“But they can be a bit smoky. I actually think plug-in electric heat lamps are much more useful, if they’re under a shelter.”

Donna has even found time to design a new garden for Alex and Lorraine, who she says continue to be a big support.

As spring rolls round, people who have perhaps neglected their gardens during the winter may be looking outside and wondering what to do to spruce up their green spaces.

If that’s you, Donna has some words of wisdom.

“April is the perfect time to have a bit of a tidy up,” she says.

“Wash down any outdoor furniture that has stood outside over winter, give your lawn its first cut and weed any beds.

“It’s a good time to take stock and ask yourself what you want to do in your garden.

“That will give you a better idea when you’re planning your planting or any new outdoor projects.

“If you’re lucky enough to have your own green space — which many people are in Northern Ireland — then it really is there to be enjoyed.”

For more information on Donna’s business, visit greenspacelc.com