What To Look For In A Landscape Contractor

This bears mentioning as I reset this post owing to the time of year……

In rereading this I became struck with how the inherent ‘selfish gene’ can overwhelm a blog based on the author’s own life experiences. In describing potential contractors below – in more places than I care to edit – I have omitted the growing number of females in this huge field – and their unquestioned successes. Not just as designers but also as workers in the field, females produce some serious work. It’s topical and all these days, I realize, as we consider female roles in the military. Just the same, I guess there are reasons for both. I just want to somehow apologize and insert some good hypocritical golf clapping. 😉 (Feb 24, 2013)

This is a re-posting of something I wrote as a very, very informal guide to assessing and choosing a landscape contractor. These sorts of articles I feel bear more forcefully on issues of merit – the meaty end of landscaping and finding out who is good and how most contractors wish or hope you will behave as a client.

I also believe stuff like this – the realities of the contracting profession – are why many people actually check in here.

As the economy recovers – sigh, no matter how slowly – there will be a few more folks who want to do landscaping around their properties. Indeed, there are commercial clients as well – local businesses – who decide to make their places more appealing by taking advantage of the newest technologies to update water features, lighting and a true myriad of startling technologies which have continued to develop even while our overall economy drooped. Incredible new pumps, LED lighting and the machines to install the work have had geniuses scrambling and producing amazing stuff. All somewhat cheaper, better and more “Green”.

It leads us back to the raging questions raised during the economic peak we endured just prior to the recent “collapse” and real estate nightmare. At the time, many potential clients for landscaping were searching for clues to who to trust and how to conduct a more thorough, value-laden relationship with designers and installers of landscapes who would be trustworthy and artistically able to provide the expertise and wherewithal to implement their hopes into tangible, rewarding results.


In busy periods, contractors are infamous for many things which become typical and almost, (in their defense) unavoidable. Time issues are among the primary worries they have. Notifying people that they might be late to an appointment, or maybe not coming at all is certainly one of the primary sources of exasperation for potential clients and, yes, it is unforgivable. However, Time, for the contractor, is everything and some handle it better than others. I was once told that by simply answering the telephone, it would be the best method of acquiring work. It turned out they were very nearly 100% correct.

I suppose I am beginning with a caveat which is probably not all that smart.

Make no mistake………… Promptness, for the record, is still an asset. It always has been and always will be. It ranks up there with manners as exemplary conditions under which to enjoy other people. It goes without saying – and particularly in this age of instant communications and cheap phones, that I – personally – would always try and alert someone to my progress on making an appointment. And especially an Initial Meeting. My charge here is to mention that violating the time issue for an appointment has some hidden value and a perverse sort of counter-intuitive sense.

If, for example, the contractor is busy, the chances are very good it’s because he is in demand. Furthermore, I know for myself that the client I now have and am working for absolutely precedes in importance the next client, no matter who it might be. Naturally, these are always a part of any businessman’s milieu – this little dilemma represents dealing with real problems on multiple levels. Needless to say, those contractors who, like myself, actually also do the work are more of what we are referring to in this example.

In short, if there is a thorny and intensely-involving problem, I do my best to focus 100% on it. This can include forgetting absolutely everything and making sure the current client gets satisfied. But enough of this.

(click any image to enlarge – even twice)


Here, then, are a few “for what it’s worth” rules, some etched in stone, some not, when you consider hiring a guy to come in, make a huge mess and completely take over the land around you:

1. In the states where it applies (and this is your very minimal onus to find out), make sure he has a state contractor’s license, first and foremost. Does he/she have references? From clients? Did you check them? You should.

2. Another rather primary consideration would be acquiring other bids, from other contractors. I say this although there are times when the eyeball test and a client’s intuitions can over rule this, based on many other factors, including reputation. But the standard in any industry is to get 3 bids.

3. Does he or she work with you? If a homeowner has ideas of their own, I always treat that as half the battle in terms of design. It makes my job easier, not harder, when someone has a notion and a concept of what they want. Plus, you can feel more involved, as a client, literally designing your own place.

4. Do you have a budget? This matters hugely. It does not pay to set a budget then try and work underneath it. What works best, ultimately, is to design a wished-for scenario/environment, have the guy work on it at home, then get back about what he thinks it might cost, ballpark. At least, that’s my normal modus operandii. If indeed, it appears your budget will work, and if, by some lucky stroke of nature or your own brainpower, your original budgeting leaves you extra money, Great!

