What makes a quality landscape contractor?

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One of the best parts of my job is seeing the designs we come up with become real life outdoor spaces in my clients’ homes. but the thing is…I don’t do that work! I have to rely on quality landscape contractors to install the projects that my clients and I work so hard to create. Since I’ve moved all over the country and have had to establish relationships with contractors each time, I have a few strong opinions about what makes a quality contractor. Here are some thoughts that might help when selecting someone to do landscaping work around your home or business.

First, I look for professionalism. Listen, as a beloved professor once pointed out, nobody hobbies in brain surgery, but plenty of people hobby in “gardening”. There is no shortage of guys out there with a truck and a lawn mower, selling their services as landscape contractors (or designers!) But the thing is, you should get what you pay for. Quality landscaping costs money. A good company will pay their employees a living wage, provide continuing education for their entire staff, purchase high-quality plants and materials, and invest in their businesses’ marketing and customer service. All of these incredibly professional choices cost money, but give you a quality product and experience. And since we’re dealing with pretty permanent additions to your home’s exterior and adding living things that require expertise, it is wise to select a company that takes itself seriously.

Second, I look for plant knowledge. Granted, I’m biased- I’m a horticulturalist by education. But seriously, which plants are selected makes a major difference in the success of a landscape! How they’re planted, even if the right plants are chosen, is equally important! If you’re having someone plant you a tree, ask how deep they should plant it. (#protip: it’s the depth of the rootball.) If you haven’t hired a designer to select the right plants, find out how much the contractor knows about what plants to choose and how to arrange them.

Along with this, I ask where the contractor learned his or her trade. If they went to school, was it a 2-year or 4-year program? Kirkwood, DMACC, and Hawkeye all have great Horticulture programs, as does ISU. Or did they learn on the job, from someone else? That’s legit… IF the person they learned from knew their stuff! Research and recommendations have changed a ton just since I’ve been practicing: we don’t recommend landscape fabric anymore, and you can prune many trees during the growing season!

That leads me to continuing education, which might be more important than the original education. Your contractor should belong to the local Nursery/Landscape association (here it’s INLA) and they should go to trainings. They can get certified, meaning they demonstrated sufficient basic knowledge in their field. I’m a Certified Nursery Professional here in Iowa, and I was certified in New Hampshire, too. It’s not an indication of everything, but it demonstrates knowledge and skill. Ask how they stay on top of new info- American Nurseryman has a great magazine that keeps me informed of trends in the nursery trade. Many hardscape suppliers offer trainings on how to instal their products. All of this helps us get better at our trade and elevates a contractor beyond somebody picking stuff up at Menard’s or Home Depot.

Last, ask about where they get their materials. Where do they find quality plants? What’s their favorite paver to work with and why? You may not know all these details, but listen to their reasoning, what they value, and how they choose. Your contractor makes decisions in real time, in real life- and you need to understand a little about how they think.

Since my business is design-only, these are the same questions I look for as I match up with contractors to install our projects. I am pleased to know educated, devoted landscapers who are running excellent businesses. As I put my clients and our projects in their hands, I use these questions to ensure that the end result will be stunning.


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