Your Home

How to dodge pitfalls during garden installation

Photo Courtesy Of Julie Orr Reputable contractors stand behind their installations, including water features, stonework and other hardscape elements.

Building a new garden is a team effort that begins by selecting the right professionals.

A landscape designer is typically the first point of contact when planning a landscape project. Designers have years of experience seeing firsthand top-quality projects as well as work poorly executed by some who claim to be landscape professionals.

Although designers can recommend competent contractors based on our years of working with professionals and seeing quality results, the ultimate decision is yours.

With a bit of knowledge, research and asking the right questions, you can make the best decision for you and your project.


Avoid hiring the unlicensed, uninsured and unbonded

In California, laws are very clear on the qualifications for a landscape contractor. According to the California Landscape Contractors Association, “State law requires anyone who contracts to do landscape work to be licensed by the Contractors State License Board, if the total price of the job (including labor and materials) is $500 or more. Licensed contractors are regulated by laws designed to protect the public, are bonded and must complete four years of journey- or higher-level experience in the same trade to apply for a license. If you hire an unlicensed person, you may be financially responsible if injuries, fire, or other property damage results.”

Check a contractor’s current C-27 license and standing by visiting the Contractors State License Board online or by phone.

“To verify insurance, bonds and workman’s comp, request certificates in writing,” said Matthew Mueller of South Bay Landscaping.

Dale von Dohren of Landmark Landscapes said, “Licensed landscape contractors carry liability insurance to protect the homeowners in case of property damage. They obtain a mandatory bond to protect against performance issues and carry workers’ compensation to cover job-related employee injuries. This is not only mandatory for a business with employees, but it will also protect the homeowner if there is an unfortunate injury on their property,”

Request a list of referrals and ask questions about how they resolved issues that arose during and after the project.

Be cautious if gardeners, handymen and other trade professionals offer to help with the installation. While they may have a business license, if they don’t also have a C-27 landscape contractor’s license and your job is more than $500, they are not legally qualified to assist.

“The client has no leverage against an unlicensed contractor for unprofessional work or practices without the protection of the Contractors State License Board,” Patrick Camin of Camin Landscaping said.


Hiring by price alone

All landscape projects are bid by time and material. This takes into consideration the time (man hours of labor) and the cost of materials for each step of the process. If the landscape designer has defined the materials, placement and square footage, in theory multiple bids for the materials should be equivalent. That tells you that the difference in the bids must be the labor.

“Cutting costs in your labor time means cutting quality. For example, concrete work like in a new driveway has to be meticulously and quickly installed due to the dry time,” Mueller said. “If there are not enough experienced concrete finishers on the project, the concrete sets up too fast, your new driveway cracks and the job is ruined.”

Remember, the lowest price may not always be the best. The contractor may miscalculate or not include all the work quoted by competitors. Be certain that each bid lists all the preparation (demolition, grading and drainage) and finishing work (hardscape, plants and irrigation) that the designer noted on your plan.


Avoid change orders, read the contract

Selecting a contractor who can communicate the scope of work and respond to clients’ needs will bring more value than a low-cost estimate. Clear contracts and a history of little-to-no change orders from previous clients are good indicators.

“Some contractors change-order their clients to death after they begin the project. It is a buyers-beware world, and the client should do their due diligence all through the project by asking questions and understanding the contract before signing on the dotted line,” Natalain Schwartz of Landscape Design/Build said.



Plants, labor and parts should have written warranties. A fly-by-night outfit will finish your job quickly, get paid and get out before you notice any problems. Meanwhile, they never return your calls and you are stuck with their repairs, sometimes paying double to have it redone correctly.

“Planting a garden is only the first step in a successful landscape. The real success comes in the stewardship phase. To establish a garden well may take up to five years. Your investment can be thrown away if your garden project is not managed properly,” said Alrie Middlebrook of Middlebrook Gardens.

Ask your designer or contractor for landscape maintenance and aesthetic pruner referrals. Confirm that he or she has horticultural knowledge, is using nontoxic approaches to pest and weed management and pays workers’ compensation to employees.

In short, does your landscape contractor have a passion for helping people and enjoy construction with quality craftsmanship? Does the contractor have fair pricing based on experience, size of firm and overhead?

Finally, look for a solid history of happy clientele.

If you avoid these pitfalls and find quality, reasonable rates and good referrals, you are on your way to building a long-term relationship with a solid landscape team.

Julie Orr of Julie Orr Design is a landscape designer and member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. For more information, visit

Schools »

Read More

Sports »

Read More

People »

Read More

Special Sections »

Special Sections
Read More

Photos of Los Altos

Browse and buy photos