Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Selecting and hiring a Landscape Designer

What front entryway design will complement my home
and add curb appeal? What will the design cost?
I like to do yard work and gardening, but over the years I sometimes need an experienced, trained landscape designer,  a strong set of hands, or just large equipment I don't have. I needed help with a major redesign of my home’s landscape, working with large overgrown plants, and working with hard-scaping.  Then there is taking down and maintaining trees which needs a professional too. What with the cost of landscape design, minimum fees, and more - this was not a decision I took lightly. That said, I know that curb appeal can add value to my home, so I didn't want to be disappointed either.
So what do I look for in a landscape designer / landscaper? What's a good selection process and decision criteria for landscaping help?

The above picture is one and example of a project where professional help can save you. Here there is hard scaping removal and installation, the need to manage water flow away from the house, curb appeal, buried power lines, and building aesthetics to consider. This could be a DIY project from hell. So if you've got anything like this that has many facets and gives you pause as a DIY - start the process to find the right help.

Here’s my list of must haves:

  • willingness to listen to my ideas and concerns;
  • formal horticultural training (not a Master Gardener like me!) 
  • Experience blending garden/yard design with my home's architecture. 
  • Referable projects of the scale and type that I'm thinking about (just because someone cuts grass and plants containers doesn't mean they should redesign your whole yard) - 
  • Clients that I can visit and talk too - not just (website) photos or static portfolio
  • History of delivering lasting value (has been in business for some time) 
  • Insured and licenses
  • Formal contract (including not-to-exceed, guarantees on plantings, surfaces)
  • Someone I like and can talk to and work with!

Step 1: Write Down what you want! 
Prior to selecting candidates I pulled together several items including:
How big should this water drainage pit be?
Would you charge by the hour? 
  1. A rough outline of several projects I had planned including rough plant and space requirements (e.g. low maintenance, native plants, need a Japanese maple), 
  2. Items that I did not want in the plan (e.g. no marching box woods), 
  3. A description of how I currently use the area
  4. Ideas of how I planned to use the space (lounge area, social patio, viewing wildlife), 
  5. Issues with the current space (drainage, light, soil).  
  6. An idea of my end-state and style. To help me with this process I had collected nearly 50 photos of yards and gardens from assorted magazines! 
  7. Plus notes of what worked and didn't work in the decade that I had been working the yard myself. 
  8. An idea of how much time I wanted to spend maintaining the space after the project was completed
  9. Very rough budget (I believe that folks will spend what you give them, so I just give ball-park estimates at the start of a discussion. Details can be worked out later)

Step 2: Make a short list of candidates
I planned on talking to several candidates with multiple areas of specialty. I made sure that folks know that you don't need "a-jack-of-all-trades" but rather are looking for partners to bring their best.  I made my short list by looking at the advertised service providers from the magazines previously mentioned, recommendations from neighbors (with similar needs / yard spaces), I got a recommendation from our town arborist, plus I did lots of searches online and looked at websites.  My short list included arborists/tree service, landscaping services, landscape designers, hardscapers and multi-service companies.
Step 3: The Interview/Consultation
I set up appointments letting folks know that I had several projects in mind, but was also
What tree would you plant in the
Woodland Restoration? In this wet area?
looking for a service provider for the long term.  At the first meeting, the "consultation", I provided my list of projects and vision and they throws out ideas and suggestions too.  This give and take is an important evaluation step - do they listen, provide guidance or just tell you "what you need."   Do they have a vision and see things that I didn't even think of?  One project I've needed help on is the woodland restoration - photo shown here and on these blog updates.

This is the opportunity to see which of the potential projects they can do - want to do, and to find out their fees structure.  Some service firms work by the hour, others flat fee by the project, some with tiered pricing for planning and then executing.  For example, one designer provided high quality plans for the whole yard (computer / CAD drawn) while others only went with hand drawn options. Both work - one costs and lasts longer (from service provider to another :)  )  One landscape designer told me that have a $10,000 retainer each year. (That didn't work for me.) During the interview set-up one service provider told me that his crew had all just quit, that didn't work for me either!
Step 4  Check those references and take the Car for a Test Drive:
What would you charge to
haul away buckthorn?
From the list of references provided - take a drive by and see the projects. Then call the folks and ask questions. Was the project on budget? Did they collaborate in the design phase? Were any issues resolved readily and amicably? Have they used the service provider again? What was an aspect of working with the provider that they really enjoyed? What didn't they like about the service provider?

Then, cull your list to the final few. If it makes sense - I suggest finding a small project to work with your preferred service provider on to learn how you work together.  No long term contract - just a project.  Some firms do not do this - but it's a great way to learn. 
Step 5: Sign the paperwork 
Agree on the relationship - the project, timing, budget, scope (what's in and what's out!) This agreement protects you.  If there are no drawings - make a sketch, mark the ground with paint, something so that everyone is on the same page. 
Step 6: Start the work!
In the end, I hired three firms. I brought in a full-service landscape design firm that developed full CAD mapping of the entire yard and has done several major efforts.  I hired a tree service - in addition to cutting and trimming the trees, they also provide me with lots of free wood chips, and the crew can be hired by the hour for odd yard work. Lastly I hired what I can only call a "yard-work" labor force. A group of guys that will help me with any
tasks for just an hourly rate.  These three type of helpers really match my needs. I'm not overpaying a high end company to do labor that I can direct. I've got an expert arborist taking care of my trees. I have a good partner to help with creative design.

Patio Transformation Project - Teresa's Garden Song
 Having the right helpers can make life in your yard and garden a song!

Teresa Marie

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