Planning Your Garden Space

Credit: courtesy BCLNA

It is important that your garden fit your lifestyle and budget. The following is a comprehensive guide on how to hire a landscape professional, whether it is someone to do your landscape installation, an irrigation consultant or a maintenance contractor.


Landscape Design Landscape planning by designers or landscape architects. Interiorscaping Design, installation and maintenance. Landscape Installation Construction, grading and drainage, plant and tree installation, irrigation, lighting, water features, decks, paving. Tree Care Pruning, transplanting, removal, cabling and bracing, hazard assessment, spraying. Lawn Care Sod installation, hydro-seeding, fertilizing, pest management. Grounds Maintenance / Gardening Ongoing care and maintenance of gardens, plants and lawns. Horticultural Consultants Provide expert advice in all areas. Many companies offer a range of these services, while others may specialize.

Landscape Design: The Crucial First Step

A good design will help you achieve a harmonious and integrated landscape. Spending the time and effort to develop and refine a good design may be your best landscape investment, saving hours of frustration and maintenance, and sometimes the cost of redoing an inadequately planned project. Initial Consultation See Selecting a Landscape Professional for tips on choosing a designer. (This is especially important when plans include technical issues such as grading or water features.) Work with your designer to ensure the contract specifies what is to be included in design (i.e., your project outline), payment schedules, the type and number of drawings and amendments allowed, approval stages, schedule of meetings and consultations, right through to the completed landscape plan. Client Survey Design begins here: the designer determines your list of needs and wants, current and proposed uses of the space and any problems to be solved. At this point, suggest a comfortable price range for the finished project. A good designer will be able to work to that range or judiciously trim or adapt the suggested project to fit the budget. Site Plan This first drawing gives a total-site inventory, including all measurements, location of all existing features and plant materials, current services, access points, easements and rights-of-way, prevailing winds, microclimates, orientation, sightlines, soil quality and characteristics, plus any movable features (i.e., trees, boulders, etc.). See Begin With a Site Plan Concept The concept generated by your designer describes the final result without determining all the specifics. General issues covered are proposed changes to the site overall, significant features and possible colour selections. Preliminary Design & Estimate Based upon the concept, the design sets out the specific details and establishes a firm budget. Landscape Plan Essential technical and materials specifications for all contractors and suppliers are provided in the plan. It is used for all tenders and quotes for landscape installation contracts. This final plan will list plants and planting plans, all necessary details of grading, drainage, irrigation and lighting, along with detail drawings for all proposed constructed features. Installation of the design may be overseen by the designer, a professional landscape installer or you may choose to do it yourself. TOP

Choosing a Landscape Professional

The services of a competent “on time and on budget” landscape professional can mean the difference between enjoying the pleasures of your own little Eden or dealing with a frustrating field of screams. Here are a few pointers: Set Out the Project Define the Project Decide what the job is – whether it’s a wish list or a project that will take five years to complete. Consult Before Starting A one- or two-hour professional consultation prior to ground-breaking can save you thousands of dollars – especially if you plan to do the project yourself. Decide on Your Budget Determine how much you can realistically afford for the project, in total or per year. Consider Timing Set a realistic deadline – and stick to it. If you don’t, the project can drag on and end up costing more. Select a Contractor Do Your Research Identify which contractors offer the services you need. Include companies from neighbouring municipalities. A good first place to check is our Landscape Services Directory. Contact the potential contractors; briefly discuss your project; find out if the contractor can schedule the work to suit your needs. Choose Carefully Weed out the so-so contractors. Verify the qualifications and level of professional and business standards; ask for references from previous clients; check with each contractor to ensure they guarantee their work and whether it is done to the standards set by the BC Landscape & Nursery Association. Ensure the contractor is a member of this association, that they meet deadlines and stay within budget. Compare Quotes When comparing contractor quotes, ensure they are quoting on the same project requirements (e.g., are the plant materials the same sizes and varieties, the soil/fill of the same quality/quantities?). Don’t Rush Your Decision Better to take a few weeks or months to do your research properly and get the best project possible, than be spooked into something you will likely regret later. Remember, you’re going to be living with that garden project for years. Expect a Contract Do not proceed without a signed contract or letter of agreement that details: work to be done, fees and expenses, schedule of work and payments, standard of work expected and workmanship warranty. A reputable professional will make such an agreement part of the standard contract and won’t work without one; after all, it protects both the client and the contractor and guides the professional relationship. (Of course, read the fine print and, if need be, get a second opinion.) If the contractor won’t agree to an agreement, find yourself another contractor.

