It happens fairly often, unfortunately. You believe your landscape professional has the expertise necessary to create your own personal paradise (because he assured you he did) and you don’t realize you’ve hired a nonprofessional until the job is nearly done. You’ve been duped.

What do you do at that point? Call a lawyer? Refuse to pay? We’ve seen it all. It’s a very stressful experience.

In fact, we recently visited a new client (let’s call her Susan) who hired an unqualified landscape “company” to do some work for her. She was very unhappy with the results and hired us to completely tear out the last contractor’s work and start over. We could write an entire post about the mistakes the contractor made and the damage he caused to Susan’s property. Maybe we will one day.

However, right now we just want to save anyone reading this the heartache, stress, and actual property damage that caused Susan so many sleepless nights. We don’t want you to go through what she went through.

Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid a disaster like this if you know what you’re doing and by the end of this post, you’ll be able to cut through a convincing sales spiel and find out if the person you’re thinking of hiring for your next landscape project is a pro or not, and what kind of pro.

Risks of Hiring the Wrong Contractor for Your Landscape Project

Everyone thinking about hiring a landscape artist should know the difference between a landscape architect, a landscape designer, a landscape installer, and a landscape contractor, and a gardener. Contrary to what some people think, they are not the same thing. So, here’s a quick rundown:

  • A Landscape Architect has two things: A university degree (bachelor’s or master’s) in Landscape Architecture and a state license giving them the authorization to advertise as a “landscape architect”. Someone who does not have these two things cannot call himself a “landscape architect”. That doesn’t stop the crooks though, and we’ll show you in a minute how you can weed them out.
  • A landscape designer might have a university degree in Landscape Architecture (and many of them do) but doesn’t have the state license required to call himself a “Landscape Architect”. Landscape designers tend to work primarily on residential landscaping projects. Let’s say that they usually handle the smaller stuff. That’s a good way to look at it.
  • A landscape installer is a licensed company that does the installation. (Treasurescapes is also a licensed and insured landscape installer. We both design and construct your landscape and hardscape.)
  • A landscape contractor is the licensed company that does the actual construction.
  • A gardener typically has minimal horticultural experience, unless they have a Master Horticulture Certificate. A Master Gardener will understand the morphology of plants.

Clearly, if you hire the wrong person or company for the job things are going to go wrong. There’s even the possibility they could go extremely wrong, like what happened to Susan. So, here’s what you need to do before you hire anyone for your next landscaping project:

  • Make sure anyone calling themselves a “landscape architect” is currently licensed. Get the proof.
  • Check out any other claims as well. These are things like professional affiliations, certifications etc.
  • Make sure the company is licensed and insured with worker’s compensation and general liability.

How To Make Sure You’re Hiring A Pro And Not An Amateur

Ok, so you’ve done a bit of sleuthing and discovered the company you’re thinking of trusting with your next landscape project didn’t ride into town last night, pitch a tent, and start doing business the next morning. That’s a good sign. However, you still have some work ahead of you. You now need to,

  • Check references and reviews and compare them against what you want to be created. The company may be licensed and have a good track record. However, what kind of experience do they have creating what you want created? Real professionals will be happy to provide you with this information. They want you to contact their references because they know they do quality work.
  • Ask to see 3D renderings and models, even blueprints and design plans. Don’t be shy. You’re the customer and it’s your money that’s going to be spent. You have every right to ask for these things.
  • Test to see how much they know about plant species and ongoing care.
  • Review their project portfolio on their website. What does the work say about the firm’s creative ability and style?
  • Ask about pricing. Do they charge by the hour or by the project? They should be able to give you details such as how long the project will take, how much you’ll need to deposit for the project to start etc. Make sure you get the proposal in writing and that you thoroughly understand the terms and fees.
  • Establish a budget for your project and communicate that to your landscape professional upfront.

You might also want to,

  • Ask people you trust if they know a landscape firm they’d recommend.
  • Drive around looking for landscape designs that strike your fancy. When you find one, ask the owner of the property who did the work and if they would recommend them.

Don’t rush this process. The more time you spend on it the greater your chance of hiring the right firm. You’ll also be able to pretty quickly weed out the imposters. Use your intuition. If something doesn’t feel right about a person or company, don’t feel obligated. Move on. Landscape projects are big expenditures. You need to feel comfortable with who you’re going to be working with.

What Should the Landscape Professionals Process Look Like?

Well, that depends who you’re hiring. Are you hiring a designer or a designer-builder? Here’s the difference between the two:

Architect (or designer) only

Some landscape architects and designers handle just the design part of things. When they’re done with the design they give you a detailed plan for the construction and planting. It’s your job at that point to go out and find a contractor to do the actual installation. You may not have the time or experience to do this.

Architect (or designer) and builder

Other landscape architects and designers handle both the design and the actual construction. Now, sometimes the landscape architect is also a licensed contractor which means that they do the installation themselves. If they’re not, they have licensed contractors that they work with.

I’m going to be upfront with you and say that you should only consider hiring someone who specializes in landscape design-build projects. Here’s why…

Design-build landscape architects have an in-depth understanding of how their designs will be constructed and what obstacles they might encounter along the way. Also, since they do both design and construction it’s easy for them to plan something that’s within your budget. They will oversee both the planting and construction. This ensures that flowers, plants, and trees are planted at the correct depth, with the proper irrigation, and that they aren’t damaged during the delivery and installation.

Here’s what that process will look like:

  1. The initial consultation almost always happens at your property. The architect will come out, have a look around, share ideas, and talk with you about your wish list. Some will charge for this while others do it for free.
  2. If the initial meeting goes well, the architect gets your property’s legal survey from you. (You should have a copy if you’re the property owner.)
  3. Once you’re ready to go ahead with the design process, you will probably be asked to pay a small retainer fee.
  4. The designs are created.
  5. The landscape architect presents you with the designs.
  6. If everything looks good, the landscape architect will help you select the plants and materials.
  7. You’ll now get a construction proposal that should include an itemized list including the associated costs.
  8. Once you’re happy with the proposal a contract is drawn up. It should include both a work and payment schedule. It should also clearly specify the costs.
  9. It’s at this point that you and the landscape architect will decide on a timeline of when the construction will commence and when it will be completed.
  10. Construction.
  11. After the construction is done both you and the landscape architect will do a walk through to ensure that you’re completely satisfied.

How to Ensure Your Landscape Project is a Success

Be prepared

Before you contact a landscaping professional spend some time thinking about what you want to accomplish. Write up a wish list (plus any must-haves) and jot down how much you can comfortably budget for the project. This will help a lot during the initial consultation.

Make sure you can work with the landscape architect

Remember, you’re hiring this person to perform a job for you in exchange for money. You have every right to conduct a thorough interview. Ask plenty questions and make sure you get answers that satisfy you. Communication is important when you’re going to be working together on a large project like this.

Don’t get too hung up on fixed completion dates

Instead, aim for an estimated time frame. Maybe it will be uncooperative weather, a problem with suppliers, or something else entirely. Just know that there’s a myriad of things that could affect the completion timeline. Don’t let that get you down.

Well, there you have it. If we had to summarize everything we just wrote it would be this:

Do your homework on the landscape professional, contact their references, spend some time reading the reviews, and make sure that they specialize in landscape design-build projects.