The type of landscape professional you need depends on the kind of project you have.  Many will offer a “free estimate”. How you handle this first meeting will allow you to leverage what they have to offer and whether you are comparing apples to apples between competing professionals.

Below are the various services that the landscape industry possesses to serve the various needs of any particular client or job:

  • Yard maintenance – mow lawns, trim trees, control weeds, etc.
  • Specialty contractor – install a specific project such as a fireplace a patio or a sprinkler system. These tradesmen have specific skill sets such as masonry, concrete, plumbing, tile, etc.
  • Full service landscape contractor – handles multiple skills and trades including irrigation, fireplaces, bbqs, patios, plantings, fences, walls and most of the typical elements one would need to construct in a new landscape installation.
  • Landscape Designer – May be educated or not. There is no licensing requirement to label one’s self a Landscape Designer. Designers typically do not get involved in the contracting part of a project, but some do if they have construction knowledge.
  • Landscape Architect – Is a professional certification granted by the state through licensing. Must have a degree in Landscape Architecture. Typically focuses on commercial projects and higher end residential to justify their higher design fees.
  • Design-Build Contractor – A contractor who is a landscape contractor and has design expertise. This type of contractor is capable of providing a client with a design that includes all the multiple elements of a landscape and who can then build it.  This contrasts with a contractor who requires others to prepare a design or plan and they simply perform the construction according to plans.

As you can see from this list, the type of project you have will dictate which professional you contact. The home improvement industry is largely comprised of tradesmen who do the actual work on an hourly basis or in the form of a contract. Thus, most states have contracting licensing laws regulating this industry.

The landscape related arena is referred to as the “Green Industry” and is typically divided into three main categories: Design, Build and Maintain. For the average homeowner, consideration of these three categories will help you to identify the type of professional you need to contact regarding your project.

Most of the home improvement industry advertises their services and offers the proverbial “free estimates” also referred to as a “bid”. This is a way for homeowners to ask various tradesmen to come out to their property, sized up what is needed and give them a free quote for the work involved. Note that actual design work may or may not be involved.

Simple physical work that is based on specific material choices and coverage is straightforward to provide a free estimate. However, when multiple spaces are involved with many different materials and construction work, the design itself can be complex and will require “design time”.

This is where competition enters the picture since many landscape contractors and pool companies will not charge for designs in the hope of winning the construction contract. The problem for the homeowner using the offer of the free estimate to engage several companies to provide “bids” that involves different designs is not comparing apples to apples.

A homeowner who says they want to remodel their front yard and does not give the company specific criteria, but rather, says “let’s see what you come up with, I don’t want to limit your creativity” is actually asking for free design ideas. The company on the other hand is in a tough position. Should they ask for a design fee to justify this added expense at the risk of losing the opportunity altogether?

The best way to handle your first meeting with a landscape professional is to be upfront and ask them how they operate, what is their process. Do they charge for designs which are needed to provide a quote?  These issues should be discussed either over the phone or at the initial meeting to discuss the expectations of the homeowner and to find out how the company works with this kind of scenario.