More and more landscape professionals have an environmental philosophy and are offering environmentally sensitive services. When choosing a contractor, ask the following questions: Design Does the design make use of appropriate plant materials (e.g., hardy, disease-resistant, suited to soil and climate conditions and preferably indigenous)? Exotic, highly hybridized plants and plants not suited to B.C. climates will require more fertilizer, water and maintenance. Equipment Are low-noise models selected? Are electric tools favoured over gas-powered models? For small jobs, are hand-operated tools used instead of power ones? Pest Management: Is integrated pest management used? Are biological controls considered? Yard Waste & Trimmings Are they composted? Water Conservation Are techniques such as mulching, proper planting and efficient irrigation used? Is water use minimized during cleanup? Soil Enhancement Are compost and top-dressed mulches used to improve soil quality and fertility? Fertilizers Are organic-based fertilizers used where possible? Oil/Fuel Is used oil recycled? What steps are taken to prevent oil or fuel spills?


Begin With a Site Plan

Whether you are hiring a landscape consultant –or designing the landscape yourself – a site planis an essential part of the process. The drawing on the opposite page is an example of a professional site plan, which includes all the details to consider when renovating an existing landscape, or designing a new garden area. In this site plan, the landscape consultant has even noted issues to consider relating to the delivery of materials, and the removal of waste materials. Think about these topics when designing a new landscape. Paving – walks, driveways, patios • Clay pavers, natural stone • Concrete unit pavers (size/shape?) • Gravel, poured concrete, asphalt • Other Fences and Gates • Lumber, recycled plastic, iron • Concrete, combinations, plant material • Fences and fence design are only limited by their stated purpose and your imagination. A well-designed fence can add tremendously to your landscape. Retaining Walls – reason? • Mortared stone, boulders • Safety • Wood, concrete, pre-engineered concrete units,block and mortar, dry stack stone Ornamental Walls • Stone, brick, poured concrete • These walls act as dividers or focal points, expensive but a useful element depending on the design Water Features – Ponds waterfalls, fountains • Spitting wall fountains, troughs, etc. • Water is soothing and exciting in the garden • Can be big or small and effective either way • Maintenance can be an issue Lighting • Doubles the life of your garden and increases the value of your investment. • Security and aesthetics • Low voltage, line voltage, pay a little bit more and get higher quality fixture (it really pays) Access • Pay attention to how the job will be done. How will equipment or people get in or out? Pools and Spas • Don’t just plunk a pool down and then try to landscape around it. The landscape and the pool should be integrated: think of views, styles, deck colour, tile colour, access, etc. Irrigation • In-ground, drip (environmentally sound) • Hand watering, sprinklers (type) Arbours and Pergolas – Ornamental and functional • Elements in your garden carrying vines, giving shade, aesthetically pleasing • Wood, stone brick, metal Maintenance Levels • Establish desired maintenance levels at design stage • Ensure the right plant is in the right place • Review all environmental considerations Download the “Begin with a Site Plan” pdf from the bottom of this web page. TOP

Planting Near Powerlines

When designing your garden, pay particular attention to any areas of your landscape that lie near power lines. Select trees and shrubs that are suitable to your climate zone and that can be easily maintained under or near power lines. Consult with a landscape designer or qualified garden centre staff, or go to the BC Hydro website at for information on recommended species for this purpose. Trees and shrubs planted in the right spot can be used to effectively conceal or draw attention away from unattractive features, such as power lines or utility poles – e.g., a flowering cherry can be a beautiful way to screen a view of a utility pole. TOP

Are You Insured?

When planning your dream garden the last thing you’re likely to think about is insurance coverage, but it’s an important consideration. Before hiring a landscaping company to work on your property ask if the employees have Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) coverage. If not, find a contractor who does have WCB coverage, because without it you could find yourself financially liable for anyone injured while engaged in work on your property. Regardless of circumstances, it’s important for homeowners to carry adequate liability insurance on their home and property. TOP

Landscape Trade Qualifications

Horticultural Training Ask potential contractors about their horticultural and business training. There are four general types of training for horticulturists: short courses or seminars, apprenticeships, diplomas or certificates and degrees. Experience and References Ask for a list of recent and past clients, develop a list of questions, and then call for references. (See Selecting a Landscape Professional.) Industry Certification A variety of industry certification tests verify the skill and knowledge of a contractor.

