Getting the Help You Need with Your Garden

Cheryl Corson, RLA, ASLA

Landscape contractors followed the landscape architect’s design to create a new concrete walkway, plantings, and a hidden seating area, keeping with the site’s historic character. Photo: C. Corson

The budding outdoors will soon beckon and you may wonder if this year you’ll finally do something with the yard. Here are some tips to help you understand your needs and identify the most appropriate professional services for you. Once you know more about your criteria, it will be easier to navigate the maze of available landscape design and installation options.

Although I am a landscape architect, I’ll be the first one to tell a prospective client that they’d be better served by someone else if they don’t really need the type of service I offer. Here is a condensed version of what I tell garden-hungry homeowners.

What Do You Really Need?

The most helpful thing you can do for yourself, or any designer or contractor you may work with, is to ask yourself what you really want. I don’t mean, “I want a pink dogwood” – go deeper. Why do you want to make a change, and why now? Your answers will help guide you, your designer, and the design itself. Here are some examples from my practice:

  • My youngest just left for college and I need a project that’s just for me;
  • My father recently passed and we’re using our inheritance to make the yard safer and more accessible as we age;
  • We need the yard to look better when we sell the house next year;
  • I’ve decided I’m happy being single, and this isn’t the temporary house I thought it was ten years ago (that client got engaged as soon as the garden was done).

While you’re taking stock, also ask yourself:

  • How long do you intend to remain in your home (not always knowable, but worth a guess)?
  • Are there things you absolutely must have (Pink dogwood, bee hives, yoga space)?
  • Do any existing conditions pose a threat to your home and/or garage (dead overhead branches, damp or wet areas, loose bricks that need re-pointing)?
  • Do any existing conditions pose a threat to your safety (rickety steps, above-ground electrical conduit, uneven paving, poison ivy, loose hand rails, rotting deck)?

Knowing these items in advance will help everyone do a better job.  The design and construction sequencing can be properly planned. Cost estimates and value engineering can be most accurate. “Value engineering” or “VE,” is a prioritized list of what can be cut or substituted without sacrificing the overall design intent. So spend some quiet time noting these things before you send that first email inquiry and you’ll be on more solid ground.

Who To Turn To

There are many types of landscape designers and installers, but knowledge is power. Aside from shysters, who can be screened out, there is no single best choice. The real task is to find a service provider best suited to you and your project. Here is the cast of characters:

Landscape Architects – Fifty states license these professionals, though not DC. Nonetheless, a licensed LA has an undergraduate or graduate landscape architecture degree, years of experience, and has been rigorously tested to demonstrate competency. Does this make them better designers? Not necessarily. But a landscape architect works solely for you and may not profit by selling any product or service without disclosing that to you. Some very good people with landscape architecture degrees are unlicensed. Some L.A.’s work as general contractors, hiring and managing every installer. Others will recommend you contract directly with installers they like and trust.

Landscape Designers – The DC area has a few good certificate-granting programs that train designers for residential scale work. Again, design talent is not guaranteed by this or any other designation, but a good landscape designer will have training and experience in the full range of landscape elements and will know how to organize and manage projects. Landscape designers may or may not profit from the sale of products or services, depending on their business model. There are also some excellent self-taught landscape designers.

Fine Gardeners – These folks may be Certified Horticulturalists, Master Gardeners, Certified Arborists or know IPM (Integrated Pest Management). If your project is essentially taming or updating runaway plantings, hand pruning small trees or shrubs, or creating voluptuous planters, a fine gardener may be just the service provider for you.

Landscape Contractors – There are many excellent full-service landscape contractors in the area who can build your entire project from paving to plantings. Some of these are owned and run by landscape designers, or landscape architects, and some are not. Contractors I work with prefer to obtain detailed design drawings from a design professional. Their work is more efficient (read, “profitable”) and pricing is easier when materials and exact quantities are specified for them. If you know exactly what you want, you may be best served by going directly to a landscape contractor. But don’t expect beautiful drawings or too much hand-holding.

Specialized Contractors – You may need an arborist, mason, painter, carpenter, electrician, steel fabricator, a gutter guy, or an irrigation and lighting contractor. Again, if you know what you need, go right to them. Typically, your design professional organizes your project and provides a logical sequence of work so your “subs” (subcontractors) are not tripping over one another on the job site, causing you all extra time and money. If you hire specialty contractors directly, make sure they do not touch your prized trees or shrubs. No surprise trimming or pruning. Seriously! I could tell stories.

Guys with Trucks and Day Laborers – There is something to be said for paying a guy with a truck to haul away all your landscape detritus for a lower rate than a full service contractor. I’ve done it myself. See advice above. Be clear and be careful.

You – Some people just need a landscape coach. It can be very satisfying to help a motivated homeowner who wants to invest their own time on a manageable project. Don’t be afraid to ask for coaching help from a willing landscape pro. These projects may evolve more gradually, but when a garden is a labor of love, it shows.

My Prejudice

I’ve seldom met an architect or building contractor who didn’t think they could design and/or build the garden too. Such folks have told me they want rain barrels on the roof. They have built expensive Trex decks with the indelible labels facing up on every board. They have made the first outside step way too narrow, and the bottom step two inches steeper than the rest. They have drilled through major tree roots, and poured concrete where permeable paving could have been used. These are good folks who build dreamy kitchens and bathrooms, but my prejudice? Use designers and installers who exclusively do outdoor work.

A Final Note

Check references. Ask to see certificates of insurance (COI’s), licenses, or other certifications. Get agreements in writing, even a simple email or written proposal with a signature line for your acceptance. Don’t pay in full up front. Require that all changes be approved by you or your design professional in writing. Know when you need a permit or if part of your property is in public space. Let your neighbors know you are having work done. Learn the rules about removing trees. But most of all, build a good relationship with your designer and contractor. Relax into the chaos that ensues before the finished job. And enjoy the beautiful space for which you’ve so carefully set your intentions.

This garden was installed by the homeowner with landscape coaching by Cheryl Corson. Photo: S. Ferguson
Landscape contractors with in-house masons tackle this hardscape. Photo: C. Corson
The finished wall and steps. Photo: C. Corson

Cheryl Corson is a local landscape architect who designed her first Capitol Hill garden in 1998. She enjoys working with homeowners. Cheryl Corson Design,, 202-494-5054.

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