How To Avoid Getting Taken Advantage Of When Comparing Landscaping Contracts

Happy new year to everyone! In the south it’s that time of year when we all plant our beautiful annual flowers (although most of our impatiens won’t balloon for another month or so), and so I wanted to take the opportunity to talk for a bit aboout landscaping companies and their contracts.  Of every expense at your property, landscaping often has the biggest effect on curb appeal–the basic “wow, this place is nice” feeling that people get when they drive up to the property.  Curb appeal is a major factor in property values, so landscaping should be taken seriously.

At my community, we recently had the opportunity to re-bid our landscaping services, and the task proved to be a mind-twister for the chairperson of our grounds committee. The problem is that “apples to apples” bids are rarely just apples–there are a lot of ways to play with a landscaping bid, and it’s important to go into the project well educated before you accept a contract. Let’s look at some of the key variables that are commonly found in landscaping contracts and consider the best interests of our plant-type friends:

Number of cuts: As laypeople, we would normally assume that the more times you cut the grass and trim trees and bushes, the better. But plants need to bloom, and even grass needs time to recuperate from a cut. That time is shortened during the summer, longer during the winter. A landscaping company that only recommends 30 or 40 cuts per year may be more honest in their bid than the one that promises 52 cuts because that’s what they think you want to hear. Find a landscaper you trust (and we’ll talk about that a bit in a moment) and listen to their advice. Don’t just spring for the numbers.

Fertilizer: It’s not enough for a landscaping company to tell you that they’re going to “fertilize” without specifying what that means. Fertilizer specs range from cheap “high analysis with micronutrients” that cost as little as a few dollars a bag to high end, high nitrogen fertilizer that can cost ten times that amount. And the type of fertilizer that a good landscaper uses will vary depending not only on the location of the property, but the location of the plant they are fertilizing! For example, the grass on a hill may need different treatment than the grass under a shady tree. It is the responsibility of a reputable company to not only offer a quality fertilization product, but also to use their expertise to determine which type to use in which area. If you get a landscaping contract that offers “fertilization” for fewer dollars than you expect, there’s probably a reason–they intend to use the cheapest possible materials to sastify the terms of their contract, and you should expect to get poor results.

Annuals: Just as there are different qualities of raw materials, flower costs vary greatly. A two dollar impatien looks worse, and will grow worse, than a quality plant. Again, this is an area where going with the lowest bid based on nothing else will result in frustration. Just as with fertilization, it’s important to find a landscaper you trust, and then use their judgement in determining how many annuals you need, how many times they need to be planted, and to produce the proper quality of plant for your property. And keep in mind, if you reduce your plantings to two per year you should expect to have months with dead and dying plants. There are all sorts of landscaping tricks that can be used to extend the life of a flowering plant, but there’s only so far those miracles extend.

Fungicide:  Fungicide (which inhibits fungal growth) is not the same as pesticide.  It’s also extremely expensive.  Just because a company is agreeing to do “pest control” doesn’t mean they’re protecting you from all the things that can damage your plants.  Determining what you need on your property takes a quality technician, and if the lowest price is your object, you can’t expect results.

Arbor: Here we’re talking about the cutting and pruning of trees. There’s a huge difference between having a team of unskilled workers come through your property and hack the branches off of trees willy-nilly, and a quality arborist determining how to prune trees to maintain the health of the plant and its overall appearance. Plants appear to be simple lifeforms, but keeping them well maintained is actually quite a difficult specialty. Cutting off the wrong branches, too many branches, branches in the wrong areas or cutting them in the wrong way can all negatively impact the health of your trees. And while arbor services aren’t free, replacing dead trees is far more expensive.

Mulch:  Mulch has many purposes.  For one, it covers often unsightly construction debris and rocks that can be mixed in with your soil.  Mulch helps to inhibit weeds.  As mulch breaks down, it releases nutrients that help to feed the plants.  It also varies wildly in price.  There is cheap mulch, and good quality mulch.  You can spread mulch thin using a few bags, or give the plants a good ground cover.  Also, if a contractor says they’re charging you for 300 bags of mulch each time it’s applied, have someone take a look at the pallets when they arrive.  Does it look like 300 bags?  It’s not unheard of for bags of mulch or fertilizer to “walk away” en route from the warehouse to the end customer.

Overall quality of the contractor: Here’s one of the biggest variables, and why with landscaping you definitely should rely on the reputation of the company and their references, not just on the bottom line. Let’s consider a basic example. Have you ever seen a landscaping team come into a property and run their hedge trimmers across the tops of all of the hedges, counting that as a “trimming?” Did you then notice that the hedges become “leggy,” losing leaves at the bottom and bushing up on the top? That’s a direct result of sloppy, unskilled trimming. If you only trim a plant on top, the new leaves will sprout from the top as well (generally, you cut one, two grow back). Those new leaves take up all of the plant’s energy to grow and soak up all the sunlight, so leaves drop off of the lower branches. What you get is a thin, cruddy looking hedge.  You have to trim the plant as a whole for it to look right.

The best way to choose a landscaping contractor is to interview them carefully, check references and try to look at properties they maintain.  Once you feel comfortable with a landscaper, have them prepare a “spec sheet” of exactly what is needed for your property, and then use that sheet to request proposals from competitors.  Check the bids carefully when they arrive–it’s very easy to make small substitutions that make a big difference in the price.  Landscaping is one of the areas where you not only have to look at the bottom line, but also the services provided and the people providing them.  That’s the only way to keep your property looking its best.

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