How to find a GOOD landscape designer & questions

loralee_2007April 10, 2008

My DH & I finished our owner-build new house and moved "home" in Sept 07. We are in Canada, and Sept was too late to consider sod landscaping, but now that Spring has arrived we need to finish our yard which is currently dirt (ick) except for our sidewalk.

I am NOT a garden person at ALL and have no idea even where to start, which is why we need a landscape designer. But how do I find one? What I worry is that I will have to pay up front only to hate what they've come up with, and then what?

And what fee can I expect? We are on a small 50'x100' city corner lot so there's not alot to work with considering our house footprint is 26x36, with a 10' sidewalk setback and a separate garage on the property as well.

I know I want some hardscaping in the backyard and want "low maintenance" greenage in the front, and a side deck/BBQ area. But I also want to ensure we have re-saleability.

Can anybody give me suggestions how to find a qualified person, what to ask them, and how much to expect? Oh, and if they do the design, do I HAVE to buy through them or can I source for my own plants etc?

As you can tell, I've never done this so any expert advice you have would be greatly appreciated.


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Professional organizations are a good starting place-, or if your region or province has one (for example, my state has the Virginia Society of Landscape Designers) you could start there.

Regardless of how you find them, there are a couple of things to know. First off, if you're paying for the plan, you own it and can execute the design however you want. You can hire them, hire another company, do it yourself, or roll it up and put it in the closet for a year- whatever you want. As far as buying through them... I don't see why you would have to; if so, I'm sure they'd disclose that at the start. I know that I don't have my clients buy materials through me. The markup would be nice, but I don't need the headaches.

As far as what to ask them? Look at their portfolio and see if they're designing the types of spaces you'd want to spend time in. Look for signs that they're listening to you and your desires. Designing a space can be a very personal process, so you want a designer working for you, not for your money.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2008 at 9:41PM
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Bogart(6 Ont.)

Look up Landscape Ontario -- - they will have lists of certified designers in your area.

When a designer visits you, s/he will have a portfolio, as mentioned above. Check it out, and check out the actual homes - ie check the references! The designer may have a website you can do some research with before you even call.

If you decide to work with each other, you will likely sign a contract that states you must pay for the final design. The design process may require more than one visit with you for feedback and suggestions, all in order to make sure you're going to like the final product.

This time of year, most good designers are going to be busy so be prepared to wait...

Most important, try to have fun with the process!

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   April 11, 2008 at 4:38PM
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bindersbee(6a UT)

I agree that looking at past work is the most important consideration. Talk to past clients if you can. You want someone with experience. I personally think education in horticulture and/or landscape design/architecture is also important but that's probably because I have it. Talent is the part that can't be taught in school so obviously the way to see if they have that is by looking at their other design work.

Second- you get what you pay for. If you want an inexpensive plan, most garden centers have 'designers' who can put together a computer drawing relatively quickly. Don't expect a lot of personal service or catering though. Their job is to turn out decent, if somewhat generic, plans quickly for those who are willing to spring for a plan but don't want to spend too much on it.

I do more of the high-end design. That doesn't mean all my clients are wealthy- it means they value good design and are willing to pay 3-4 times the cost of the nursery center plan to have one that's well thought out. I will generally meet with my clients for an hour or two upfront and then at least one additional time to show them the rough plan and make sure we're on track to create a design the client will love. Sometimes, as with the plan I'm doing now, I'll meet with them a twice on a rough plan. I also spend and hour or two going over the final plan with them. All tolled- it's usually 4-10 hours of face time in addition to all the time spent creating the plan- and I do full-color artistic drawings so that takes a fair amount of time.

You may want something in between the two extremes described above. I'd just make sure you can meet with whomever you hire at least once to go over the rough plan. Do not hesitate to tell the designer if you don't like something. When I go over the rough with a client, I also leave them a plant list with the caviot that it will still be tweeked. This gives the customer time to look up all the plants on google and make sure they are happy with the selections before the plan is finished. Perhaps you can find a designer that will do that for you as well.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2008 at 1:21AM
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The four "P's". Personality, portfolio, proximity, and pricing.

Why do you want to hire a designer? To remove uncertainty from what the resulting landscape will be.

You need someone you feel like you are connecting with. Are you being listened to and is this person applying what you have said to concepts and solutions being discussed? Is this person forthcoming with ideas and concepts right from the get go, or is this all locked up only to be reveiled if you sign a contract? Do you trust this person?

Pictures of built work that is similar to what you are after or demonstrates a clear ability to do what you want. Remember that you want as much uncertainty removed as possible. Potential is uncertain. Built results are much more indicative.

A long distance designer does not truly know the human cultural aspect or the physical aspect of your local landscape and can not be there to measure and take in all that is in and about your site.

Different situations require differing efforts based on the scope of the landscape project. Still, differing clients require a different level of service that balances with their own values.

Still another set of variables is the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the designer. Some will have more than you need, but they will be charging for their value regardless of whether you need all or just some of those.

A third variable is an alternative incentive for the designer to work with you other than direct design billing. This can be the possibility of you buying plants from them such as a nursery designer (there are great, good, and not so good nursery designers out there). There are design/build landscape designers who do design work at somewhat reduced rates as it gives them a tremendous advantage in selling complete landscape jobs - many will sell design work with no additional strings attached because it does have a very high rate of return due to the confidence built through working together.

