What’s a homeowner to do?

February 6, 2012 Landscape Design, Sustainable

The grass won’t grow but the moss is. The shrubs are covering the windows and blocking the light–or dying. There’s a hollow collecting water in the back and ivy has climbed the trees. Your dogs are wearing a muddy path around the house and your children need a place to play. You want to grow veggies but they won’t, or you want to sell your house and it lacks curb appeal. What’s a homeowner to do?

You decide you need help and Google … what? Landscapers? Landscape Design? Horticulturists? Landscape Architects? Arborists? Engineers? And what about all that “sustainable” stuff? Organic? Environmentally friendly? What’s the difference? What’s a homeowner to do?

It can be bewildering and I won’t be covering everything in one blog. First, though, try to find gardens you like, and find out who designed and installed them. Another good technique is to check with friends or associates for recommendations. Sometimes, though, you just can’t find a yard or style that strikes your fancy. It helps to have some understanding of how the landscape trade works.

Those in the trade tend toward either 1) design or 2) construction and plant health. Designers shape the spaces outside your home or office for function and good looks, keeping in mind how people, plants, and animals; sun, water, and soil; and architecture and building materials interact. Often they are called “landscape or garden designers,” or “landscape architects.” They have a “big picture” approach.

Those more on the planting and construction side tend to be growers, builders, troubleshooters or in maintenance. You may call them to install your plants or lay your patio, identify a hazardous tree, fix the water problem around your house, or cut your grass. They may be “landscapers” or “landscape contractors” “horticulturists” or “arborists.” There is, of course, some crossover–a horticulturist may have design training as well as an excellent green thumb. A landscape architect may be a specialist in construction or native plants.

There are certifying agencies and credentials that professionals may carry, such as state registration, which landscape architects in Georgia must carry, and optional credentials, such as International Society of Arboriculture certification for arborists, which demonstrates a basic understanding of tree health.

Not everyone needs credentials for a certain job, but it’s nice to know they have professional associations of some sort, because those associations often require and provide continuing education for their members. Certain jobs do require credentials, though. In Georgia, for instance, a civil engineer’s stamp is required for retaining walls higher than 4 feet. Some municipalities require an ISA-certified arborist or landscape architect to sign off on tree protection plans.

Those in the landscaping trade often handle design and installation differently. Some landscape architects or designers may work independently, developing a plan that the client can take to independent landscape contractors for estimates. Other firms, called “design-build,” offer “one-stop” design and installation. This can simplify things for the client, and in some cases, reduce costs because there is less need for explanation between designer and installation crew.

On the other hand, most design-build firms will prohibit the transfer of their design to a different installation crew, as their design time is subsidized by their installation costs. In other words, you don’t really get a “free” design.

There are also advantages to hiring independent designers. Because landscape contractors often make money off their plants, they may prefer using cheaper, more commercially available plants rather than searching for plants that will really highlight your property.

As for whether a landscape design is “sustainable,” “green,” or “eco-friendly”–these terms pertain to how much energy–water, chemicals, and the like–are required to install and maintain the landscape properly, and whether the elements enhance biodiversity and soil health. They will be discussed in many different ways throughout these blogs.