Choosing a Contractor

Landscaping can be a big investment, and sometimes, working with the wrong contractor can be a big frustration.

We’ve all heard the stories of contractors taking deposits for projects and not showing up again.  Or starting a project, realizing they were in over their heads, and disappearing.  Or doing the project only to have a sidewalk collapse, or trees all die within 6 months.  Maybe, the resulting design just didn’t live up to the promise they made.

Needless to say, there are some “less-than-professionals” in our industry and, frankly, it drives us crazy.  In our opinion, there are six critical considerations for you to think about when choosing a landscape contractor for your project:

1.  References

  As a homeowner contracting for landscape services in Southeastern Michigan you must not overlook this step.  Speaking with past clients is one of the best ways to determine a company’s integrity, professionalism and creative ability.  You might ask:

  1. Did the landscape company achieve your vision?
  2. Were they easy to deal with?
  3. Did they provide creative alternatives?
  4. Did they stay within your budget?
  5. Was the crew professional?
  6. Would you work with them again?

2.  What is the Landscape Contractor’s Process?

Start with design – specifically – what is their theory about how they’ll enhance your home and achieve your vision?  This is your home, and your landscape should reflect your style, personality and objectives.  Contractors are varied in how many plants and of what types, they use, but avoid the “assembly-line” type landscape company who may use the same design over and over on every landscape.  Ask how much input the customer has in the design:  How are design concepts generated and final options chosen?  Can you meet them to pick out plants and materials? As for the actual installation, how are changes handled, and what is their flexibility in adding or deleting certain elements of the project?

3.  Scope of Service

What is the contractor responsible for – will they handle the design, install, irrigation, lawn, lighting, permits, disposal and utility staking?  Obviously, the more comprehensive the service, the less time you’ll have to spend coordinating your landscape project. 

4.  Professional Licensing and Accreditation

Are they licensed landscape contractors and builders?  Do they have professional accreditation such as the Michigan Certified Nurseryman (MCN) program?  And of course, the requirement of carrying business liability and workmen’s comp insurance goes without saying, but must be checked regardless. 

5.  Past Work

The company should provide you with addresses so you can see their past work.  Pictures and descriptions are fine, but viewing the company’s past projects is the only real way to assess their technical capability.   It not only showcases their technical craftsmanship, but illustrates how they blend in creativity for different kinds of homes.  Not all homes are the same – and there’s no reason for the landscapes to be!

6.  The Technical Stuff (Important!)

There are some specific technical questions that should be asked of any contractor that will be working on your home.  Some examples of these technical questions are provided below; any reputable contractor must be able to answer these questions to your satisfaction.

a.  Plant Materials:

  • How are plants chosen for the site?  What type of site assessment is done when selecting plants?
  • What characteristics do you look for when choosing a plant?
  • What is the planting and soil amendment process?
  • What are the care instructions once the plants have been installed?

b.  Hardscaping (patios, walks, walls, etc.):

Q: How is the excavation and sub-base preparation done?
A:  Excavation for typical hardscapes should be done so that the project can be built on “undisturbed soil.”  All sub-soils must be compacted and segregated from the base material with Geotextile fabric. Total excavation depths of 9-12” are common for most pedestrian pavements.)

Q: What do you use for base material and what is the compaction process?
A:  Base material should consist of a granular stone base with fines, such as a 21AA designated gravel.  Slag sand and pea stone are not acceptable base materials.  Compaction of the base layer should be done as the base is being constructed, preferably every 2-3” of gravel installed.)

Q: How much base material do you use (minimum for walk or patio)?
A:  Base depths can range from 4-12” depending on soil conditions and traffic usage.  Treasured Earth uses a minimum of 5” of properly compacted base material for patios and walks.)

Q: Do you use Geotextile fabric and where?
A:  Geotextile fabric should be used between the subsoil and the base gravel to prevent intermixing.  Geotextile fabric should also be used at any vertical surface where washout of base gravel or sand could be a problem, i.e. behind retaining walls.)

Q: Do you use plastic or concrete edge restraint and why? 
A:  Concrete is generally an unacceptable choice as an edge restraint.  This is Michigan; concrete WILL crack.  When it does, the cracked area can lose it’s ability to stabilize the paver pavement.  Almost all paver manufacturers recommend vinyl edge restraint and steel spikes in our climate.  The exception would be if concrete were installed at footer depth and reinforced.)

Q: What type of drainage do you plan for with a patio?  With retaining walls? 
A:  This varies, based on the application.  At the minimum, pavement surfaces should have a 1% slope or greater way from foundations and house structures.  Internal drainage may be necessary in raised patios and retaining walls to prevent static water pressure behind the wall, and ultimately, wall failure.)

Q: What type of jointing sand do you use in hardscape construction?
A:  Either standard angular jointing sand, or acrylic (Polymeric) sand is acceptable.  The benefit of Polymeric sand is that it sets up like mortar, but remains flexible.  This can help prevent weeds from germinating, and ant hills from forming in the pavers.  In no case is regular play sand ever an acceptable alternative, as it will not provide the paver interlock that assures good service life.)

Q: Do you use Geogrid reinforcement in retaining walls? 
A:  Geogrid reinforcement is usually necessary for retaining walls over 4’, but may be required for shorter walls as well.  The purpose of the geogrid is to lock in to the face of the retaining wall and run back into the slope, thereby using the weight of the wall and the backfill as an “anchor” to keep the wall in place.)

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