  • Certified Horticultural Technician in Landscape Installation or Maintenance (see Canadian Certified Horticultural Technicians).
  • Irrigation: The Irrigation Industry Association of BC (IIABC) has two certification programs (see Irrigation Professionals).
  • Tree Care: Arbourists are certified through the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA).
  • Pest Management: All contractors who use pesticides must hold a current Pesticide Applicators Certificate as issued by the B.C. government.
  • Environmentally Aware and Responsible

See Hiring an Eco-Sensitive Landscape Professional. Follows the BC Landscape Standard Establishes clear guidelines for plant materials, other products and work done in the landscape industry. WCB Registration Ask for your contractor’s Workers Compensation Board registration number to protect yourself in case a worker is hurt on your property. GST Registration Legitimate, long-term contractors charge GST, unless their gross income is less than $30,000 per year. Liability Insurance Your contractor’s liability insurance will protect you if his/her actions cause any damage to your property during the contractual period. Ensure your contractor carries this insurance. Business License and Registration Is your contractor operating a business legally? You may need to check with your town, municipality or region to check if they hold a valid business license. BCLNA Membership Members of this provincial industry association are expected to adhere to a code of ethics and workmanship. Ask for proof of current membership. You may call the BCLNA for verification. For information on horticultural schools in B.C. go to LINK TOP

Hiring an Irrigation Professional

Before you commit to installing an irrigation system, make sure your contractor has the necessary qualifications. Efficient irrigation makes the optimal use of water and energy by applying the right amount of water at the right time to the right place. This can only be accomplished if irrigation systems are designed and installed correctly and then managed to schedule applications at the right time. The Irrigation Industry Association of British Columbia has initiated two certification programs to address proper design and installation of irrigation systems. Certified Irrigation Designer Program The Certified Irrigation Designer Program has been operating for 10 years and has 55 successful applicants to date. Another 60 applicants are in the process of completing the certified designer program. A Certified Irrigation Designer is expected to:

  • promote water, soil and energy conservation practices by developing efficient, cost-effective irrigation system designs;
  • legitimately present personal capabilities and experience in all business practices;
  • and follow standards and guidelines established by the IIABC.
  • To be eligible for the certification program an applicant must be a member of the IIABC, have a minimum one year of design experience, and successfully pass a certification examination.

Certified Irrigation Contractor Program The “Class A Contractor” is the first initiative under the IIABC’s Certified Irrigation Contractor Program. The requirements to achieve Residential Class A Contractor Status are:

  • the company must be a member of the IIABC
  • have at least 3 years of installation experience
  • have attended a business training course
  • have a business license
  • a company employee must be an IIABC Certified Residential Irrigation Designer
  • the company must have a minimum of $1 million in liability insurance.

To become a Commercial Class A Contractor the requirements are the same as above with the following additional requirements:

  • a company employee must be an IIABC Certified Commercial Irrigation Designer
  • the company must have a minimum of $2 million in liability insurance
  • a company employee must have a backflow prevention testing ticket
  • a company employee must have a low voltage electrical ticket.

A Class A Contractor is expected to follow IIABC installation procedures and practices where they have been outlined and standards and guidelines with regard to irrigation system design. The Class A Contractor is also expected to provide operation criteria to the customer. For further information on either of these programs, please contact the Irrigation Industry Association of British Columbia at (604) 859-8222. Also, see BCLNA Standards and Certification and Selecting a Landscape Professional. Courtesy of T.W. Van der Gulik, BC Ministry of Agriculture TOP

