Dr. Curtis E. Swift

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July 26, 2012
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SWIFT: How to avoid issues with landscape projects

Did parts of your lawn burn up this summer, even if you watered every day? What about the leaves on your trees? Did they dry up and drop off before their time? Did any or all of your shrubs or perennial flowers die during this summer's heat?

Some of these problems could have been due to selecting the wrong plants for the site, but more than likely the cause of your problems was poor soil preparation, poor planting practices, poor-quality plant material, or improper design or installation of your sprinkler system.

Even if the landscaper followed a set of landscape specifications for your site, they may have been based on old methods now shown to cause plant problems such as those your plants suffered this summer. In some cases, even if you have updated specs, the landscaper may not have complied with the requirements in those specs.

Just because you hired a landscaper with many years of experience, it doesn't mean that experience includes the most current methods of landscaping. Some landscapers are still doing what they did twenty years ago. This is not to say some of the methods used years ago are not still valid, but research in the intervening years has demonstrated better ways to ensure your landscape is a success.

Several years ago, I spoke to the foreman of a landscape crew about the old method he was using when planting trees. The specifications he was expected to follow were based on the most current planting methods, which ensure the uppermost structure roots were no more than three inches below the surface. He was planting the trees up to a foot too deep.

Research from Morton Arboretum had shown that planting too deep, as he was doing, is responsible for plant death due to lack of oxygen and girdling roots. When I asked him why he was not following the specs, I was told he had to guarantee the trees for a year and he knew the trees would survive for that long on the stored energy even if the roots died during that one-year period. What was even more discouraging was that the person responsible for the project said she was not willing to require the specs be followed because it might "upset" the landscaper. Three years later, most of those trees had to be ripped out and replaced. I don't even believe those who donated thousands of dollars to this project were even aware of the fact that their donations were wasted.

Neglecting the landscape specifications even happens with government projects. A landscape at a government facility was recently installed without proper soil preparation. Whether the specifications for the project were adequate to begin with is a good question, but it is more likely the contractor decided to do what they wanted. That project was paid for with tax dollars, so why should anyone of us care?!

I've heard that excuse so many times in my career - it isn't funny.

So, what do you do to ensure your landscape is installed properly (i.e. based on current research with quality material)? As an employee of Colorado State University, I am prohibited from recommending companies known for doing quality work (CSU does not want to get sued). Based on the number of complaints received and site visits I've made over the years to look at landscaper-caused problems, I have a very good idea as to who you should hire and who you should avoid. But I can't provide you that information. I wish I could! That would solve a lot of problems.

If you have the experience and knowledge and time to oversee your landscape project, that would be great. But few people have the time or knowledge to do that. Several landscape architects I've worked with have offered their clients on-site inspections to ensure the job is completed according to specs, but this costs money and most people are not willing to take advantage of this service. Ideally you would have a specialist on site full-time, or at least occasionally, during the project to act as your representative. This person should have the authority to refuse damaged plant material and require compliance with the specifications.

The person you hire for this should also have had a hand in the development of the specs. If you can't find someone to serve as your representative, the best you may be able to do is hire a company that has the reputation for doing quality work. Yet, most landscapers are hired based on cost, not quality.

Having quality, written specifications is one way you can ensure the job is done properly. If the specs aren't followed, you at least have something you can fall back on when you have problems. Quite often improper soil preparation and planting practices don't become apparent until turf, trees and shrubs start to die several years after your job has been completed.

If the contractor is still in business and an inspection shows deficiencies in the landscape, you at least will have what you need to take appropriate steps with the landscape company.

Dr. Curtis E. Swift is the area horticulture agent with the CSU Extension. Reach him at Curt.Swift@mesacounty.us, visit WesternSlopeGardening.org, or check out his blog at http://SwiftsGardeningBlog.blogspot.com.

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The Post Independent Updated Jul 26, 2012 03:47PM Published Jul 26, 2012 03:46PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.