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Hiring A Landscaper Designer or Contractor

Updated on October 30, 2008

My friend invited me over to see her newly-built home and warned me to wear the tallest, toughest pair of boots I could find. When I saw her yard I under stood. I probably should have worn fisherman's waders. Surrounding her lovely new Victorian style home was a sea of mud dotted with a few boulders here and there. What a nightmare.

"We put down a ton of grass seed, " she said, "But the rain washed is all down into the road. Twice." She shook her head and added, "I think we need some help."

She was right. There are so many things to know about landscaping a piece of property, things most of us never even consider. So, if you aren't knowledgeable about the local zoning laws, the climate conditions, the grade of your property (how it slopes down hill, etc.) or what kind of soil you're dealing with, you will probably spend a lot of time and money on trial and error.

Start by getting quotes from several contractors and you'll have a feel for how their ideas meld with yours and the amount of money you'll require. Once you've decided on a contractor, make sure they are licensed (in your State or city) and ask for references. They should give you at least three or more. Call from the bottom of the list, because chances are the happy campers are at the top. Also, do they carry their own liability insurance? Does it cover any damage they might do to your home or automobiles? Also ask about their workman's compensation insurance should a worker get hurt on your property.

Ask for a time line. If the contractor says he can totally landscape a yard in a week or less, run away! Unless they're just going to back up a truck and throw sod down, it can't be done that quickly.

Will you need a dumpster? Who will pay for that and the hauling? I lived with a dumpster in our driveway for two weeks and it was a pain, but necessary. You may have to make parking arrangements with your neighbors while some of the work is being done.

What about electrical and water connections? There may be a short period of time that your power will be off while they work around electrical lines, etc.

Never pay all of the money up front. Most contractors ask for a third or half of the money so they can buy supplies, hire workers, rent equipment, etc, and this is fair. Do not make the final payment until you are totally satisfied and all local inspections have been completed.

Make sure you let your contractor know what you want to stay and what you are willing to let go. That White Pine that your dad brought back from the family cabin years ago may not be in the contractor's plan and you could come home to a stump.

This brings up the need for detailed plans. Your contractor should provide you with a set of the plans that you go over together. Let him (or her) know if you love or hate a particular kind of plant. My husband hates Hydrangeas and loves Mock Orange. I never knew that until we started planning our landscaping. Gingko trees are lovely, but if you end up with a female, she will produce an odor that cadaver dogs will run toward. The scent of lilacs is lovely for some folks and overpowering for others. Some trees drop seed pods in the spring and make a huge mess.

Go to several garden centers (ask the landscaper to take you) and check out the various kinds of plants, or tour a local botanical garden for ideas.

Talk about how the design will look with your home. If you have a very minimalist, modern home, a Japanese garden would be perfect. If, however, you have a Cape Cod or Victorian style, arbors with roses and a cottage garden would fit better.

There are so many variables in landscape planning that most folks don't even consider. Is your climate arid or moist? What growing Zone are you in? Tropical plants are lovely, but unless you plan on bringing them inside during the winter in a colder climate, you won't get them to come back. Do you have sandy soil or clay? What is the water runoff like and where does the extra rain end up?

How much maintenance are you willing to put into your yard to keep it looking the way the landscaper left it? Or will you be able to afford to have someone do the yard work for you? What are the rules of the land? If you install a swimming pool or pond, you may have to fence it off and your insurance rates may rise.

For all of these and many other reasons, it's really better to get professional advice before you start to landscape your property. You might think it will be expensive, but doing it all wrong (maybe more than once) could cost you much, much more.


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