Last updated August 2012
Maybe it’s because you want to create something beautiful. Maybe it’s because you want to hang out in an attractive, functional outdoor space. Maybe it’s because you can’t bear your neighbors’ contemptuous stares. Maybe it’s because you want to push your property value to the maximum. Whatever your reason, you might want landscaping help.
Depending on what you want done, and on how much of it you want to do yourself, you can turn to various types of service providers. Some landscaping companies offer a full range of services, from designing an entire outdoor environment (plants, grading, walls and walks, etc.) to supplying the materials and plants to doing the full installation work. But there are also landscape designers who do only the design (and may supervise the installation); garden centers that only supply plants and other materials and may do some plantings or spread mulch; and various companies, from irrigation system installers to masons, that can play a role.
The lines are not bright. Many companies offer more than one type of service, but not all of them. Here at Checkbook.org, you will find our quality ratings and/or customer reviews—and in some cases detailed price comparisons—on a range of the types of companies that might meet your needs. In this article, we focus primarily on landscapers that will design and install major projects, although most are happy to do more limited projects as well, or just the design or installation component.
Before hiring anyone to design your landscape, think about your space and what you want to do with it. Your thoughts will continue to evolve—perhaps dramatically—when you talk with professionals, but it is helpful at least to think through your hopes and what may constrain them—
- How much money are you willing to spend? Setting a budget will drive many of your plans: A few thousand dollars could pay for redoing an existing garden with new plantings but not a complete renovation or hardscaping work.
- Do you want to accomplish a specific theme, such as English garden, modern design, or Zen-meditation garden?
- Do you want to rip up and replace everything or preserve and complement what’s already there?
- Do you want to add hardscaping, such as a wall, path, or patio? A new fence, deck, or gazebo?
- Do you want to retain or create a large open space where kids or pets can roam?
- Do you want plantings that require little maintenance or are you willing to—or even looking forward to—playing an active role in keeping everything healthy and in check?
- Do you want hardy, water-thrifty plantings or are you willing to sacrifice some time (and money) to keep everything irrigated?
- Do you want a range of flowering varieties that will provide constant color?
- Do you want fruit or vegetables?
- Do you want new plantings that create privacy (or that screen a neighbor’s poor choices)?
- Do you need to solve drainage problems?
- Do you expect problems with deer or other garden-gobbling critters?
Fortunately, you’ll find there are landscaping solutions for almost every need and obstacle. If you need inspiration, you won’t have to look far for help: There are seemingly endless numbers of websites, magazines, and books devoted to gardening and landscaping. You’ll also probably get ideas by taking a long walk through your neighborhood.
Selecting Design Help
If you need professional planning advice, many landscaping companies have staff that can provide it. Most of these companies are willing, for a fee, to do the design with the agreement that you can then decide whether to have them or some other company (or yourself) do the installation. You can also hire an independent landscape designer or landscape architect. Many independent designers draw up plans and then supervise or do the work.
The field of landscape design has become increasingly professionalized: Professional designers typically have earned certificate, bachelor’s, or master’s degrees in the discipline. Many landscaping contractors don’t employ degreed designers, but do have staff with many years of hands-on experience, extensive knowledge of plants and design, and artful eyes—who can do great design work.
Regardless of training and expertise, you’ll get satisfactory design work only if you find someone whose tastes match yours and with whom you can easily communicate. One way to test your compatibility with prospective designers is simply to show them your property, review your objectives and ideas, and listen to their ideas. Keep an open mind: A good designer will offer suggestions that you have not considered.
Before selecting someone to do design work for you, look at designers’ portfolios and at a few properties they have designed. Discuss the designer’s choices with the designer so you get a better sense of how the designer thinks. And try to arrange to talk with the property owners about their experiences with the designer. Focus on examples of work similar to yours in style, project size, and costs.
Keep in mind that not all landscape designers or landscape installers have expertise in all areas. Want a stone wall or path? Be sure the companies you consider have extensive experience designing and building them. If you need regrading work or an irrigation system, look for companies with enough experience in these areas to make sure you—or your neighbor—don’t wind up with a flooded basement.
In addition to the feedback you get from companies’ current and former customers, here at Checkbook.org you’ll find reviews from local consumers (primarily Consumers' Checkbook and Consumer Reports subscribers) of area landscape designers and of landscaping companies that employ designers.
To minimize potential headaches with a designer, get a written agreement in advance that details what the designer will do for you—if possible, it should refer to design drawings and documents you have seen from other projects. It should be clear that the design documents you receive will include a detailed drawing, or drawings, and notes with detailed descriptions of what is to be planted, how many will be planted, and where they will be planted. And the agreement should confirm that these documents will include details of all hardscape elements and detailed specifications of all materials and site-preparation work. The agreement should also indicate that you will have at least a few opportunities to review and help shape plans before the documents are finalized.
