Selecting Landscape Professionals

Not many of us can go into the lumberyard and pick up everything we will need to build a home or business without prior planning. Creating a landscape that fits our needs requires much the same thought and consideration. Who does a person go to when they are in need of landscaping?

One person to contact is a landscape architect. Just as an architect designs homes and/or businesses, the landscape architect designs and drafts plans for exterior spaces. Landscape architects must complete certain educational criteria, serve an apprenticeship, and pass an examination before being granted a license. Ideally, the landscape architect is contacted at the same time as the building architect so the two can work together to create the best possible living space. The services of a landscape architect can range anywhere from $50 to $100 an hour. Horticulturists are often capable of creating excellent landscape designs at a lower price, usually between $20 and $50 an hour. Horticulturists are not licensed.

Landscape contractors are responsible for cost and materials estimation as well as the construction of the landscape project. They will be responsible for sprinkler system installation, soil preparation, grading, concrete, carpentry, shrubs, bedding plants, and lawns. These people are hired in much the same way as building contractors. The landscape plans are sent to several contractors and they are allowed to bid the project. This enables the consumer to secure the most realistic construction cost. Most states have laws requiring the landscape contractors be licensed, bonded, and fully insured which protects everyone. Average landscape installation costs begin in the $5,000 range and increase into five digits quite rapidly. Many landscape contractors have excellent reputations in the area of landscape design. The design service may be offered free of charge, but the contractor will require the assurance of a construction contract. Depending on the project, this may not be the most cost-effective strategy.

Where does a person go to find landscape designers? The yellow pages are a good place to start. Another method is to ask for referrals from friends, relatives, and coworkers who have recently completed landscape projects. Take a drive around town and get ideas. Even though you probably won't be able to use the exact plan, at least you'll have a better idea of your likes and dislikes. Before selecting the people to work on your project, investigate designers thoroughly. Check references and visit completed projects to make sure they can design the project you have in mind. Whether you pay for the plans separately, or they are a part of the construction contract, make sure you receive a detailed set of plans so you know exactly what you are going to get.

After selecting a designer, the next step is to negotiate fees and scope of work. This scope of work is often called a "planting plan," a "site layout plan." Your input in this area is critical. Consider all possible uses from entertainment needs, specialty gardens, recreational uses (swimming pool), to family use. Designers must keep in mind your preferences for architectural style, maintenance requirements, and budget. Also consider whether the plan will be implemented at once or phased-in over a period of time (an excellent way to defer costs). The next step is bidding out the plans. Make sure that each contractor breaks down the total cost into separate amounts for plants, construction materials, sprinkler system, and labor. These amounts will be important in negotiating final costs. More often than not, the bids will come in higher than expected. Lowering costs will involve making adjustments that won't dilute the design. For instance, instead of reducing the number of plants required for a given area, reduce the specified size. Do your homework as a consumer--research each of the plants specified on the plan to make sure they are adaptable to your location and maintenance requirements.

The landscape contractor will prepare a contract that lists the final cost of the project and when you are to make payments. A standard procedure in the contract designates a maintenance period. During this period, the contractor is responsible for fertilizing, watering, application of pre-emergence weed control, weeding, mulching, restaking, resetting plants to proper grade, mowing turf, repair of erosion, reseeding, sod replacement, and damaged or injured plant replacement. Typically the maintenance period is 30 days; however, extending it to 60 or 90 days is possible (for a charge). During that period, the contractor is responsible for all plants, sprinklers, drainage, and materials. Reserve 10% of the contractor's last payment until the end of this period to ensure this follow-up period is not neglected.

Many things can and often do go wrong during the installation process. Make an effort to be home during installation. Keep a daily record of the project. Include phone conversations, unusual activity, missed deadlines, substandard materials, and anything else that may be a source of disagreement later. Make sure there are no unnecessary delays which can lead to problems down the road (sunlight-weakened PVC pipe, weed invasions, erosion). Make sure soil preparation specifications are carried out and you see the ammendments before they are worked into the soil. Check the progress at the end of each day, making sure everything is installed according to specifications. If certain plants listed on the plan are unavailable, make sure you and the designer approve substitutions. Inspect plants for irregular shape, defects, ill- health, and proper size prior to planting. You have the right to reject any which are substandard without additional charge. If existing plants are to remain a part of the new landscape, make sure the contractor does not remove or damage them during construction. If they do, they should be expected to replace them at no additional charge. Your job site should be kept neat and clean. Walkways and driveways should be free of dirt and debris at the end of each day to prevent accidents. Unplanted containers should be cared for on-site by the contractor. At completion of planting, verify the presence of each plant by using the planting plan. The cost of omitted plants can be deducted from the contractor's final payment.

A well-designed landscape enhances the quality as well as increases the resale value of a home. It pays to insist on the best quality workmanship from the designers and contractors you have hired.

This article originally appeared in the June 16, 1993 issue, pp. 1993 issue, pp. 91-93.


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