How to Choose a Landscape Designer that is Right for You

July 28, 2011

Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Glory of the Garden” contains advice for anyone who would like to enjoy a beautiful landscaping design. He writes, “Gardens are not made by singing, ‘Oh how beautiful!’ and sitting in the shade.” However, a modern reader might remind Kipling that that he could, in fact, while away the afternoon singing the praises of the garden and still see progress – that is, if he hires a contractor for landscaping design and installation.

Choosing the right landscape contractor for your project requires careful attention. After all, the design stage of the landscaping process influences every subsequent step. Whether they’re looking for a complete landscape overhaul or simple lawn care, Portland homeowners can find the find the right landscape designer for their projects by following the steps.

STEP 1: Decide what you want in your landscape design.

Before you gather information from potential landscape designers, it’s wise to get your own thoughts in order. What will you use your garden for? Are you looking to install a walkway or a water feature? Or are you more interested in how your landscape can provide fresh veggies and healing herbs for your family?  Collect magazine/book/neighborhood photos that can show your landscape designer the style, features or feel you going for.

Sketch a design that expresses what you envision for your garden space. It will be much easier to find the right landscaping contractor if you have clear ideas about what you want. You can even write a brief description of what you’re looking for; this will make it much easier to directly compare the different solutions various contractors propose for your garden.  More communication means a better end result.

STEP 2: Gather a short list of landscaping design companies.

Once you know what you want, it’s time to compile a short list of companies who design landscaping in your area. Talk to your neighbors and friends to get trustworthy referrals. If you see a yard that looks especially nice, you may even ask that neighbor who did their landscaping design. Next, narrow down your list to two or three professionals from whom you will request a formal bid to design landscaping for you.

STEP 3: Choose a landscaping contractor or designer

There are many components that factor into your final decision about who should do your landscaping design or lawn care. Portland garden enthusiasts can choose the best landscaping contractor for their needs by considering these factors:

Team Approach. Quite often the best projects are the result of a team effort between the designer and contractor.  That may be different people or the same talented individual.  Either way, be sure to get input from both camps to ensure the end result will not only look good but be functional and stand the test of time without breaking the bank.  Don’t rely on the landscape designer to know all about construction methods and vice-versa.


Education and experience. Ask the final contractors on your short list to provide a list of references. Browse their portfolios to see if their design style matches your taste. Check their websites to learn about their education and experience in local landscaping.

Affiliations and certifications. Ongoing education is also critical for experts who design landscaping. Check the affiliations and certifications of your potential landscaping companies.

Licensing and Bonding. Check with the Oregon Landscape Contractors Board and make sure your potential bidders carry the appropriate license and bond to perform the work you need.  Be careful, as there are several different levels of licensing and not all may work for your project.   Not being properly licensed or bonded is a sure sign of a contractor not worth your time.

Liability insurance. Avoid hiring a landscaping contractor who doesn’t have liability insurance. Your landscaping design company should carry at least enough insurance to cover the cost of your home. That may seem extreme, but keep in mind that landscaping work can result in costly mistakes, such as the cutting of a gas line or a tree falling on your home.

Cost. Choose a landscape designer who can meet your landscaping budget.

Trust. A landscaping design project can be a big investment.  Make sure you have complete trust in your contractor of choice to perform up to your standard.  If not, you could end up with a hefty repair project a few years down the road.

Green or organic gardening practices. If, like many Oregonians, you are concerned about the environment, you will want to consider whether your landscaping company maintains green landscaping practices and provides natural lawn care. Portland landscaping gurus recommend that you look into the following list of green landscaping methods:

  • Soil preparation. Choose a company that uses compost and other natural soil amendments to create a strong growing environment.
  • Plant selection. Local, drought-resistant plants are better for green landscaping.
  • Water conservation.Look for a company that knows how to install and maintain water efficient irrigation systems with weather based controllers.
  • Avoidance of chemicals. A green landscaping company should only use chemicals as a last resort, if at all. Chemicals are harmful for downstream ecosystems.
  • Grasscycling. You don’t need to use lots of chemicals in order to practice good lawn care. Portland landscaping companies often recommend grasscycling, i.e. keeping the lawn clippings on the lawn for a natural, slow release of nitrogen back into the lawn.

Another section of Kipling’s poem contains a warning for those who would hire a landscape contractor: “Some can pot begonias and some can bud a rose, and some are hardly fit to trust with anything that grows.” You can avoid hiring lackluster landscape designers by following the tips listed above.