Ilene Sternberg is a multiple-award-winning freelance garden writer and co-author of Best Garden Plants for Pennsylvania and Perennials for Pennsylvania.

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Seeking Professional Help
by Ilene Sternberg    

Need help with your garden? Here’s a primer to aid in sifting through the available options.

Some projects you can do yourself, while others require the help of a professional.

Landscape Architects

Tips on Hiring
a Pro

Be wary of the word “certified.” Just like the words “organic” and “natural,” this could sound reassuring, but be totally meaningless. To promote performance standards, trade organizations such as the American Nurseryman’s Association, laudably have developed their own high-standard certification programs. The American Society of Landscape Architects certifies landscape architects, the Association of Professional Landscape Designers recognizes landscape designers, but most home-improvement centers “certify” their own nurseryperson to help customers with plant-related purchases and problems. If one of these “certified” people recommended something unsafe that caused harm, would the certifying agency be liable?

Interview at least three professionals for your job. You’ll get different perspectives, prices and probably a clearer image of what you want and what you will get. Don’t hesitate to interview the same person more than once if you’re interested. 
Communication, chemistry and trust are essential, but always ask for credentials, resumes and references. Whenever possible, visit examples of work and talk to previous clients. Check guarantees, warranties, maintenance and replacement agreements and get everything you discuss and agree upon in writing.

Choose the person or firm whose vision most closely matches yours. A designer, certainly, should understand your needs and desires. If you’re expecting a low-maintenance garden, find out exactly what that means in terms of time, labor and money for upkeep. If you’re looking for more than just ordinary plants, prompt your prospective designer for a few Latin names during the interview. If all he or she comes up with are Julius Caesar and Antonio Banderas, keep looking. 

If you feel the “bones” of your garden suffer from osteoporosis, you may be thinking of hiring a landscape architect. State licensed, with degrees in their field, these folks have studied surveying, site design and construction, landscape ecology, urban and regional planning and more, enabling them to analyze natural elements of a site and assess the effect of existing buildings, roads, walkways and utilities on a project. If plans include grading and drainage concerns, for example, they understand engineering issues involving water, its motion, its effect on plants and how to successfully redirect it. They may be best to manage jobs requiring land movement or other large-scale enterprises. Some do residential work, but others limit their practice to commercial work. To learn more, consult the American Society of Landscape Architects at (202) 898-2444 or check their website

Landscape Contractors

A landscape contractor can often design, install and maintain interior and exterior landscaping, including plants, hardscaping (such as patios, decks, retaining walls, gazebos and more) and irrigation systems. There are a number of landscape contractor associations, usually listed on the Internet by state. Most suggest that the company you hire have employees with either a secondary education in ornamental horticulture or several years of experience, that they are active members in national or state landscape associations demonstrating interest in excellence and progressive thought, and that you select a company that is licensed or certified, and insured.

Landscape Designers

There are no rigorous standards for landscape designers (aka garden designers), but they might meet your needs. They often have schooling with expertise in gardening, horticulture and in planning hardscaping (such as patios, walks and walls) for a property. Like the landscape architect, they can draw plans detailing all existing and proposed features. They may or may not also be contractors who can execute these plans. The Association of Professional Landscape Designers ((717) 238-9780 or website allows you to search for a designer by zip code. Many horticulture institutions have skilled staff members, students and interns who moonlight as landscape designers, and some talented amateurs also do this successfully.

Garden Historian

If you live on a historic property, you might consider a garden historian, or a designer who also has a qualification in garden history. They can investigate estate records and prepare a report with management recommendations. Not only can they discern what form your garden originally took, but they can plan an authentic restoration or create a garden true to its period, using the appropriate style and plants. There are firms that specialize in garden restoration.


A licensed arborist has gone through rigorous training.

There is a big difference between a licensed arborist and a “tree guy.” (There are national and state associations for arborists, too. Visit the International Association of Arboriculture at or call (217) 355-9411.)  Landscape contractors, landscapers and garden maintenance businesses offer the gamut — from experienced, reliable, and occasionally even imaginative work, to haphazard, fly-by-night and incompetent services. Sort out the proficient ones from those who lack know-how, those who merely buy a few pieces of equipment, put an ad in the phone book or newspaper and offer services to an unwary public. Also, even when hiring someone just to mow your lawn, weed beds, prune, spread mulch, dig holes or help with general gardening chores, be sure one of you has appropriate insurance. A few episodes of Judge Judy will tell you why.

How can you tell a Miss Gertrude Jekyll from a Mr. Bean? Interview your prospective garden installers or landscape consultants with a series of questions to determine the degree of training each has in the type of work you require. Be sure to interview a minimum of three (preferably not Moe, Larry and Curly). With every conference, you’ll gain precious information about what each offer and their different approaches to the job, and you’ll be able to focus on exactly what it is you need and want.

10 Questions to Ask Before You  Hire a Landscaper

1. References. Do you have references that I can call or visit? 

2. Education. What is your education in landscaping or horticulture? What certifications do you or your employees have? 

3. Time frame. How long do you estimate the project will take? What do you do about weather delays? 

4. Insurance. Do you have liability coverage and how much? Do you have workers’ compensation insurance for your employees? 

5. Plants. What plant types and sizes do you plan to use, and will these be included in the written contract? 

6. Materials. Besides plants, what other materials (such as mulch, fertilizers and hardscaping) are included in the contract price? Is there a minimum volume of product included, and if you use more than that, will there be an extra charge?

7. Cleanup. Is cleanup and removal of yard waste included in the overall price? 

8. Damage. If there is damage to the lawn or any of the existing landscape, utility lines, will it be repaired, or will a comparable amount be taken off the overall price? 

9. Pesticides. If you have to spray pesticides, do you have an applicator’s license? What pesticides will you use? 

10. Unusual circumstances. If you run into bedrock, large boulders or other unforeseen circumstances, is any of this covered in the price? What do you estimate will be the added cost for any extra labor involved?

From State-by-State Gardening January/February 2013. Photos courtesy of Ilene Sternberg.


Posted: 01/23/13   RSS | Print


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