My personal and candid opinion is that in many cases the design/build designer can be the best value for the average homeowner. I believe this because they have direct experience with building the landscapes that they design, their knowledge goes beyond just plants, and they will work for less money because they are fishing for install jobs. Just make sure that you will own the plan regardess of whether they get the job or not. That is why I believe that you get the most knowledge, skills, and abilites (value) for the least amount of money. There are plenty of hacks out there, so all other rules apply.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2008 at 8:29AM
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There's about as many ways of approaching a landscape design as there are degrees of skill and experience of landscape designers and any of them could work for you, depending on how you want to approach the process. There are independent, plan-only designers who either work in association with contractors or produce for the DIY homeowner; there are design/buid companies that offer complete landscape services and there are garden centers or landscape nurseries that offer design services in addition to providing the plants and other materials for sale to design clients as well as the general public. And there are landscape contractors that provide designs as well - some very talented and others that should only stick to their shovels.

I would not necessarily discount nurseries or garden centers that offer design services as being "second rate" - I know of several in my area that have very skilled designers on staff that have produced award winning designs. It is just another product they offer as part of being a full service GC. Sure, they would like you to purchase the plantings through them, but that is seldom a requirement of the design service. One of the pluses of this type of design service is that they most often spec plants that are readily available and well-suited to your locale. I know of just as many designers/LA's who are so distant from the materials they work with that they specify plantings from books or outdated listings, resulting in inappropriate and hard to find selections or those that have been replaced or surpassed in the trade with newer, better or more disease resistant selections.

I do support contacting professional organizations or getting referrals from previous clients as two of the best ways of locating a good designer. First, fly-by-night hacks are seldom motivated to join professional associations or pay the dues to belong and former clients won't recommend someone who's product they found deficient or was difficult to work with. And that's a key point - you need to have a good and open working relationship with whomever you choose. A custom landscape design is a very personal thing and creating one that works well for you requires an ability to listen carefully, communicate clearly and interpret your ideas accurately to paper. Most design skills can be learned but it is the correct mix of personalities and the rapport of the designer with client that will produce the most satisfactory and best results.

BB, I'd have to say 10 hours is for a me a minimum of in-person time spent with the client - mine usually runs about double that. Even with my smaller designs we meet at least 4 times, sometimes more, and that doesn't count time spent at nurseries or rock yards, looking at the materials up close and personal. Between that and the actual drafting of the plan and the preparation of the plant lists and specs, it's a very time-intensive process and one of the reasons a good landscape plan has a higher price tag attached to it than many homeowners and those new to the process expect. It's very easy to sink 40 hours into a full design and if you break the fee down into an hourly rate, you can get a better perspective - which is likely to be better and address your needs most successfully, a designer that charges $10/hour or one that runs $20-25 or even higher?

    Bookmark   April 12, 2008 at 8:40AM
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Just to clarify gardengal's last line... I don't think you'll find any design professional at $10/hr, unless you're talking about a CAD drafter... in India. Just saying. Even $25/hr, no freelancer could survive on that!

    Bookmark   April 12, 2008 at 10:14AM
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I appreciate the clarification :-)) Without putting too fine a point to it, various posts in the past have remarked on getting quotes for a landscape plan and asking if this was an appropriate fee. Often these were - at least in my estimation - very modest charges of $1000 or less. My point was if you divide these by the time spent in creating them, one can get a better sense of the relative value of an inexpensive design versus one that costs quite a bit more. Marcinde's right - few qualified designers can afford to work for less than $25/hour.

This is one reason why I always quote a flat rate with a minimum and a maximum (depending on how I view both the scope of the project and the attitude of the client), as I think hourly rates tend to make clients more nervous about the cost and surprised when they get the final bill. Admittedly, sometimes I eat it but over the years I've gotten pretty good at anticipating the time involved with each project.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2008 at 11:02AM
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I just want to clarify that there are excellent designers that work in any of these ways (nursery, independent, design/build, landscape architecture firms, etc,..).

All of the posts up above are full of very good points. There are a lot of things to consider. It does make it hard for a homeowner to decide where to start.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2008 at 9:06PM
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Hello, check out local directories, I used this one last year to get a couple quotes for my backyard.

    Bookmark   February 23, 2009 at 10:58AM
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Ahhh, yes. Another person who is so satisfied with a web link that they had to sign up on GW, dig up a year old thread, just to post a wonderful link today.

    Bookmark   February 23, 2009 at 12:55PM
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For those still searching for a great landscape designer...

We'd recommend that you start with the two main governing bodies, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD).

For photos and examples of designers' work, Houzz is a fantastic resource!

Anyone searching for a good landscape designer or architect should also do a general Google/Yahoo/Bing search to check out relevant reviews that might pop up about a designer that you're considering working with.

Finally, if you're not comfortable after all this, request that the designer you're considering allow you to contact previous clients to get their own first hand take on working with the designer.

Hope this helps!

William Lenkin

Here is a link that might be useful: Houzz

    Bookmark   March 1, 2013 at 4:08PM
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Brad Edwards

Be aware of 1st cousin prices, what you get will usually not reflect 1st cousin.

If your on a budget an up and coming very young guy in his 1st 2nd year might be a better grab if you do a little prelim research on plan selection.

While portfolio's are good, even better is to ask for a list of places he/she has done. Go by and look at the landscaping. Anybody can stick a bunch of beautiful annuals in a bed, take a photo in spring, do it 10x, and have a beautiful instant portfolio the average joe wouldn't know a thing about.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 6:53PM
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