Your Role in the Planning
As the designer’s work progresses, you will need to review the plan and give feedback. Revisit all questions discussed under “Getting Ready,” above, to make sure you are happy with the result. Specific questions to answer in this review include—
- How will the plants recommended by the designer fit your tastes and needs? Plants should not only provide the look you want, but take into account soil type and acidity, drainage patterns, and sunlight exposure. It’s a good idea to discuss suggested plantings with an independent source, such as a master gardener affiliated with an area cooperative extension service. In our article on garden centers, we list contact information for several area sources of expert gardening advice.
- How large will provided plants be? How big will they be when mature? How quickly will they grow to maturity? Discuss how your property will look both right away and years from now when your plants have grown. Without good planning, you could find yourself with an assortment of plants that do not complement each other in size, shape, or color. You might end up with shade where you want sun and with the view from, or of, your house unfortunately obscured.
- Keep in mind that “fast-growing” isn’t always a desirable trait in landscaping. One trick used by some designers affiliated with full-service landscaping companies is to suggest and plant fast-growing varieties that require a lot of upkeep and trimming, hoping you’ll hire them to do maintenance work.
- What will you have to do? If it sounds like too much maintenance for you to do or pay for, ask for revisions to make the future work more manageable. Find out whether care will require the use of pesticides, and decide whether you are willing to use pesticides that way.
Choosing and Dealing with the Installer
Once you have a plan, unless you want to do the work yourself, you will have to choose a company to carry out your plan and do the installation. You can choose the designer’s company, if it also does installation, but you may save money and get better work elsewhere. If the designer does not work for an installation company, ask the designer for recommendations, just as you might ask a building architect to help you choose a contractor. And you might extend your agreement with your independent designer to supervise the installation work.
We find that many companies doing landscaping installations make a lot of their customers unhappy. In addition to the usual frustrations of dealing with lousy home-improvement companies—rude staff, delays and no-shows, communication breakdowns—we receive many complaints about even more serious matters. A relatively large percentage of landscaping customers complain about deposits stolen with no work done; overcharges; plantings that die quickly with companies unwilling to provide replacements; hardscaping that crumbles; destruction of property (landscapers apparently often destroy lawns); and sloppy work that makes customers wish they had their old landscaping back.
Here at Checkbook.org, you can get feedback on companies you might consider for this work. If you have used an independent designer, that might also be a source of suggestions. Ask any companies you consider to provide addresses of properties where they have done installations and go look at the work. In getting feedback from companies’ customers, try to find out whether the company did what it promised and on time, and how the plants are holding up.
When you talk with companies, get answers to the following questions, and include those answers in the contract with the company you hire—
- If the company will be buying plants to install, where will it buy plants? There is tremendous variation in the quality of plants sold by area garden nurseries. Healthier plants not only are more likely to survive and look good, but also will require less effort from you to grow to their full potential. Cross-check companies’ sources against our ratings of area garden centers. If a contractor buys from a source with low ratings, or from a source you’ve never heard of, ask if it is willing to commit contractually to buying from a supplier you trust.
- What tasks will you be expected to do, and how often? Conflicts between landscapers and their customers frequently occur when plants die sooner than expected. Often the landscaper blames the customer.
- What guarantees do you get? If you do your part, but plants die or fail to thrive, will the company replace them at no extra charge? How long are walls and other structures guaranteed to last? A solid, unambiguous guarantee is a sign of quality. Assume no promise is valid unless it’s in writing.
- How quickly can work commence? Once work has begun, how long will it take to complete it?
- If heavy equipment is needed, how will the company minimize damage from it? How will equipment access the work area? Some companies use specialized rubber-tracked equipment that does little damage to lawns. Others try to undo damage they create by reseeding and resodding. Our view is that it’s easier to avoid creating carnage than to correct it.
- If there are existing plantings you want to retain, how will the company make sure they remain undisturbed? To be safe, the contract should include a list or drawing indicating the placement and number of plants you want to keep. The more detail, the better: Not all workers know the difference between weeds and perennials. In addition to making a list, you might want to tie a ribbon around each plant you want to keep.
- Will the company take proper steps to identify and avoid underground utility lines? Before any digging, the proper authorities should locate and mark the location of all underground lines. If a company tells you this step is unnecessary, call 811 to confirm. Landscapers are notorious for ignoring this important safety practice.