Hiring an Arborist

An arborist is a specialist in the care of individual trees. Arborists are knowledgeable about the needs of trees, and are trained and equipped to provide proper care. Hiring an arborist is a decision that should not be taken lightly; tree work should only be done by those trained and equipped to work in trees in a manner that is safe both for them and for the trees. Here are some tips for selecting an arborist, provided by the International Society of Arboriculture. Always Hire someone who is bonded, licensed and insured. Do Your Research Ask for references and get more than one bid. Take your time and select a company you know is reputable; examine the credentials and the written specification of the firms who submitted bids and determine the best combination of price, work to be done, skill and professionalism to protect your investment. Look for Certification Ask for a Certified Arborist, someone who has passed the International Society of Arboriculture’s extensive Certification Exam covering all aspects of tree care. Visit the PNWISA Web page at for a list of Certified Arborists near you. Ensure the Arborist is Up to Date Membership in professional organizations such as the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), the National Arborist Association (NAA) or the American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA) demonstrates a willingness on the part of the arborist to stay up-to-date on the latest techniques and information. Beware of Door-Knockers Most companies have business cards, uniforms and truck signs, and the reputable ones are generally too occupied to solicit work in this manner. Avoid Irreparable Damage Remember that improper tree care can take many years to correct itself, and in some cases never does. Beware of Topping A good arborist rarely recommends topping, and should try to talk you out of it if you request to have a tree topped. TOP

Hiring a Maintenance Contractor

Gardens are living breathing entities that require constant maintenance and upgrading in order to be their best. Like anything else in life, you get what you pay for. You can have a wonderful low – or high – maintenance landscaped garden, depending on your love of gardening, or your budget if you hire a professional. Low maintenance can keep your property looking crisp and clean, but remember the key word is “low” not “no” maintenance. Landscape design and installation sets the stage for environmentally sustainable gardens. However, the greatest environmental impact will come from your own maintenance practices. With simple landscape maintenance, you can create healthy gardens for you and your neighbours to admire and for local wildlife to enjoy. More and more people seek assistance from landscape maintenance companies to keep their properties in good shape. Proceed carefully to ensure that you are happy with the results of your hiring. Tips for Hiring a Maintenance Contractor Be very specific about what you expect from your landscape maintenance company before you select the contractor and sign a contract. Your final decision should not only be based on qualifications, references and price, but also on the relationship you feel you can form with the company and its employees. Avoid chasing four or five bids and then taking the lowest price with little or no consideration to whom you have actually hired.

  • Develop a list of criteria for what you want done in your yard and the contractor qualifications you want. The suggestions in this article may help you.
  • Also, review the tips for hiring an installation contractor as qualifications, liability, references, the BC Landscape Standard and so on, apply equally to maintenance contractors.
  • Consider hiring a company for a consultation so you can better understand the maintenance options.
  • Once you have your list of criteria, contact potential landscape maintenance contractors and choose two that match your qualifications. Meet them to determine if you could establish a positive working relationship, then ask for a bid and check references. Put all specifications and expectations in writing.

Considerations for developing your list of contract specifications:

  • Lawns: Cut weekly or bi-weekly? For how many months? Reel or rotary machine? What height? Liming? Moss control? Spot over-seeding? Clippings left, mulched or removed?
  • Tools: Power equipment or manual tools? Will low noise blowers and trimmers be used?
  • Plant selection: What plants? What size? What budget? Will you get a plant list and care instructions?
  • Nutrition: How many fertilization or alternative applications? What type?
  • Soil: Does the lawn or garden need new soil or amendments? If so, what quality and quantity? Blown in or carried?
  • Pest management: Done manually or with products? If products, are they organic or low toxicity – and do applicators have a provincial pesticide license? Is it the least amount used?
  • Hedging, trimming, pruning: What do you want done and when?
  • Trees: Qualifications for pruning? Is the contractor a certified arborist? If working around a power line, use a certified utility arborist.
  • Watering: Any contractor responsibilities? Hand watering of planters? Turning irrigation on/off and adjusting the system?
  • Debris: Composted on site? Bagged and left? Hauled away for recycling?
  • Report: Do you expect a written report? If so, how often and in what detail? Or will itemization on your invoice do?
  • Payment: Variable based on the hours worked? Or a fixed monthly cost?
  • Evaluate the Bids: When comparing bids, a real bargain can be a bad deal. Understanding plant health and best maintenance practices requires a considerable amount of knowledge. Comparing qualifications should be part of your evaluation!


Related links BC Landscape and Nursery Association Certification Offers Assurances of Skills and Knowledge BC Horticultural Schools TOP