• Landscaping Companies - How to Find a Local Landscaper

    This tutorial explains how to find and hire a local landscape designer, landscaper, or landscaping company. And don't worry ... you'll soon know the difference between these terms soon enough.

    This article is intended for homeowners and others who need residential landscape services, as opposed to large commercial jobs. We will talk about the licensing requirements for landscaping companies, insurance, project management, and other things you need to know before hiring a local landscaper.

    What's in a Name? Landscape Designer, Architect, Landscaping Company

    Do you need to hire a local landscaping company, a landscape designer, or a landscape architect? Or do you need all three of them? And what is the difference between them, anyway? The terminology can be confusing, because all of the titles sound similar. But you need to know the difference so you can find and hire the right company, or companies, for the job. Here's an explanation of who these people are and what they do.

    1. The Landscape Designer

    This person or company specializes in the design of yards, gardens and other landscape projects on the smaller end of the scale. They typically do not work with highly technical designs or infrastructure requirements (that's for the next person on the list). The local landscape designer specializes in bringing together the various components of a landscaping project -- the plants, structures, landforms, water features, and sometimes lighting. They combine these things in a way that is aesthetically pleasing to the client.

    Landscape designers typically, but not always, receive specialized training and certification for these services. Some are certified through the Association of Professional Landscape Designers or APLD. Some get college degrees in this field, while others learn their trade through hands-on apprenticeship type programs. And some do both. There is no single path to this profession. So the skills and experience level will vary greatly from one designer to the next.

    Landscape design is not state regulated. There is no legal requirement for education, training or certification. Those who choose to pursue upper-level training and education do so merely for personal and professional development. 

    Some designers work with local landscaping companies, as paid employees of the company. Others work as independent contractors, though they may have a preferred landscaping service they can recommend (i.e., a company they have worked with in the past).

    2. The Landscape Architect

    When a project is large and/or technically complex in nature, it is usually handled by a landscape architect. These companies or individuals specialize in larger projects that do require infrastructure systems and other heavy-duty construction requirements. If you're just landscaping your yard, you probably won't need this level of service.

    Due to the nature of the work provided, landscape architecture is state regulated. These companies must receive specified education and certification. And in most cases, they must pass an exam (administered by the state) as part of this certification.

    3. The Landscaping Company

    This is a generic term for a company that performs various landscaping services. They will perform the actual work, but they may or may not be skilled in landscape design. Likewise, they may or may not be licensed to do electrical and masonry work. Some companies will leave the design up to the customer, or they will offer some very basic design guidance. But they may not have any professional training in the area of landscape design. On the other hand, some local landscaping companies have designers as part of their team (see definition #5 below).

    4. The Landscaper

    This is another generic term that basically means the same as the previous term. It's an individual or company that provides a variety of landscaping services. When they don't use 'design' in their names, it usually means they are not trained, licensed or certified in landscape design. This term is used loosely and can mean different things. So you need to find out exactly what a local landscaper / contractor offers, before you hire them.

    5. Design-and-Build Services

    You may encounter the term 'design and build' in your quest to find a local landscaping company. This term means that the company offers some level of design service, in addition to providing the labor needed to get the job done. The possible advantage here is that you get everything from one provider, which could make things easier and more efficient. Of course, the level of design expertise will vary from one landscaping company to the next, so be sure to check out some photos of their previous projects. This is the best way to get a feel for a company's design style and expertise. They may even have a photo gallery on their website for this very purpose.

    The Bottom Line on Who to Choose

    If you are a homeowner, you probably just need to use a regular landscaping company and possibly a landscape designer. If you choose a design-and-build company, you'll get everything you need from one provider. Otherwise, you may have to work with two different providers -- one for the design of the project, and one for the actual installation. If you only need plants installed and other basic services, you can skip the design process altogether. Just be sure to find a local landscaping service that is licensed to do the type of work you need. See the next section for more on this.

    Licensing Requirements for Landscaping Companies

    When hiring a landscaping company, you need to make sure they are licensed to perform the type of work you need. Licensing requirements vary for different types of projects. Here's what you need to know before hiring a landscaper.

    Anyone can put plants in the ground. There is no licensing requirement for this basic level of service. But when you get into electrical work, gas lines, plumbing and stonework, the licensing requirements become stricter. For instance, a contractor would need a C-21 Landscaping and Irrigation license to do a job involving gas lines, electrical wiring, and masonry / stone structures over a certain height. If you plan to have this kind of work done, make sure the landscaper is fully qualified and licensed to handle it.

