The Dirt / Crimes in the name of landscaping
Veteran landscapers talk about their pet peeves and what consumers need to know
At a recent Plant WNY award ceremony, landscaping pro Roger Restorff, who has more than thirty years in the business, confided, “You wouldn’t believe the shoddy work—inexcusable!—that’s done in the name of landscaping. Some of these guys think they can do it all without any education. It keeps me awake at night!” That rant led to this article. Here is some honest talk from veteran landscapers about their pet peeves and what consumers need to know. All of the interviewees have decades in the business and many are Certified Nursery and Landscaping Professionals (CNLPs).
From left: Landscaping professionals, Eric Page, Roger Restorff, and Tim O’Donnell
Photos by kc kratt
What should a homeowner do to avoid landscape nightmares?
Restorf (Restorff’s Landscaping): I want them to get educated about the project and ask a prospective contractor the right questions. There are so many sources, even videos online, to show you what it takes to support a patio for instance. Ask the contractor how he plans to handle it. Ask how many years they’ve been in the business, how often the owner or foreman will be on the job site, and who is doing the actual installation? Just a few questions tell you lots about what they know.
Tim O’Donnell, (T. O’Donnell Landscaping): People need to do due diligence: it’s about who do you trust on your property? A crew of people will be in and out of your yard for days, probably, and you’ll be living with their work for years. So ask about credentials, questions like:
•Does the owner, as well as some team members, have a CNLP credential?
•Does anyone have training from ICPI (Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute) or NCMA (National Concrete Masonry Association)?
•Get customer referrals. Ask those people if the company returns phone calls—even after the job, and were the workers neat, quiet, respectful, and nonsmokers?
•What are their warranties or guarantees?
What hardscaping mistakes have you had to correct, typically?
(What’s the hardscape? Landscaping comprises two elements: hardscape and softscape. The “soft” part is the gardening aspect of the landscape—the living plants component. Hardscape includes all inanimate things: walls, paths, pools, boulders, gazebos, trellises, fences, firepits, outdoor kitchens, and fountains. The hardscape is often the most expensive component.)
Restorff: Do you have three hours? Well, it’s easy to answer what’s the biggest mistake when building the proper foundation or base for a patio or other structures. What’s underground is the most important part—at least fifty percent of the cost! If you don’t dig deep enough for that foundation, winter will bring its thawing and freezing, and heaving will follow. How deep depends upon what’s under there.
And then there’s spacing. Those upright junipers next to the doors—too big by year four. The lineups of arborvitae three feet apart! How about planting with some information about the mature size of these plants, and a five- and ten-year plan?
John Mallia (J & L Premier Landscape): Poor drainage and not addressing it can cause big problems. You have to establish a stable base and solid soil compaction. I see problems especially around newbuilds in disturbed soils. It takes years for a property to settle, and air pockets lead to settling and sinking. The pitch also has to be right, to lead moisture away from the house. I’ve seen awful failures.
Eric Page (Woodstream Nursery): Agreed; big failures come from poor foundation work. You have to make informed choices about concrete or a crusher-run base. After careless jobs, it’s just a matter of when the settling will occur. How bad was the winter? I’ve seen a patio job done in summer, followed by a bad winter, and by spring it’s a mess. I feel for those people.
And then there’s the chronic problem of burying woody plants far below the root flare, where the trunk emerges from the roots. People wonder why the tree they had planted three years ago hasn’t grown! Also common: lazy jobs where workers stuck root balls on top of compacted soil with a small mound of soil and mulch around them, calling it a berm. Those roots will never get water.
O’Donnell: Poor drainage and lack of compaction cause many failures. You need density tests. A compactor might cost $12,000, but it makes all the difference when you’re supporting that new patio. You can’t take shortcuts.
Tom Mitchell on landscaping wrongs
Tom Mitchell has taught plant science and good landscaping practices to many hundreds of future landscapers—for thirty-three years at McKinley High School and for seven years at Niagara County Community College. He has also owned Mitchell Landscaping Inc. for thirty-nine years. He quickly produced a list of landscaping wrongs that upset or embarrass him on behalf of the industry:
1. Landscapers should never apply pesticides without a license. I teach Pesticide Applicator Safety Training. The requirements are for the health of landscapers, as well as for the homeowners, kids, and animals. I see them hiding Preen or Round-Up in the back of the truck and using it illegally. It’s just foolish.
2. Landscapers not wearing safety glasses or ear protections don’t realize the damage they’re doing to themselves.
3. Lawn care is often done all wrong, like mowing hot lawns in midsummer when the lawn isn’t growing—just because there’s a contract. Or fertilizers or herbicides are applied when they’re not called for. This does major damage to turf grass.
4. There is too much bad edging, including plunking down vinyl edging with no stakes. It’s going to heave out.
5. I see too much weed whacker (line trimmer) or lawn mower damage. This wounds the trees—leading to disease—or damages the house siding or fences.
6. There is too much rudeness in general, including mowing along a street and discharging the grass into traffic, or using loud equipment early in the morning or late at night.
Find the right people
These interviewees are just a handful of the respected landscape designers and installers who can help with new or renovation landscape projects. PlantWNY provides a listing of member companies, showing services and which ones employ CNLPs. Find the booklets at nurseries, garden centers, and Plantasia, or visit plantwny.com. You can also meet and talk with many landscape professionals at Plantasia. But start early.
On choosing a landscaper
•A low bid isn’t necessarily the smart choice: Cheap can be very expensive.
•Education is so important, but a degree isn’t enough. Experience counts.
•Don’t give the job to your cousin or the lawnmowing guy who says, “Sure, I can put in a patio…”
•The prettiest pavers are no darned good if they’re sinking and heaving by next summer.
As Eric Page says, “Please think about your landscape in February! Don’t wait until late spring to have a good interview. We do want to get to you, but the season gets very intense!”
2018 learning opportunities
Plant WNY CNLP Day and Horticulture 101 (Feb. 1 for members) and Education Day and Trade Show (February 2 for public) www.plantwny.com; 741-8047
Plantasia 2018 (WNY Garden and Landscape Show): Wed. March 21 Preview night. Show dates March 22–25, Fairgrounds Event Center, Hamburg (plantasiany.com)
Master Gardener Education Day (public program): March 17, featuring Doug Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home) and Sally Cunningham (What Would Doug Do in your WNY yard?) (www.plantwny.com)
Sally Cunningham is a CNLP, garden writer and speaker, and leads tours for AAA/Horizon club tours to show gardens and art in in Europe and America.