Done right, landscaping can make your garden a source of constant joy and wonder; and it can yield a five-to-one return on your investment when you sell your home. Done wrong, your landscaping project can become a living nightmare, and your garden can become a money-pit that stretches through the centre to the Earth and all the way to Australia! Planning and preparation make all the difference. 90 per cent of the hard work happens before the first gardener turns-over the first handful of dirt.
Four fundamentals of effective landscape project management
1. Imagine, sketch, calculate, plan
Study magazines such as Homes and Gardens, House and Garden; scour the web for design suggestions and pictures. Visit some public gardens for inspiration. Then, test all your fantasies against the real world. When you have a fairly clear picture of what you want, stare at your garden for a while, conceiving each detail in your vision and making sure it will work. Finally, make sure that you can communicate your ideas to a designer or contractor, because he cannot deliver what you want if you cannot articulate your desires. Even if you have no artistic skill, try to sketch your vision.
As you work on your design, remember that everything underground determines the quality of everything above the ground. Flowers, trees, shrubs, ground cover, and grass require different kinds of irrigation and different kinds of drainage, so that you must plan for sub-soil preparation, sprinkler and drip systems adapted to your plants’ needs. Just as importantly, for the sake of both your budget and your Mother Earth, you should try to use rain and recycled water as much as possible. If you do not, literally, lay the groundwork, your brand new garden will look picture perfect for about thirty-six hours before it withers and becomes compost.
2. Research, interview, negotiate
Hit the web and find the best contractors in your area – try The Best Of for your local area. Then, drive-by some of the contractors’ projects for living proof they do quality work. Finally, invite each of your candidates to walk your property and discuss your project in-person. During the conversations, take time to test each candidate’s expertise and vision. Say, “I want explosive blooms of bougainvillea along that fence line”: then, challenge, “How will you do that?” The contractor who most clearly explains the “how to” probably will do the best work.
Make sure your landscape contractor has all the proper licenses and certifications, and make sure he carries his own insurance, so that you do not become liable for on-the-job accidents and injuries. Also make sure your landscaper belongs to business and professional organizations that indicate his pride in and dedication to his craft.
While you research and interview landscapers, dig deep into the details: Find out how much experience their employees have, and find out what languages they speak. Ask how often your landscaper must rely on sub-contractors for plumbing, electrical, and concrete work; but keep in mind that the sub-contractor question cuts both ways. The guy who boasts, “We do all the work ourselves,” may actually be telling you that he is a jack of all trades and master of none; and the guy who modestly admits, “We bring-in the best workers for each job,” may be telling you that he values quality above his own ego.
3. Get all of it on paper—both words and images
When you and your landscaper reach an agreement-in-principle, request a detailed proposal or memorandum of understanding, including blueprints and renderings. The document should set a timeline for the project, especially stipulating benchmarks for completion of each major phase. At each benchmark, your contractor may request a partial payment for the work he has completed, but you may set penalties for failure to meet benchmarks, allowing, of course, for weather delays and other uncontrollable circumstances.
4. Be there
Try to walk the project at the end of each work day, asking the site supervisor to show you what the crew has done, and challenging him to explain some of the details about the work, so that you may learn how to maintain the garden as you see it installed. If you have serious questions or concerns, raise them right then and there, so that your issues do not get buried. Just as importantly, though, when you like the work, make sure you praise the crew; in the rough and dirty landscaper’s world, praise is relatively rare, and you will become the contractor’s favorite client when you remember to express your gratitude for good work.
As you work carefully through the first three of the four steps, take time to ask yourself whether or not you could do the work yourself. Before you commit to a contract, compare the price and pain of hiring a contractor against the exhilaration of building your own skills while you construct the garden of your dreams. Then, visit your favorite home improvement retailer for a healthy “reality check.” PVC pipe and dirt are extremely forgiving media, but if your thumb has not even a hint of green, go with your reputable, reliable contractor.