Choosing a Landscape Designer

Hiring a landscaper to create the garden of your dreams can be almost as exciting as finding and buying the house of your dreams. When you search for a designer, you will quickly find that the professionals vary dramatically in experience, methods, and personal style. Because your landscape and home will benefit or suffer as a result, it makes sense to select your contractor carefully.

Most people start with a referral from a friend, neighbor, or local nursery. You can also check with the landscaper’s association in your state for a list of local contractors. Some nurseries provide design services and there are even unlicensed professional designers who are also quite skilled. A careful selection process can help ensure that you hire the one that’s right for you.

The first thing to do is have the landscaper or designer come to your house and evaluate your property and needs. Ask them to bring references and photographs of their work. Even if you feel confident about the first contractor you find, schedule at least two other appointments with different contractors. Make sure they are not there at the same time, unless you like drama. It also helps to ask what types of garden each specializes in. If you’re married to the idea of an English cottage garden and the designer you call is world-renowned for xeriscapes, you want to know that as soon as possible.

Before the Meeting
Before you meet, write a list of the features and plants you want in your new landscape. It’s very easy to get sidetracked during a meeting and forget to mention a particular tree or plant material you want. Also, write down your questions and have them ready for your meeting.

One of the best ways for a designer to get a feel for what you want is photographs. Go through magazines and books marking the landscapes you love. If there is a beautiful garden in your neighborhood, take a picture of it and have that ready as well. During your appointments, you will not only tell the designers what you want, but you’ll be able to show them examples.

The First Meeting
When you meet with each designer at your home, you will tour the areas to be landscaped and talk about what you visualize for your garden. During these meetings, you will be getting valuable information about the landscaper as well:

Do they ask you questions?
Do they ask you to clarify and provide additional details?
Are they interested in what you are saying?
Are they enthusiastic and optimistic about your project?
Are you able to communicate well with them?

Personality compatibility aside, a good landscaper is one who strives to understand your vision for the landscape. Most homeowners have a clear picture in their mind of their ideal final result and a skilled designer will work to get at that picture. This meeting should not be less than an hour, unless you have a tiny yard. Be cautious if you feel the landscaper is rushing you or not giving you their undivided attention.

Your job at this meeting to make your desires and expectations as clear as you can, and that includes your budget and timeline. You should feel comfortable discussing money and schedules with your designer.

At this point, it is not unheard of for the designer to come into your house and good designers do this for two reasons: first, your interior furnishings and d�©cor reveal much about your taste that may be missed from verbal descriptions and even photographs; second, the designer will want to see what aspects of the garden and landscape are framed by your windows from the inside. This information will help the designer specify styles and colors for garden features such as fountains, wall paint, and tile, and also help with alignment of trees and plants outside to ensure a pleasant and harmonious view from inside.

The Second Meeting
Next you will receive a rendering of the designer’s plan for your landscape. Usually the designer will present the drawing to you and explain the materials and installation process. Listen for your keywords during this presentation. If you asked for “light and airy” or “architectural”, you should hear those words again in the designer’s description of your plan. Their illustrations and words should look and sound like what you asked for. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions or to say you don’t like something. Professionals are comfortable with making changes to accommodate their clients.

Remember that a beautiful drawing is just that: a drawing. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the plan perfectly reflects your tastes or wishes. Review the drawing and accompanying plant list carefully, and if you need help, go to your garden references, or better yet, your local nursery to see the plants in person.

Making a Decision
When you have received all the drawings and bids from the designers you met with, you are ready to evaluate the proposals. With the references you requested and the package from each designer, review the materials with these questions in mind:

Was the drawing and bid delivered to you on time?
Does the plan reflect what you asked for?
Is the bid in line with your stated budget?
Is the project within the scope of what you discussed?
Did the designer put in any extras or pleasant surprises?
Does the design effectively and creatively solve problems you described?

The answers to these questions will give you a good idea of what it will be like to work with this contractor. A bid and drawing delivered on time and as agreed is a good sign that the contractor takes agreements seriously and will work hard to meet or exceed your expectations.

Again, if you have any doubts about the plant materials that have been specified, take the drawing and plant list to your nursery and ask them to review it with you. Not all landscapers are as skilled with horticulture and plant requirements as they are with design, and most nurseries are happy to provide this free service.

When you have narrowed the choice down to one or two designers, spend the time to check references. If you are still unsure, ask the designer for some addresses where they have done work. It may take a little extra time for them to receive permission from their clients, but this is something that can usually be done fairly easily. Happy clients are often willing to let their landscape speak for their designer. You may be tempted to skip this step and get started right away, but reference checking is a valuable tool that helps you make a good decision about where to spend your landscaping dollars.

When you have done all the due diligence you can, your decision will come down to who you feel comfortable with, who you trust, and whose design you like the best. When you make the phone call to tell your chosen contractor you’re ready to break ground, you’ll know you made a careful choice and can look forward to your dream garden.

You’re only a few weeks away from a beautiful landscape.

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