    Why Licensing Matters...

    Why does this matter? Why should you care if a local landscaping company is licensed or not, as long as they do the job well? I can answer this question by sharing a personal story with you:

    A few years back, my wife and I were shopping for a house in Northern California. We found a home that met our needs. So we called the listing agent to get some more information about it. He said it would have to be a cash-only transaction, because they property had some coding issues. Apparently, the homeowners had hired a landscaping company to do an extensive project in the back and side yard. The company had built an outdoor grill area, some stone steps, a walkway and other features.

    There was one big problem with it all. The landscaping company they used was not licensed to do electrical and masonry work, and many aspects of the job were not done to city code. It would not pass inspection, so mortgage lenders wouldn't touch the place. Hence the need for a cash-only transaction. We thanked the agent for his honesty and bid the home farewell.

    The moral of this story is that it's worth paying a bit more for a professional landscaping service that is properly licensed. Also, if your landscape design will involve electrical, gas or structural work, you need to make sure it is done to code. The city or county should actually come out and inspect the work, to sign off that it was done right. At least, this is how it's supposed to work.

    It's also important find a local landscaping company that is insured. If they are not insured, and one of their employees gets hurt while working on your property, you could be legally liable.

    How to Find Local Companies (With Actual Credentials)

    One way to find local landscaping companies is by using a website like ServiceMagic. They actually screen all of the contractors listed on their website, to make sure they are properly licensed and insured for the landscape services they provide. This doesn't absolve you of the responsibility of checking the company out firsthand -- you still need to do some due diligence. But it does give you some additional peace of mind.

    I also encourage you to look up landscaping companies through the Better Business Bureau's website. If the company is a BBB member, they should have a rating based on their history of customer complaints (or lack thereof). But not all landscapers are members of the BBB. So you may have to do some additional digging.

    Use Google to see what you can dig up about the company. The Internet is incredibly useful in this regard. It can help you find local landscaping companies and landscape contractors, and it also helps with background research. Search the company's name to see if you can find any testimonials, reviews, complaints, or other unbiased third-party information about them. Do a search for the owner's name as well. You might be surprised at what you find -- pleasantly or otherwise.

    The point of all this is to gather as much information as possible. Start with the basics. Make sure the landscaping company is fully insured, so you don't face any liabilities. Next, find out if they are licensed to perform the kind of work they do. This is especially important if you are having electrical and/or masonry work done. Next, see if you can find the company in the BBB database, and Google them to see what people have said about them online. Last but not least, consider using a directory that prescreens landscaping companies and contractors, the way ServiceMagic does.

    Determine Your Landscaping Budget First

    Before you hire a landscaping company, you should have a pretty good idea of what your budget is. Some companies will actually inquire about your budget when you first contact them. They do this to make sure the job falls within their scope. For example, a company that specializes in large-scale projects like a complete yard makeover probably won't want to install a few bushes for you. And the reverse is true as well. A smaller landscaping company probably wouldn't be able to handle a major design project.

    Figure out what you can afford to spend on the project. And stick to your budget, even if it means doing the project in phases or using lower-cost plants and materials. Most landscape companies are willing to spread a project out over a period of several months, if it makes it more affordable for you. As far as they're concerned, work is work.

    Sharing Your Vision With a Landscape Designer or Contractor

    If you know what you want, in terms of plant choices and the overall design, stick to your guns. A local landscaping company might have a certain style that they prefer. They may recommend this to most of their clients, simply because they are used to it. But it's your yard, and you're the one paying for it. So find a landscape company who can bring your vision to life.

    In 2012, we did a major landscaping project in our backyard. We hired a landscape design-and-build company that does a lot of work in the area. Since Southern California, they frequently did the tropical designs for their clients. But that's not what we wanted. We wanted more of a Mediterranean theme, with decomposed granite, boulders, cypress and citrus trees, etc. We knew what we wanted. But they were trying to push something else. We told them they could create the look we wanted, or we would have to find another local landscaping company who could. They gave us what we wanted in the end.

    If you don't know what you want, and you are doing a total makeover of your yard, then you might want to bring in a landscape designer. He or she can work with you to come up with a design for the project, even if you cannot yet see it in your head. That's what these people specialize in -- creating a vision that becomes the finished product.

    Note: This article explains how to find a local landscaping company or landscape designer. This information is provided for educational purposes only. Licensing requirements and building codes vary from one state to the next. Before hiring a landscaping service, you should find out what the requirements are for your state. Make sure the company is going to do your project to code, so you don't run into problems down the road.