Thoughts on Landscape Designers

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Photo:  Unidentified water plant hanging over side of container.  Any idea what it is?  Note:  I don’t have a photo that “fits” for this topic.

This post is an opinion piece based only on personal experience.

In the state of Texas, an individual doesn’t have to be licensed to be a landscape designer.  One would think this might lower the cost of landscaping, but from what I’ve seen it does not.

Before I go further, let me say I’m not necessarily advocating for licensure; however, I do think this would raise the bar in the Texas landscaping industry  because sometimes the standard is low.

Some of the following may or may not apply to your state, so read on…

I believe most middle class homeowners in Texas don’t do much research when it comes to hiring someone to landscape their yard.  Furthermore, I think most are clueless as to the cost of hiring a landscape designer for a job.  (More about this below.) I also think many homeowners assume the landscaper knows what he or she is doing when it’s quite possible this isn’t the case.

There are many variables involved in a landscape design. Does the homeowner want the landscape designer to design and install a landscape or do they want only a plan and will do the installation themselves?  How big is the area to be landscaped?  Will the install require a lot of hardscaping/soil infill and/or construction?  Is there an irrigation install?  Trees or shrubs to be removed? Grading or terracing? Bring in sod and/or loads of dirt? Are there problems with drainage that need correction? Got heavy clay soil?

For the landscape designers I know personally (two) who are self-taught, I must say while both are honest individuals, and honesty is important, their knowledge base isn’t as full as one might expect.

Here are examples:

Landscaper #1:  Educational background is a bachelor’s degree in computers. He worked in the nursery trade for several years before deciding to delve into the landscaping design business.

This landscaper purchased a computer program that anyone could buy to create his designs.  He hired laborers exclusively from another country to do the grunt-work because the cost was less, and he felt they were willing to work harder than folks from this country. (I was told this directly.) He also spoke their language.

A few years ago, he took a job that turned into a disaster.  This landscaper did not have the knowledge to install a long stucco over cinder block wall that became a retaining wall at one end of the property. He still took the job.  He finished this particular job to the customer’s satisfaction, but lost money and time because he didn’t know what he was doing. The individual he subbed the job to didn’t have that knowledge either.  Neither person had any sort of engineering experience or knowledge of how deep the footings needed to be or what to expect as the soil shifted.  (A less scrupulous landscaper would likely have walked off the job leaving the homeowner with a mess.)

In another job this landscaper accepted, the homeowners requested certain shrubs be retained while others were to be removed. The landscape designer discussed the shrubs in depth with his crew and the work began.  Unfortunately, when the landscaper took a lunch break off-site when he returned, ALL shrubs were removed.  The workers apparently did not understood after all. They were somewhat new. (Laborer turn-over was always a problem.)  I believe this mistake occurred because the crew was not seasoned.

Finally, this landscaper decided he would only accept large jobs of $10,000 or more. Installing a flagstone sidewalk was no longer a task he was willing to do.  (I know this because I asked him to install a flagstone path for a colleague of mine.)  When the economy tanked, he was forced to take on commercial maintenance jobs, and that’s what he does currently.  I think he’s happy, and it’s easy money.

Landscaper #2:  Worked hands-on in the landscaping industry for many years before going out on his own.

He subscribes to volcano-mulching and in his own yard has planted young trees that, at maturity, will be large and are located beneath power lines. Some of these trees are planted only 8-10 ft apart and may eventually shade each other or touch each other.  I say nothing because it’s not my place.

This landscaper sometimes waters his plants and lawn in the middle of the day in the heat of the summer.  Tree limb cutting, by this landscaper, is also not performed correctly. (You’re not supposed to cut the limb flush with the trunk, and the cut should be smooth, not ragged.)

This landscaper is a good-hearted individual who knows which laborers to hire should his customer need a small flagstone patio (10K+ I’ve been told) or garden beds installed.  He is also very much an advocate of red mulch. He advertises himself as a professional.

Finally, on a lunch trip to Olive Garden many years ago, I witnessed a commercial landscaping crew removing earthworms from the strip mall’s garden beds. (I realize this was not a landscape designer doing this, but the crew worked for a local design company.)  It was late spring. They were removing old plants, install new ones, and throwing the worms out as they went along.  Wow.  I was shocked.  There were a lot of worms wriggling around beside the concrete curb in the hot sun.

If you are an inexperienced homeowner how do you know what to look for in a landscape designer?  Would you even know if your design and installation was done correctly?

Back to the middle class homeowners who wish to hire a landscape designer:  My neighbor where I lived previously consulted a popular landscape designer in the area.  Not sure what the landscape bid entailed, but she was upset when the bid came in because it was impossible for her to afford the work even if the bid were scaled back dramatically.

Another example:  My former boss, Sarah (not her real name), also consulted a landscape designer for a bid.  Her yard was a ½ acre, completely sodded, and held many mature oak trees.  Sarah nearly choked when the landscape bid came in at 40K. She declined the job.

I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps only the wealthy can afford a landscape installation. In other words, I think the cost to hire a professional landscape designer for an installation is beyond what most of the middle class can afford. I also know the garden tours I’ve seen that highlighted landscape designer work were definitely not in middle class neighborhoods.  Conversely, I’ve not seen a landscape design installation in the middle class ‘hoods I’ve lived in.  But what do I know?  There’s always an exception.

Maybe to prevent everyone’s time from being wasted, landscape designers could convey what the approximate costs could be before looking at a job? I know that’s hard to do, but perhaps they could say something like, “I just want to let you know upfront that most of my flagstone walkway installations cost in the ballpark/average range of 3K and up depending upon the length and width of the walkway.  I don’t want you to be surprised by my bid.” (Or for you to visit the emergency room when your jaw hits the floor.)

I’ll end this post on a more personal note.  I’m the unfortunate owner of rental property I’m unable to sell, at least not at this time.  This property had a 16’ x 20’ un-level hazardous brick-on-sand patio. In addition, the house had no walkway from the back door to the driveway gate.  Thus, when it rained you stepped in water and/or mud when trying to walk from the back door to your car.

I told my renters I would fix these problems. I consulted with three landscaper designers and one mason.

All three landscapers had several positive on-line reviews, and one had been in business for over 20 years.

The first landscaper wanted $75.00 for a bid.  I didn’t hire him although I recognize his time is worth something. I didn’t want to waste $75. In case I decided not to use him.

The second and third landscapers gave (gasp) bids that were completely out of my price range.  (Read: middle class)

When I told one of these landscapers I wanted to use simple 24” square concrete pavers in gravel contained with edging for a walkway, he said this was not what I wanted.  Hunh?? He told me I needed to use the flagstone that he had left over from another job.  In addition, he mentioned he would have his masons level my bricks.

My renter and I agreed afterward that flagstone was not what we wanted.  My renter likes neat square lines/edges.

Since I used a mason to re-point the brick on my new old house and to lay a brick walkway, I called him last to bid on the job.  I thought for certain his bid would be more than the other two.  Surprise.  His bid was 2/3rds to half of the landscaper bids.  Since I already knew the quality of the mason’s work and his work ethics, I hired him for the job, and it turned out well.

In summary, I’ll probably always do my own garden design even if it’s not  “professional.”  Professional is obviously a relative term.

This post isn’t written to say all landscape designers are bad. (We all know that’s not true, and I’ve witnessed some awesome landscape designs by designers.)  It’s simply to relay what I’ve experienced in this realm.  The bottom line is I can’t afford to hire a landscaper designer and besides, I like doing my own work.

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