5. Typical pay schedules: I typically do the following: 50% up front, 25% at the midway point on larger projects, then the final 25% at the conclusion of the job………when satisfied! Another approach I have used divides the contract by thirds. 33% up front, 1/3 halfway through, then the final 33% on satisfactory completion. There is a reason for all this. Typical costs for doing landscaping work involve enormous up front expenses. Soil, bricks, water stuff, pumps – in short, nearly everything except for plants and grass occur almost immediately upon entering the project. And this omits such other costs as payroll, machines/tool rentals and the rest, many of which are specialized to landscaping for most-specific tasks. Let me be clear – no one gains from stressing a tradesman’s ability to purchase products for your project by using his own money for your project. It happens, of course – far more often than people think – but when there is a level of comfort in all directions, a project proceeds about 90% smoother, faster and more professionally.

And who wouldn’t want to pay this guy?


A landscaper’s references will depend, in the end, on how happy or upset he left his client when all was said and done. At times, the gnarly little details can derail everyone’s satisfaction. Landscapers should meet this reality head-on. It’s why they ask for more than just what the gig costs, after all. Pleasing a finicky client is not a problem for the best at what they do. And – to any client or potential client – Do not be afraid to mention small things. They are also a part of the job. Being aware has never been a crime that I know of. The music to a landscaper’s ear, and, yes, I have heard this, is the following: “We knew it would be pretty, but we had no idea it would be this beautiful!” This is what happens when all things proceed with a relationship based on respect.

6. I have mixed some stuff together, but hope it becomes clear that professionalism is not an option in this trade. It is an absolute must. It is an expensive trade, often following the rules of anywhere from 5% to 15% of the value of a house. This is serious money. If you have a bad feeling about someone related to his professionalism or lack thereof, then do NOT use him. A person can be casual without being sloppy.

7. Sign a contract. No if’s and’s or but’s. Make sure the language is crystal clear and you should have zero problems.

8. Check progress. There is nothing worse than a landscape contractor realizing 90% into a project that the client is not happy with something. If there is an item missing, a troubled client needs to make it known. We expect, as contractors, to hear these things from clients. Alas, we are not perfect either. I wish I had a buck for every client who saved me by mentioning a problem he was having and, ahem, thought maybe I had forgotten about, say, the garden sculpture. Or the, um, grass, heh heh.  😉

Conversely, when a client realizes that perhaps the design they both agreed to does somehow just plain not work, a few words with the contractor right away might just rescue things. Landscaping can be very fluid – the realities on the ground can become problematic with some weird events – the discovery of underground cables, a huge boulder impossible to move, etc –  so do not hesitate to ask questions or offer opinions. The contractor may ask you as well, of course, about adjustments owing to these events. Be flexible and creative. In the end, as ever – The only dumb question is the one not asked.


9. Remember this: (I tell every single client I have the following words:) “Landscaping is 80% preparation and 20% finishing. ” There will be an unholy mess, with machines moving dirt all over and mud and seeming chaos. It is what we referred to as a ‘Beirut of the 70’s’. Fear not. We know what’s up. Longer projects can be exasperatingly dusty or dirty. Just remember how the final result will make one feel. A bit of patience here is called for and very much appreciated.


It’ll get there………promise!


In the end, we’re looking for something to feel wonderful about. It is possible, too.

Lopiparo 1


If you can somehow enjoy the process, you may have met someone you like. This is also possible.

More importantly, both you and the contractor can be equally thrilled at a good result. At the very best of times, people like him live for this stuff.


Landscape Development – Where Things Start and What They Become

I love time lapse photography. The developments of landscapes are one of life’s little rewards for those who install them. In fact, aside from the pleasure of rendering a bowl of dust or mud into something far more than that, it is the second-most Primary Benefit of the trade. You can enlarge many of these pictures by left-clicking.

