Landscape contractors: 5 things to look out for

If you are looking to hire a landscape contractor, or other laborers to perform work on your property I have a short list of things that are commonly overlooked.  I think these things are essential to anyone having work performed,  but it seems these things happen again and again from my observation. I would recommend that when you are getting bids for work performed that you go over these items and make sure that they are addressed.

  • Work should not be performed when soil is saturated

This is one of those things that should be a no-brainer, but it happens a lot.  The other day I was driving into town and passed a house that was having a planting design installed.  It was pouring rain and it had been raining heavily the past 2 days.  A crew of 5-6 men were working with wheelbarrows and shovels digging and hauling, all over the front yard.  This leads to a tremendous amount of compaction that could have been completely avoided by waiting for the soil to dry out a little.  Sometimes it can take days for clay soil to dry out enough for heavy working.  But if it were my yard or my client, I’d insist the contractors wait a couple days.  Sandy soils dry out faster and can be worked sooner than clay after rains, but it is still a good idea to wait a day or two after heavy rains, and certainly not be working while it’s raining.

  • Irrigation should be installed for the size of the mature plant

Again, a no-brainer… but it isn’t.  Landscape contractors typically only put in a single drip emitter or maybe 2 around a new plant.  What about when this plant gets large? There are a couple ways to address this issue depending on your soil type but just double check with them that when your 1 gallon shrub turns into an 8’x 8’foot bush the drip emitters can be adjusted in a way to compensate for the mature size of the plant. My preference is to use a 1/4″ valve with 1-2 emitters before it and 1-2 emitters after.  Start with the valve closed for in the beginning and then when the plant doubles in size, open the valve and move the emitters farther out to accommodate the larger plant and have water reach the edge of the root zone.

  • Rocks should be buried in the landscape

It’s not very common to see rocks just plopped on top of the landscape.  Usually soil has eroded away and revealed the rock underneath or water has washed over it and deposited gravel at its base in the case of seasonal creeks.  They look like they fell from the sky when they are just plopped on, or actually if they had fallen from the sky they would also be partially buried on impact.  Have your contractor bury them at least 1/3 into the soil and group them in natural arrangements.  A good designer or contractor that cares about their craft will be able to achieve a nice esthetic.

  • Plants are installed in a watering well

A lot of installers think that it conserves water to build a watering well around the base of a tree or shrub, or even newly installed perennial.  I do this when I know I am coming back or inform the homeowner about what to do after the hot season ends.  So the reason for doing this is that when a newly installed plant is becoming established, it is really surviving on the root ball and it can take a long while before roots go out and down to seek nourishment and water in its new environment.  A water well helps direct and conserve water near the root ball where the plants need it.  It’s a good idea as long as you keep an eye on this and know that when the rainy season begins, these berms need to be broken down.  Sometimes I see plants and trees installed below grade which is almost never a good idea unless you are planting something whose native habitat is a vernal pool.

  • Plants are installed too close together

This is a tough one because I know that people love to see mature landscapes. Healthy landscapes are constantly evolving, they are not static.  Some plants will mature and die and will need to be replaced, others need to be planted from when they are very small in order to get good establishment.  A newly planted landscape offers a lot of opportunities, to tuck in vegetables, herbs, containers, and annual flowers that will grow quickly and fill the spaces, later as plants mature these additions won’t be necessary.  It’s important to allow for the mature size of the plant otherwise when they grow up, they look cramped, need excessive pruning, shade each other out and don’t look healthy, etc.  If you ask for plants to be moved closer a good contractor will tell you no : )

A beautiful landscape really does add value to your home.  It should be thought of as an investment.  If you are taking the time and or spending the money to have something done for your property make sure you are getting it done right and that it’s going to last. The first house we sold went way over the asking price.  I don’t know for sure if our yard had anything to do with it, but we got over 30 letters when the bids came in and about half of them mentioned how much they loved the gardens in the back of our house.  I don’t think a bad yard hurts the value of a great house, but a great yard can send a good house over the top.

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