Working with Contractors

A friend recently showed me an area that she wanted to landscape, and asked about a designer. I was able to recommend another friend (an accomplished designer) but the project motivated me to review the “design & install” category of landscaping projects.

The basics of landscape design often are described by a few broad guidelines:

First, consider how you will use the landscaped area. Too many spaces are created for certain purposes and then little used because the homeowner doesn’t really enjoy outdoor entertaining, the kids have grown and flown, the design requires too much maintenance, etc.

Then, learn all you can about the area to be developed. Make at least a rough scale drawing of the area. Mark important plants or other features that are to be retained. Indicate significant microclimates, e.g., deep shade, windy areas, water-retaining swales. Diagram that seasonal path of the sun. Have the soil tested.

Bring in a designer, unless you are confident in your own ideas and plant selections. These days, it’s good to find someone who understands and practices soil regeneration, integrated pest management, and organic practices in general. The Green Gardener program lists landscapers with up-to-date training. Contractors with long years of experience might be skilled in—and committed to—outdated methods.

Begin the install process with any required grading and the hardscape elements, e.g., paths, retaining walls, ponds, garden structures.

Missy Henriksen, of the National Association of Landscape Professionals, recently recommended ways to have an effective partnership between client and contractor. (If you visit the NALP website, click on the “Consumers” tab for ideas for homeowners.)

Here are Missy Henriksen’s tips, with my running commentary.

Communicate your long-term vision for your lawn. Well, lawns are on their way out, because to look really good they need a lot of mowing and edging, and synthetic chemicals. Otherwise, the advice is to be clear about longer-term visions, so that the contractor can provide a phased plan.

Understand the importance of working with native flowers, shrubs, and trees. Plants that are native to your specific area will thrive in your garden, while exotic imports will require extraordinary efforts to keep them alive and growing, and might still struggle.

Consider what time investment you want to make in your landscape after the installation is done. The late gardener and garden writer, Christopher Lloyd, favored high-maintenance gardening, which could entail changing plants frequently to provide year-round color. That practice has made his garden, Great Dixter, famous, but it’s not every gardener’s priority.

Allow adequate time for your landscape project. Certainly, the client should accept the reality that everything takes longer than expected, but it’s also reasonable to expect your contractor to make steady progress on your project, and not compromise that progress to work on someone else’s priority.

Know your budget. Address financial constraints by a phased approach to your longer-term objectives. A little self-discipline can be frustrating but better eventually than wishful thinking. On the other hand, the best results can result from thinking big.

Communicate any special community rules. A good landscaper should know, or found out about, restrictions by local government, or a homeowner’s association. Your standard should be “No surprises!”

Ask any lingering questions. A good practice is to require a written contract that covers all significant issues. For larger landscaping projects, refer to “A Consumer Guide to Home Improvement Contracts” and “Choosing the Right Landscaper,” both publications of the California’s Contractors State License Board. Accept the contracted work only after satisfaction of applicable standards of the landscaping industry, rather than approval by the local government or a homeowner’s association.

A successful landscaping project can give the garden owner long-term satisfaction and yield a substantial boost to the value of the property.

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