Here’s a project whose photo’s were taken pretty much as we were leaving – the day we “finished” installing all the plants and mulches and what-not. I was supremely satisfied, feeling certain what we had put in would develop well. This is the “real” version of what many of these places look like when first completed. To say patience can pay dividends is quite an understatement. We worked within a tight budget here, selecting smaller sized plants from nurseries, opting for “more bounce for the gold ounce”. These guys were also incredibly good at taking care and nurturing their place, I hasten to add. Steve and Mary, I salute you!  😉


This was the result, not that long afterwards, I’m thinking 2 years:

Doug and Ed 105

Maybe an even  better perspective of the same angle:

Doug and Ed 123

Another perspective, same project. I am so in love with Penstemons, it’s almost sick, lol:


Same time frame:

Doug and Ed 109

The combination of intense and plentiful sun, mixed with a very, very scrupulous addition of brand new and upgraded topsoil in huge amounts, make Reno, Nevada – where this project was completed – almost uniquely situated to produce phenomenal growth in certain types of plants. Perennials absolutely love Reno, or at least the sun-loving varieties such as Penstemons, Lavender, Salvia and the likes. Give the soil a touch of acidity, give the roots a medium to grow in and – whoa! Needless to say, the Aspens shown here grow at an equally phenomenal rate:


Two years is a short period of time for a landscape. After one, this actually approached what it looked like.

Doug and Ed 108

And here’s a totally gratuitous look back:

Doug and Ed 113

And here we have another year under the belt, showing us yet more recent growth:


This next project was my business partner, Bill’s house. Now, this is a bit unfair, because we could tinker with this one on days off or when Bill had emergencies – like visits from family, lol. So we began with something along these lines, just after we completed the creek and waterfall (which we later raised!):


And the lawn! Can’t fergit the lawn!!


Anyway, these became something else, too (I think we improved the lawn):

Bill and Donna newer

And we wrought some other changes in a couple short years, too:


Incredibly enough, I actually get paid to do all this!


Then there are the Supremely Big Humongous Projects of acreage and plentiful dust. The onset of projects such as this are impressively intimidating as heck. Showing up with a 3 or 4 man crew makes the owners go “Huh?”

“You mean you work too?” (Truth is, I said the same “Huh?” when I saw the darn thing – in almost every case. It always seems to have an element of “Gulp!” to it, to be perfectly honest.)

My response is always “Sure! We ready!!”  😉

Starting with this you can plainly see there is a “ways” to the second picture, especially considering we placed those rocks:


But we did it:


From the other direction:


Next time, we’ll visit a water feature ‘time lapse’, where we will wonder how we got anywhere at all from here. Poor Leo, lol. Another day of liquid sunshine in Portland, Oregon!:


To here ( a nicer day 😉 :


To this:


Techniques Of Planting

There are as many techniques in planting as there are people. It seems everyone has some twist they employ to get plants started. There are, however, some truisms in planting which always pertain. It is these I will address first:

For New Homes and Sites: (Plants and Trees, Initial Landscaping)

For new homes or businesses, one needs a hole approximately twice the size of the pot the plants is contained in. While excavating, attention needs to be paid to the overall soil quality, especially in new subdivisions where fill was used to establish the overall grade. I mention this because there are fills which are problematic. Rocks and such are endurable, provided they are embedded in soil. But cement debris, chemicals, garbage and the like will not help a young growing plant. Once determined, bear in mind, especially in the case of trees and plants which tend to eventually produce extensive root systems, no matter what amendments one uses to get the plant established, those roots will reach the existing soil.

Below, we plant up new plants and trees using the existing soils combined with just a bit of new stuff.

(enlarge any picture by left clicking)

Current thinking in planting techiniques holds this thought in mind. I personally advise a minimum of amendments, perhaps as much as half new soil, mixed with the existing. There is an element of “sink or swim” here. Unless the soil is insufferable, as mentioned, the plant or tree’s roots will hit the soil and expect to push on. Also bear in mind the condition of the soil. Clay soils may not be applicable to some plants, just as sandier soils may not be for others. There is usually information available indicating which soils are best for certain species. I would use this guideline in selecting a plant or tree. If the soil is extremely hideous, I recommend excavating and reinstalling entirely new soil, paying particular attention to the locations of trees and deeply rooting plants.

For New Or Existing Gardens

Much here depends upon the eventual usage. I see three separate categories used most often, aside from the original plantings of trees and shrubs:

1. Vegetable and food/herb gardens These require extremely nutritious and workable soils. They are tender, generally, and fast growing. Composts, especially one’s own’ are excellent amendments to any soil. A mix of compost, sand and topsoil are usually recommended and I advocate installing about 18 inches worth in depth. Some composts, obviously, are “hot”, especially manures without sufficient time spent curing. There is no need to install anything not already broken down. So, the thrust of my advice means allowing composts to age. Fertilizers are available for all plants, although they are not necessarily good as an “implicit” product. They just boot up progress and can be as destructive in the wrong hands as they are helpful.

Below is a small circular Herb and Flower Garden we installed which has abundant good stuff as a planting medium.

