What makes a quality landscape contractor?

One of the best parts of my job is seeing the designs we come up with become real life outdoor spaces in my clients' homes. but the thing is...I don't do that work! I have to rely on quality landscape contractors to install the projects that my clients and I work so hard to create. Since I've moved all over the country and have had to establish relationships with contractors each time, I have a few strong opinions about what makes a quality contractor. Here are some thoughts that might help when selecting someone to do landscaping work around your home or business.


First, I look for professionalism. Listen, as a beloved professor once pointed out, nobody hobbies in brain surgery, but plenty of people hobby in "gardening". There is no shortage of guys out there with a truck and a lawn mower, selling their services as landscape contractors (or designers!) But the thing is, you should get what you pay for. Quality landscaping costs money. A good company will pay their employees a living wage, provide continuing education for their entire staff, purchase high-quality plants and materials, and invest in their businesses' marketing and customer service. All of these incredibly professional choices cost money, but give you a quality product and experience. And since we're dealing with pretty permanent additions to your home’s exterior and adding living things that require expertise, it is wise to select a company that takes itself seriously.

Second, I look for plant knowledge. Granted, I'm biased- I’m a horticulturalist by education. But seriously, which plants are selected makes a major difference in the success of a landscape! How they're planted, even if the right plants are chosen, is equally important! If you're having someone plant you a tree, ask how deep they should plant it. (#protip: it's the depth of the rootball.) If you haven't hired a designer to select the right plants, find out how much the contractor knows about what plants to choose and how to arrange them.

Along with this, I ask where the contractor learned his or her trade. If they went to school, was it a 2-year or 4-year program? Kirkwood, DMACC, and Hawkeye all have great Horticulture programs, as does ISU. Or did they learn on the job, from someone else? That’s legit... IF the person they learned from knew their stuff! Research and recommendations have changed a ton just since I’ve been practicing: we don't recommend landscape fabric anymore, and you can prune many trees during the growing season!

That leads me to continuing education, which might be more important than the original education. Your contractor should belong to the local Nursery/Landscape association (here it’s INLA) and they should go to trainings. They can get certified, meaning they demonstrated sufficient basic knowledge in their field. I’m a Certified Nursery Professional here in Iowa, and I was certified in New Hampshire, too. It’s not an indication of everything, but it demonstrates knowledge and skill. Ask how they stay on top of new info- American Nurseryman has a great magazine that keeps me informed of trends in the nursery trade. Many hardscape suppliers offer trainings on how to instal their products. All of this helps us get better at our trade and elevates a contractor beyond somebody picking stuff up at Menard’s or Home Depot.

Last, ask about where they get their materials. Where do they find quality plants? What’s their favorite paver to work with and why? You may not know all these details, but listen to their reasoning, what they value, and how they choose. Your contractor makes decisions in real time, in real life- and you need to understand a little about how they think.

Since my business is design-only, these are the same questions I look for as I match up with contractors to install our projects. I am pleased to know educated, devoted landscapers who are running excellent businesses. As I put my clients and our projects in their hands, I use these questions to ensure that the end result will be stunning.


Three questions to ask before hiring tree work

Red Fern Landscape Design | Tree Questions

As the Shade Tree Short Course starts up this week, I’m thinking about questions my clients might have about trees and tree work, and I often get asked how to choose a “tree guy”.  But first let me say I wish there were more women in this industry! 

Caring for the trees on your property is an important decision.  Here’s why: trees are the most expensive thing in your landscape, and often the biggest liability.  Healthy trees can reduce energy use, increase property value, decrease crime, contribute to slower traffic, help you sell your home faster, and add charm and enjoyment to your property.  Meanwhile, hazard trees can become a huge financial burden, decrease your home value, increase your home insurance rates, and become an enormous headache.  Taking down a large tree on a typical suburban lot can cost thousands of dollars and require heavy equipment and large crews.  Just pruning can be an extensive operation, and it’s often done poorly, leading to unhealthy trees that eventually need to be removed.

Since many of us have large trees on our properties that offer tremendous value to our homes, deciding who to hire is big decision.  Tree work is not cheap, and you want to make sure you are getting value for all the money you’re spending.  Here are three important questions you can ask someone as you decide who should come do work on trees at your property. 


It really matters to get somebody who knows what they’re doing.  First of all, a “tree guy”, or a tree surgeon, is called an arborist.  You want a certified arborist climbing your trees.  An arborist, by definition, is an individual trained in the art and science of planting, caring for, and maintaining individual trees. Arborists are knowledgeable about the needs of trees and are trained and equipped to provide proper care.  Not everyone who climbs and cuts trees has been trained as an arborist, and you want someone who is a certified arborist doing the work at your home. 

It’s through the International Society of Arboriculture (the ISA) that someone becomes a certified arborist.  They offer exams and continuing education all across the country.  Each state has a chapter, and Iowa’s is the Iowa Arborists Association.  The IAA has a list of members on its website, so you can see who invests in the licensure process.  If you’re going to have somebody work on something worth thousands of dollars in your yard, they should be trained and tested - certified. 


Anyone with a license has to keep up education.  These are not just check the box kind of events.  You are getting quality education from researchers from the university or experts in the field.  The IAA partners with Iowa State to put on the Shade Tree Short Course that is held each year in Ames, and they offer other trainings and educational opportunities throughout the year.

Ask about how they keep up their license- what trainings they’ve been to.  Ask what they learned from it.  Arborists should be passionate about doing the best quality work they can, and they should be excited to improve their practice. 


Find out how they operate.  Ask about their crews- will the person you’re talking to on the phone or meeting at your house for a quote be the one on site doing work?  If not, ask about their crews – do they get training? Are they certified?  Or are they just operating under the owner’s license? 

Ask for references and call those references.  Find out if they show up on time, clean up the worksite, and do a good job.  Lots of people can make cuts and climb trees, but few run a quality business.


Remember that the trees on your property are both a huge asset and a major liability.  They often require maintenance to remain healthy.  There is both an art and a science to tree care – it’s not wise to trust these giant responsibilities to the cheapest guy out there with a chain saw.  Investigate what your tree guy knows, and make an informed decision about who you hire.