Hiring an Eco-Friendly Landscape Designer? Here's What to Ask...

By Landscape Designer Wells Rawls for GalTime.com

If you've been thinking of choosing your next landscape company based on your goals of eco-friendly practices, less pesticides, less costs, or all of those things, then you've probably seen certain marketing slogans in everything from phone book ads, to brochures and business cards. They read something like this:

  • "We're committed to the environment"
  • "We treat the planet like we treat our clients"
  • "Our commitment to the planet affects everything we do"

So how do you know what that means? How does that translate into real world practices happening in your yard and home? Sustainability in landscape design and maintenance means using less energy, reducing carbon emissions, using less herbicides and pesticides, using less water, recycling whenever possible, and increasing native habitat. So, when your interviewing the next batch of landscapers, or you're going to build a new landscape, ask these ten questions to get a better impression of the company you decide to go with.

New Landscape Design and Installation

1. Do you have reliable sources for LOCAL, native plants, pavers, stone, and other materials. If so, who are they?

Make sure your landscape construction company has good relationships with their suppliers. Don't be alarmed if they're reluctant to disclose their sources. Many companies are concerned about clients buying direct. However, a good landscaper should have suppliers who are strictly wholesale. This means they're getting the best prices and not passing on a second retail markup to you. A wholesale supplier won't sell to a private homeowner, so knowing their name isn't going to harm anyone.

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2. Have you ever maintained a landscape for a long period of time?

Watch out for the designer or landscape architect that has never been in landscape maintenance. It's impossible to know how a plant is going to perform over five, ten or twenty years if your landscaper hasn't seen it for themselves. Energy use is directly tied to plant's requirements over their lifespan.

3. Is ongoing care for my landscape a part of our relationship?

If not, good luck! A good designer will be there for a few years to oversee how the landscape grows in. This will make sure he or she is making choices that will benefit both of you. The designer and installation company need to have a vested interest in seeing the landscape or garden establish quickly and without many problems. If problems do occur, let them fix them without passing judgment. Not everything goes according to plan. BE PATIENT!

4. Do you offer a guarantee?

This is directly tied to the previous question. If you don't let them become your maintenance company after the landscape is installed, then don't expect them to replace anything if it dies. This is just common sense. They have no control over how the plants and other materials are being treated so they shouldn't have to be responsible for the outcome if another company, or you are taking care of it.

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5. How much of your pruning is done with gas powered trimmers?

If they say all of it, or give you a bewildered look like it's a dumb question, take their number and move on. Gasoline and diesel engines are one of the worst polluters in the industry. Many shrubs can and should be pruned with loppers, hand clippers, and hand saws. If you have shrubs that are too big for the spot they are in, and need to be regularly pruned to stay small, that's a different problem. You might want to replace them with a smaller plant. But if not, a hard prune evey few years will keep them small and they'll have a healthier, more natural shape.

6. Do you offer natural or organic fertilizers?

Artificial fertilizers are made from oil, reduce natural soil biology, leech into the groundwater and cause pollution, and have to be continually applied to be effective. Many natural fertilizers like chicken manure and fish hydrolisate are zero waste products and build natural soil biology. Healthy soils will self fertilize over time and require little additional care once established.

7. Do you have irrigation experience AND expertise?

The "AND" here is important. If your company 'has a guy' that has experience, that doesn't mean that he has expertise. Irrigation maintenance is directly involved with knowledge of horticulture and plant needs. Just coming out to adjust the clock is not enough. Your irrigation plan has to involve proper adjustment of the heads and valves, as well as the interpretation of the local climate, and weather patterns. Water is a precious resource. Drinking water takes huge amounts of energy to produce. Saving water saves energy.

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8. Do you compost your yard waste? If not, where do you dump them?

I know that's two questions but stay with me. You can take the lead by requesting your yard waste like grass clippings and trimmings be composted on site. Or with lawns, leave the clippings in the lawn. But if you don't have the space, be sure to select a company that has a plan to make sure they do not end up in the landfill. The good news is that many areas have spots to take yard waste. It's becoming a valuable product. Remember that it takes gas or diesel to haul that stuff around town so keep it on site if possible.

9. Do you have any continuing education or certifications?

This is not the Holy Grail of being sustainable. I have none of this except decades of experience growing up with two parents who were into organic gardening, then being a small business owner who didn't have a lot of heavy equipment. I had to figure out how to do more with less and deal with materials on site instead of just telling my crew to 'haul it to the dump'. So if your company says no to this question, don't freak out. It's just good to see if they do. I've known a lot of folks over the years with masters degrees who told me they learned everything AFTER they got out of school!

10. Do you use this product at your home?

They'll always say yes but the question is trying to see if they are trying new things and experimenting with new techniques. I'm sorry to say there is not much innovation in my industry. Finding those companies that are pushing the envelope is hard. When you find one, sign them up.

Finding the perfect sustainable landscape or garden professional isn't easy. But with this information I hope you'll have a better chance at success.

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