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Expert Landscape Q&A

1. I have a landscape project, but don’t know where to begin. How do I get started? Whether you will be doing the work yourself or hiring a licensed landscape contractor to do the work, you should start with a plan. The plan begins with a “program”. The program is a list of elements that will need to be included in the plan: pool, patio, fire pit, BBQ area, play area, lighting, vegetable garden, fruit trees, etc. Once the program has been identified, you’ll need to do a little homework. Explore what it is that you like and what you don’t like. and are popular websites that can be helpful with this process. Tagging photos in home and garden magazines or books works too. Reference photos are a great way to narrow down your style and aesthetic. Some other considerations: What are your favorite and least favorite colors? What is your favorite time of year? Do you or your family members have any plant or insect allergies? Are there “must have” plants? Do you need more shade or more sun? Do deer have access to the garden? Who will maintain the garden when it is completed? If you will be hiring a landscape professional to design the plan for you, answers to these questions, along with the program and reference images, will be most helpful for communicating your aesthetic and should lead to a more effective and efficient design process. Last but not least, develop a budget for the project and communicate that budget to your designer or landscape architect before beginning the design/development process. The design needs to fit the budget and I’m sure you won’t want to pay for a plan that financially, can’t be implemented. 2. What factors are most important for a successful garden? The success of your garden depends, in part, on three critical factors. a. Choose the right plant for the right spot. Understanding the climate in your area is helpful for selecting plants that will thrive in your garden. You can find out what your cold hardiness zone is by checking the USDA Climate Zone Map and/or the Sunset Climate Zone Map (both maps can be found online). Generally a plant’s cold hardiness rating will be based on one, or both, of these maps. However, micro climates and sun exposure can vary quite a bit in your own yard. What parts of your yard get the most sun? The most shade? Keep in mind that sun exposure will change throughout the year as the sun is high overhead in summer and lower on the horizon in winter. Consider the mature size of a plant when determining where it will be placed. Putting a 6 ft. shrub in a spot that will only allow for 3 ft. of growth means you will be pruning the plant on a regular basis to keep it from outgrowing the space. Plant deciduous trees on the south and west sides of your home to provide shade in the summer months and allow for solar exposure to help warm your home in the winter when the trees have lost their leaves. Evergreen trees should be planted on the north and east sides of your home. b. Understand your garden soil. Begin by taking a few soil samples from the garden and have them tested by a soils lab. We use Sunland Analytical Lab ( to perform our testing. Be sure to follow the lab’s proper procedures for collecting samples. A “Complete Landscape Evaluation” will provide results for a variety of soil characteristics that are relevant to landscape plants. The lab will also provide recommendations and specifications for soil additives to improve the health of your soil. You should expect to pay about $100 for the testing… well spent considering the investment you will be making in your garden. c. Irrigation water management. Proper water management starts with a well-designed garden and irrigation system. Clustering plants in the garden according to similar water needs will allow you to group these clusters in similar irrigation zones. “Hydrozoning” your irrigation system makes it possible to customize irrigation schedules based on the water needs of each zone. Be sure each hydro zone has the same method of irrigation. For example, don’t include spray irrigation and drip irrigation in the same zone since they apply water at different rates. Adjust the watering schedule monthly. It is not good enough to simply turn on your irrigation timer in the spring and turn it off in the winter. Plant water needs change throughout the year and the irrigation schedule should be set accordingly. Irrigation schedule should be written, by month, for the entire year. Consider installing a “Smart Controller” which will automatically make adjustments to the irrigation schedule based on current weather conditions. At the very least, be sure your irrigation timer has a rain sensor to interrupt irrigation cycles during periods of rainy weather. Clustering plants, hydrozoning, proper scheduling and smart controllers are only tools to assist with proper irrigation water management. These tools can be rendered ineffective if the person pushing the buttons and turning the dial on the irrigation timer does not understand them. 3. Can my project be done in phases? In most cases…..yes. Sometimes the budget will not allow for implementation of the whole project. Breaking the project into phases that fit a budget can be an effective way to develop your garden and outdoor living spaces over a period of time. Certainly there are some considerations when phasing a project. Be sure you have a plan or design for the entire project before starting phase one. You may want to implement the project in parts, but when the full project has been completed all of the parts should fit together into one well thought out and comprehensive design. Phase one elements should be determined by your priorities, construction sequencing and your phase one budget. Be sure to include any infrastructure for future phases. You won’t want to tear up phase one development to install utilities for phase two. Also be sure to get an estimate for the entire project, prior to starting phase one. You need to know what your total investment will be to complete all phases. 4. How do I find a landscape contractor? Ask for personal recommendations from co-workers, neighbors, friends or family who may have had a similar project completed. Local material suppliers, subcontractors, local building departments and trade associations can provide recommendations as well. Make sure the contractor has a current business address and telephone number. A contractor that operates a business from the back of a pickup truck with a cell phone may be difficult to find if a job needs to be fixed after the last bill is paid. Be sure the landscape contractor has a valid C-27 Contractors License and carries liability and workers compensation insurance. In California, a contractor’s license is mandated for any project where labor and materials is $500 or more. California law also requires that all contractors’ advertising (newspaper/magazine ads, flyers, business cards, or company name on the side of a truck) must include the contractor’s state license number. You can check license and insurance status online with the California State License Board at or call (800) 321-2752. Ask contractors for references……and check them. Find out what kind of experience other customers had with the contractor. Did the company perform the work in a timely manner? Did they do what they said they would for the amount they said they would do it? Did they show up on time? Did they pull off the project only to return at a later date? Were they courteous and respectful of your property? Would you hire them again for future work? Be sure the bids are based on the same plan, specifications, and scope of work. Do not automatically select the lowest bid. You should be aware of any bid that is substantially lower than other bids. This could indicate the contractor made a mistake or is not including all of the work quoted by his/her competitors. It is also possible the low bidder may cut corners or do substandard work to make a profit. Accepting an abnormally low bid may lead towards a dispute with the contractor mid-project or after it has been completed.


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