MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICE: Choosing A Landscape Contractor

You have made the decision to get help with your yard.  So how do you decide who to hire?  There are so many landscapers, gardeners, designers, lawn cutters, full service companies, etc. out there.  First, you need to determine your needs before even looking for or considering anybody.  Are you looking for somebody to maintain what you already have, somebody to guide you in what to do, or somebody to completely install something new or renovate what you currently have?  In these good times, many contractors will claim to do everything and anything just to sell work.  But not all aspects of landscapes are the same and, therefore require different skill levels, knowledge and expertise.

To manage what you already have will require the services of a maintenance contractor.  This can be as simple as a neighborhood kid to pull weeds, cut the grass and rake leaves or as involved as retaining the services of a full service maintenance contractor.  Services could include ornamental bed maintenance, turf, tree and shrub chemical applications, water feature care, irrigation work, etc.  If you enjoy cutting grass but dislike cutting back perennials and pulling weeds you might want to hire a professional gardener.  The best match for you all depends on your level of services desired.

If you want your existing landscape reworked, completely renovated, or have a new home construction, you will need the services of a landscape designer.  This can either be from an independent designer or a designer associated with an installation company.  A professional designer will incorporate your visions and priorities in conjunction with your property’s strengths and weaknesses into a creative plan that can be implemented in full or over a period of time.  This plan can either be installed by you as the homeowner or hired out to a professional landscape construction company.

Now that you have determined your needs and what type of landscaper you are looking for, how do you select the right person or firm?  There are many deciding factors in determining who will meet your needs and give you the best value, and one of the biggest factors is certification. There are many certifications available to green industry professionals and here is a list:

  • Certified Green Industry Professional (CGIP) – This program is offered by the Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association (MNLA).  CGIP certification is earned by individuals taking a very in-depth four hour exam on horticulture and other related information geared towards specialties including:  landscape contractor, designer, and manager.  Learn more at http://www.plantmichigangreen.com/mcn.

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  • APLD Certified Landscape Designer –This program is offered by the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD).  The certification is earned by submitting work which is then evaluated by professional peers.  Learn more at http://www.apld.org/consumers/certification.asp.

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  • ISA Certified Arborist  – This program is offered by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). This certification was developed for professional arborists in order to provide the public and those in government with a means to identify those professionals who have demonstrated, through a professionally developed exam and education program, that they have a thorough knowledge of tree care practices. Learn more at   http://www.isa-arbor.com/certification/exams.aspx
  • ICPI Certified Concrete Paver Installer.  This program is offered by the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute (ICPI).  There are currently two levels of certification with the first level incorporating classroom hours and an exam for basic brick paver installation knowledge and the second level aimed at more advanced brick paver knowledge.  Learn more at www.icpi.org.

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  • Certified SRW Installer (CSRWI) – This program is offered by the National Concrete Masonry Association (NCMA).  There are currently two levels of this certification on how to install segmental retaining walls; a basic course with an exam and an advanced course with an exam.   Learn more at http://www.ncma.org/development/certifications/Pages/default.aspx
  • Landscape Industry Certified (LIC) – This program is offered by PLANET, an international landscape organization.  Learn more at http://www.landcarenetwork.org/cms/certification/categories.html.  PLANET has several subcategories of the LIC:
    • Certified Landscape Professional (CLP) – The exam is a 4-hour multiple choice test covering business management topics.
    • Certified Landscape Technician (CLT) – The exam is a written and hands-on test. Candidates choose to test in Hardscape Installation, Softscape Installation, Turf Maintenance, Ornamental Maintenance or Irrigation.
    • Certified Horticultural Technician (COLP) – This course emphasizes tree and shrub maintenance procedures. Candidates concentrate on landscape trees and ornamental woody plant physiology, health care management, and establishment.
    • Certified Lawn Care Manager (CTP) – This study material covers the essential knowledge needed by an effective turf grass manager in northern growing zones. The study leads to a mastery of weed, insect and disease identification/control, as well as diagnosis of common turf grass problems. The material supports Integrated Pest Management concepts, pesticide safety and customer relations in northern climates.

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Landscape individuals and companies can sometimes be required by the state to have a license depending on the work being completed.  All individuals and companies must have a license to apply pesticides for hire.  Pesticides are used to control weeds, insects, and diseases in lawns, in planting beds, and on trees and shrubs.  Make sure when hiring a company to complete this type of work that both the company and the technician are licensed by the State of Michigan.  Although the state and most municipalities do not require a builder’s license for most work that landscape contractors do, please check with your local building inspector to find out requirements.  At the current time, there are no statewide license requirements of landscape and irrigation contractors other than what is listed above.

Although certifications and licenses are important to look for when hiring a green industry professional, they are definitely not the only thing.  Years of business experience can sometimes be helpful in making a decision to hire a company, but references from people you know are much more beneficial.  Sometimes a company might have a 30 year history but might have been recently taken over by a descendant or new owner.  If a friend, neighbor or co-worker can verify the quality of work and customer service this will be much more helpful in your decision making.  Also, actually look at the work that they performed.  Is this the type of work that you are looking for?  Does it meet your expectations?  People have varying degrees of quality requirements.  Your neighbor might have enjoyed working with a particular company and can overlook that lines are not quite straight, or the quality of plant materials is questionable, or the grades are wrong.  If these issues are important to you, continue looking for someone that will meet your specifications.  Another great idea is to evaluate the landscapes at various stages, particularly those that have been installed for a number of years.  Has the landscape held up?  Does the contractor offer warranties for plant material, hardscaping construction, etc?  If the contractor does offer a warranty, how long is the warranty for?  Do they have a history in honoring their warranties?

Another major factor in determining who to choose for your garden needs is getting to know the salesperson or owner of the company.  Having a good relationship is key.  If you are not comfortable or do not trust this person, then it is apparent that you should move on.  For smaller jobs deciding who to use can be relatively uncomplicated.  If you have a costly job, are concerned about the health of a 100 year old oak tree, or are planning for a landscape that will be with you for many  years, you should be very cautious who you hire.

In summary, once you have determined what level of service you are looking for consider the following factors in making the right choice for hiring a landscape contractor:  certifications, licenses, referrals, quality of work, and relationship.  These factors will help ensure that your landscape expectations are met.