One of the most biggest decisions for a landscaping project is whether to hire a landscape architect, landscape designer or landscape contractor. Their areas of experience and knowledge may be similar in some respects, but vary significantly in others.
To make it more confusing, many design-build firms have landscape designers and architects on staff to orchestrate the complete design, installation and maintenance of the most complex landscapes, while some designers and architects hire their own contractors. Sometimes you can hire a landscape architect or designer to come up with the plans and give good contractor referrals, which you then implement yourself. With landscape contractors, any design work is considered part of the construction package.
Whom to hire depends on several factors: your budget, timeline and project's size and complexity. The ultimate litmus test, though, is how you get along. Is the person receptive to your ideas, goals and project schedule? Can you communicate with each other?
"Get someone who takes the time to get to know your space and asks you questions about how you use your space, what kinds of things you like, and what kind of feeling you'd like your space to evoke, " says Trevor Smith, vice president of the Ecological Landscaping Association.
Start by asking your friends and neighbors for names of good firms, especially if they had a good experience. Local listservs are a great way to gather referrals quickly. You can also search online directories compiled by professional organizations and companies:
As you weigh the options, look at portfolios to see if a professional or firm specializes in the kind of project you have in mind. Refer to this checklist of questions. Ask for proof of licenses, certifications and professional affiliations. Get all proposals in writing and make sure you understand the terms and fees.
Even if you're impressively handy or have a jolly green thumb, before you start tearing up your yard, it's a good idea to consult with a landscape designer or architect to analyze your property and create a master plan. Designing and installing a landscape is far more complicated (and back-breaking) than planting a flower bed and requires a level of expertise and artistic vision that few amateur gardeners possess.
Armed with a master plan, you might take on some aspects yourself such as planting and mulching to save money or feel fulfilled, but it's wise to hire skilled labor to handle such things as lighting, irrigation, lawns, swimming pools, hardscapes, outdoor kitchens and grading.
"People get nervous about the master design process, but it's a wonderful exercise, " says Risa Edelstein, president of the Ecological Landscaping Association. "It really helps you get the garden you want and to avoid costly mistakes."