- Will the landscaper use pesticides or herbicides? If so, what precautions are necessary to prevent them from harming your family, your pets, and wildlife? If pesticides are to be used, require the company to show you that it will use a certified applicator. Also ask the company to supply you with material safety data sheets for any chemicals it uses.
- How large a deposit is required? While it’s reasonable for companies to require small down payments so they don’t have to front all the costs of plantings and other materials, the power to delay payment until work is done as agreed provides great leverage. In California, home improvement contractors—including landscapers—may not require deposits of more than 10 percent of total project costs, or $1,000, whichever is less.
- Will the company provide credit references? A good way to check the stability of companies is to ask suppliers if they pay their bills on time. Good credit also reduces the chances of an unpaid supplier placing a lien on your home.
- Who actually will do the work? Are the workers company employees? Day laborers? Will the same crew show up each day? Who will supervise workers, and will supervision be constant?
- Does the company have insurance coverage for liability and worker’s compensation claims? If not, you could be liable for claims.
- Who is responsible for hauling away debris? Preferably, the contract should call for the landscaper to handle this task.
Once you have a detailed landscaping plan, you can use it to obtain price quotes from multiple installation companies. Get a fixed-price contract for all the work and materials the company will supply.
You’ll find tremendous price variation from company to company for the same work. Our mystery shoppers contacted a sample of area landscaping businesses and requested price quotes for two different jobs. The first job was simple: Supply and apply enough new mulch to cover a 450-square-foot landscaped garden to a depth of three inches. The second job was more complicated: Landscape and provide plants for a 168-square-foot area according to a planting plan prepared for us by a professional landscape designer.
The price quotes we obtained are listed on the table below. As you can see, we received a wide range of prices, from $380 to $800 for the mulch job, and from $1,195 to $4,704 for the more complicated job. (See the footnotes for the table for a list of plants and other job specifications.)
Because we find buying plants one of the few businesses in which there appears to be a price-quality relationship, some of these price differences might be the result of quality differences of provided plants. But that landscaping companies acquire plants from different sources does not explain away all of the cost differences we found. Of the companies listed on the table, a few contractors that receive high ratings from their surveyed customers for quality of work quoted low prices, while a few other contractors that receive low marks from surveyed customers quoted high prices.
If you’re looking for a landscaper to provide continuing maintenance services, make sure you understand what you’ll be getting for the price—and what will cost extra. Disreputable landscapers commonly bill monthly fees for maintenance, and then charge extra for tasks like “spring cleanup,” “fall cleanup,” and so on. Make sure that any maintenance agreement specifies which tasks are to be done and how often. And because some landscapers tend to perform and bill for extra work without first getting customer approval, inform any company in writing that all work must be approved in advance.
As work progresses, make sure the company is holding up its end of the agreement, and do your part to keep the job running smoothly—
- Stay engaged. Once work begins, check in daily with the contractor for progress reports. If you have questions or complaints, bring them up as early on as possible.
- Check plants as they arrive and before they are planted for signs of trouble. For tips on spotting signs of poor plant quality, see our article on garden nurseries.
- Keep in mind that delays due to weather aren’t the contractor’s fault.
- Provide a bathroom for workers.
- If you do your part but plants don’t thrive, immediately ask the company to inspect them and, if necessary, replace them.
Illustrative Prices Quoted
|Execute a planting plan, including plants (description below)||Supply and apply 3 inches of mulch to existing 450-squarefoot garden|
Scotts Valley, 831-438-4747
|Girvin Peters Landscape,
Los Altos, 650-948-7260
|Hansen Landscape Contractors,
Castro Valley, 510-537-0464
|Kerri Landscape Services,
|Lazar Landscape Design & Construction,
|Mackenzie Landscape Gardening,
Redwood City, 650-365-2134
Job 1: Convert a 168-square-foot area of existing lawn to a landscaped area according to a professionally prepared planting plan. Job includes amending soil to depth of 8 inches, addition of 4 inches of compost and 3 inches of pine bark mulch, proper grading, removal of all debris, and a 1-year warranty on supplied plants. List of plants: 1 Japanese maple, 3 glossy abelia, 3 red knock out rose, 1 rosemary, 7 germander, 7 biokovo cranesbill geranium, and 3 catmint.
Note: For both jobs, our shoppers provided the companies with additional, detailed instructions. For Job 1, companies were also provided with a list of preferred plant sizes. Some companies reported they were unable to find the plants we requested in the sizes we preferred, and submitted pricing for slightly larger or smaller plants; in general, we found these adjustments did not have significant impacts on companies’ prices. Also, even though our shoppers provided each company with the exact same job specifications, it is possible that some companies intended to do different work without specifying these differences in their proposals.