At any rate, these amendments make the soils less dense, in the end, and the compost and topsoil tend to hold moisture for longer, necessitating less watering. Gardening for food is a high intensity maintenance operation, needing attention often. One checks for growth, for diseases and pests, molds and mildews and critters. Watering will need adjusting according to the heat indices. One can, indeed, overwater almost anything. And, naturally, one can under water as well. Another consideration: go easy on the fertilizers! These plants were made to grow. Give them a field they can enjoy and they will. Sometimes, less attention is better than too much, a strange caveat, I guess.

2. Bedding Plants and Annuals These plants need nearly as good a caliber of soil as does a food garden, just not usually as deep. Typically, annuals do not root deep, although there are exceptions in the cases of some tubrous items, like Dahlias, for example (which can also be a perennial, in certain climates). I rarely go deeper than 12″ of totally prepped soil and the quality of said soil can be a slight step less rigorously composted than a food garden. Having said that, care should be taken inasmuch as these plants are always hungry and always thirsty. Once again, these can also be over- or under-watered, but they require tons less maintenance and attention than vegetables and some herbs. Always pay attention to Sun issues. Begonias, for example, are not enamored of tons of Sun. The New Guinea hybrids, which I adore, are particularly shade-loving. Seen as below, mixed with Coleus in a very shady but extremely lush scene, they work marvelously in good soil.

3. Perennials Here we have what must be my favorite category of plants. I use them liberally in all my construction projects since they offer enormous swaths of the brightest colors and tend to bloom for long stretches. They do, however, also require soils which are a step above ‘unadapted’. I typically use a mix of compost and native soil, about 1/3 native and 2/3 compost and sand. I also dig holes for eventual growth. In other words, I make a larger than normal hole first, fill with my amendments, when planting. I think 3 years down the road for perennials and where the roots will be by then. After that, they will either be divided or can readily adapt, literally producing its own bacteria and compost from its own growth and detritus (leaves, root deterioration, etc.). Perennials are low maintenance plants. Another groovy aspect.

Below is a virtual Perennial Garden, clustered around a small pond in Reno, Nevada. Note the blue blooms, a combination of Lavender (which I often use for aromatic as well as aesthetic reasons) and the blue Penstemon (this is also a matter of mid-Summer timing, bloom-wise, since the entire garden begins with a pink and red flourish):

The alkaline soils of Reno were perfect for this gorgeous Desert Penstemon, a native of sorts which stands on its own as a splendid-looking plant who enjoys where it sits.

All in all, soil quality is the be-all and end-all of planting almost anything. Attention should also be paid, in the selection of plants and, consequently the necessary soil work, to native species. Some natives, such as those we find in Nevada actually prefer some pretty nasty, alkaline soil. Inasmuch as they were nursery-grown, of course, they will need some early love, with what I call “introductory soil”: a mix of the closest one can some to native soil with a tad of amendment. This is just to prevent an utter shock zone for the pampered little fellows.

True Mud – Part 4 – The Final Answer

Among other events, stories like the ones prior to this represent the entire Love/Hate relationship landscapers have with the weather. Of course we have general problems also with Nature as well as the assigned time pressures of construction in general. Ironically, this last tale is an easy one but no less epic. It represented my first real encounter with the wonders of a miracle cure for all which ails the wet and miserable:  washed sand.

The picture above is the finished look – 7 years after the project was completed – of a project in North Vancouver, BC which was also a government-sponsored housing Co-op. It shows about 1/3 of the length of the “Fire Lane” – a 20′ wide course which would be used only in the event of fires and which, of course, was also used regularly (in reality) for purposes of moving in and out. The concrete material in the foreground is called “Turfstone” and is used where there is a desire to feature a lawn but to still be able to drive a 40 ton fire truck on top of it without sinking up to the gunwales. Interestingly, at least for this project, the determining qualification in testing the Turfstone and brick was a matter of the Fire Department bringing in a 40 ton truck and driving on the suckers. None of that fancy Uranium business for these guys! We passed.

Here is a look backwards at pretty much what the other photo was gazing at. The Turfstone bit is around the corner to the left on the way out of the development. As we can see, this is one long stretch of brick, mixed with cement features as well as some asphalt as we’ll see soon. It also goes to the right – Eastward – for an equally long stretch. This picture is taken at the halfway point, where the path makes a 90 degree turn. All-in-all, the brick and Turfstone elements stretched about a quarter mile. It was the second-largest brick project I ever did, including doing 55 different driveways at a development in Reno. This one was huge.

