Homeowners can look at websites, magazines and books to get an idea of what they want for their landscaping project. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Maybe you want to create something beautiful. Maybe you want to hang out in an attractive, functional outdoor space. Maybe you can’t bear your neighbors’ contemptuous stares. Maybe you want to push your property value to the max. Whatever your reason, you need landscaping help.

Depending on what you want done — and on how much you want to do yourself — you can turn to various types of service providers. Some landscaping companies offer a full range of services, from designing an entire outdoor environment (plants, grading, walls, walks, etc.) to supplying materials and plants to doing the full installation work. Some landscape designers only do the design, others also supervise the installation; some garden centers only supply plants and other materials and may do plantings or spread mulch; and various companies, from irrigation system installers to masons, can play a role.

The lines are not bright. Many, but not all, companies offer more than one type of service. Checkbook.org offers customer reviews for each of these types of services — and in some cases detailed price comparisons.

Getting ready

Think about your space and what you want to do with it:

  • How much money are you willing to spend? Setting a budget will drive many of your plans: A few thousand dollars could pay for redoing an existing garden with new plantings but not a complete renovation or hardscaping work.
  • Do you want to rip up and replace everything, or preserve and complement what’s already there?
  • Do you want to add hardscaping, such as a wall, path or patio? A new fence, deck or gazebo?
  • Do you want plantings that require little maintenance or are you willing to — or even looking forward to — playing an active role in keeping everything healthy and in check?
  • Do you want hardy, water-thrifty plantings, or are you willing to sacrifice some time (and money) to keep everything irrigated?
  • Do you want new plantings that create privacy (or that screen a neighbor’s poor choices)?

If you need inspiration, you won’t have to look far for help: A seemingly endless number of websites, magazines and books are devoted to gardening and landscaping. You’ll also get ideas by taking a walk through your neighborhood.

Selecting design help

If you need professional planning advice, the staff of many landscaping outfits can provide it. Most of these companies, for a fee, will create the design and then let you decide whether to have them or another company (or yourself) do the installation. You also can hire an independent designer or landscape architect.

Seek someone whose tastes match yours and with whom you can easily communicate. One way to test compatibility is simply to show them your property, review your objectives and listen to their ideas. Keep an open mind: A good designer will offer suggestions that you have not considered.

Examine the designers’ portfolios. Discuss their choices to get a sense of how they think. And talk with previous customers about their experiences. Focus on examples of work similar to yours in style, project size and costs.

To minimize potential headaches, get a written agreement that describes the design documents you will receive: a detailed drawing or drawings, and notes describing what is to be planted, how much will be planted and where, plus specs for all hardscape elements and lists of materials needed and site-preparation work. It also should specify opportunities to review and revise the plans.

Your role in the planning

As the designer’s work progresses, review the plan and provide feedback. Check:

  • How will the plants recommended by the designer fit your tastes and needs? Plants should also take into account soil type and acidity, drainage patterns and sunlight exposure.
  • How large will plants be when they mature? How quickly will they grow to maturity? How your property will look both right away and years from now when your plants have grown.
  • Keep in mind that “fast-growing” isn’t always a desirable trait in landscaping. One trick used by some designers affiliated with full-service landscaping companies is to suggest and plant fast-growing varieties that require a lot of upkeep, hoping you’ll hire them to do maintenance work.
  • What will you have to do? If it sounds like too much maintenance to do or pay for, request revisions.

Choosing and dealing with the installer

Once you have a plan, you’ll have to do the work yourself or choose a company to do the installation. You can choose the designer’s company if it also does installation, but you may save money and get better work elsewhere. If the designer does not work for an installation company, ask the designer for recommendations. And consider extending your agreement with your independent designer to supervise the installation.

Unfortunately, the ratings collected by checkbook.org indicate that many landscaping companies displease their customers.

To avoid trouble, ask installers:

  • Where will it buy plants? There is tremendous variation in the quality of plants sold by area garden nurseries.
  • What tasks will you be expected to do, and how often? Conflicts between landscapers and their customers frequently occur when plants die sooner than expected. Often the landscaper blames the customer.
  • What guarantees do you get? If you do your part but plants die or fail to thrive, will the company replace them at no extra charge? How long are walls and other structures guaranteed to last? A solid, unambiguous guarantee is a sign of quality.
  • If heavy equipment is needed, how will the company minimize damage? How will equipment access the work area? It’s easier to avoid creating carnage than to correct it.
  • If you want to retain existing plantings, how will the company make sure they remain undisturbed? The contract should include a list or drawing indicating placement and number of plants you want to keep.
  • Will the company identify and avoid underground utility lines? Before any digging, the proper authorities should locate and mark the location of all underground lines. If a company tells you this step is unnecessary, call 811 to confirm.
  • Will the landscaper apply pesticides or herbicides? If so, what precautions are necessary to prevent them from harming your family, pets and wildlife? If pesticides are to be used, require the company to show you that it will use a certified applicator. Also, ask the company to supply material safety data sheets for any chemicals it uses.
  • Will the company provide credit references? A good way to check the stability of companies is to ask suppliers if they pay their bills on time. Good credit also reduces the chances of an unpaid supplier placing a lien on your home.
  • Who actually will do the work? Are the workers company employees? Day laborers? Will the same crew show up each day? Who will supervise workers, and will supervision be constant?
  • Does the company carry insurance coverage for liability and workers’ compensation claims?
  • Who is responsible for hauling away debris? Preferably, the contract should call for the landscaper to handle this task.

Don’t overpay

Once you have a detailed landscaping plan, obtain price quotes from multiple installation companies.

You’ll find tremendous price variation from company to company for the same work. Checkbook’s undercover shoppers requested price quotes for two jobs from a sample of area landscaping businesses. The first job was simple: Supply and apply enough new mulch to cover a 450-square-foot landscaped garden to a depth of three inches. The second job was more complicated: Landscape and provide plants for a 168-square-foot area according to a planting plan prepared by a professional landscape designer.

Checkbook’s shoppers were quoted a wide range of prices for each job: from $249 to more than $700 for the mulch job, and from $1,314 to $3,961 for the more complicated job.

Because Checkbook finds buying plants a rare business in which there appears to be a price-quality relationship, some price differences might result from quality differences of provided plants. But acquiring plants from different sources does not explain all the cost differences. Of the companies Checkbook contacted, a few that receive high customer ratings for quality of work quoted low prices, while a few other contractors that receive low marks quoted high prices.

If you’re looking for a landscaper to provide continuing maintenance services, make sure you understand what you get for the price — and what will cost extra. Disreputable landscapers commonly bill monthly fees for maintenance, and then charge extra for spring cleanup, fall cleanup, etc. Make sure any maintenance agreement specifies which tasks are to be done and how often. And because some landscapers perform and bill for extra work without first getting customer approval, inform any company in writing that all work must be approved in advance.

KEVIN BRASLER is executive editor of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook and checkbook.org. Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and checkbook.org are nonprofit, with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. Checkbook is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access Checkbook’s ratings of area landscapers and landscape designers free of charge until June 10 at checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/Landscapers.