So – where’s the mud?

Well, the mud greeted us, the truth is. We began this job in pretty much the dead of Winter, with consistent and daily rainfall of one sort or another. Not only that, but the buildings shown here were in the very early framing stages, while the other buildings – where we began – were more or less done; certainly enough for us to get underway.  I regret to mention all the photographic record I have from this project are ‘after completion’. I say this because of the missing humor and “perplex-ment” value because the beginnings were a most curious and bizarre process.

(As a brief “aside”, I also mention the nearby buildings undergoing the primitive framing stage of development as background to an event I also never experienced again. I had a flat tire on a Bobcat we were renting. The guy came up, changed the tire and took the flat back to his shop for repair, leaving us movin’ on with a newly fixed tire. The guy called me later. OK, it was funny: “Hey, Steve, you guys did something I never saw the likes of! You had 138 nails in that daggone tire.”  ……..who……..me???  😉     True story!

This cloudy “after shot” shows where we encountered a most unpleasant and hardly-“ready” hole in the ground about the approximate size of Texas.

This calm, domestic little scene was once a gaping wound, 50 feet circular and 16-20 feet deep, a remnant of a misplaced excavator who dug the underground parking excavation – supposedly under the buildings – some 50 feet in the wrong direction. It also extended some 20 feet smack into the area where the pavement was slated to go. Ignored and filled with rainwater from the origins of the project, we encountered it in its full gory glory. Typically, the contractors we work for supply a graded edifice for us to adjust slightly – it’s always a part of the deal. But this time, we faced a situation so gross, it was to laugh. Naturally, I told the contractor to, ahem, “Fill the hole!”. He replied by asking me to. It was an “extra”, of course – they had elements of civilized behavior after all. But, for the life of me, this impediment was unique. It was a gosh darn swimming hole, for Pete Sakes. The problem was, they wanted it paved over within 2 weeks!

I called a few experts, all of whom agreed on a solution: washed sand. I had the father of a friend who worked for the BC Highways as an engineer confirm this as a good effort, so I started calling sand suppliers. The next day, I began greeting trucks and pups (extra trailers) in a long line of eventually something like 36 truckloads of sand. They would dump the sand in a pile and I would take the Bobcat, push the stuff and dispense with it in about 5 minutes, pushing the sand onto increasingly stable land-reclamation.

Definition of “washed sand”:  Washed sand is surface mined, screened and washed to remove silt and clay, then allowed to drain. It is typically alight buff color, almost off-white.

Washed sand is a finely graded sand and can be used for fill, to topdress golf course greens, and as a base for laying brick and pavers.

The sand would be oozy and pure liquid at first contact with the water. As we raised the level oh so gradually, the moisture was always there but another load on top would reveal an amazing stability. Inching our way upwards – with sand floating at the outer reaches of the expanding pile – the water could be seen spilling out in monstrous amounts as the level rose, back into the forest where we had cut a small creek to handle it earlier to get to a decline not too far away.

At about the 25 truckload level, we were still 6 feet below where we would eventually rise to and I found myself tipping a bit too frisky, shooting down on top of the stuff, and I panicked. It was here that I had the amazing sense of “Eureka – this is going to work!” Cascading downwards, slipped off into the “abyss”, I actually found myself supported – not sinking. In fact, as I tried the white knuckle experience of seeing water from a shielded area joining me – and as my guys were trying to get me chained up to a backhoe to yard me out – I reversed the machine and I actually found myself climbing back out. It did require the chain, however, as my tires began digging into the sand but I got pulled out easy enough. When this minor episode finished, I got out of the cab and stood up, smiling. Oh, and shaking a little. It was a true epiphany concerning eventual success. What shocked me most, to be honest, was how easy it was and I’m being serious. This stuff was a wonder.

We filled it in a day.

Within 3 days of beginning the “fill” we were running a big heavy “double drum roller”, complete with vibrations over the entire area as if it had always been there. The sheer volume of water and its 100% saturation of the lower levels of the sand provided an incredible compaction, just all on its own.

Here is a look at a small part of that area, completed:

Since that event, I have had occasion to call for washed sand in dealing with mud and water on many occasions. For purposes of pure traction in slime, washed sand, piled up sufficiently to travel on, makes an incredibly easy and practical solution where things seem impossible. Add that, later, as things dry up, the sand is an excellent drainage-enhancing soil amendment when disbursed around while getting back to grade, it shines even more so.