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Growing Things: Shop and compare when choosing a landscaper

Q: We’ve bought a home in a new subdivision and are responsible for front yard and backyard landscaping. We have some ideas about what we want, but want to hire someone to draw up plans, install sprinklers, do concrete work, install patio covers, and plant trees and bushes. How do we go about hiring a landscaper? What questions should we ask?

Shop around and compare, and then ask for an estimate for the work before deciding who to hire for your landscaping needs.

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A: You definitely need to shop and compare when choosing a landscaper. Look for someone who is a member of the local or national landscape and nursery trades association. Chose at least three or four landscapers and have them come and do an estimate on the work you have in mind. At the same time they are out doing the estimate, ask for references and locations where they have done previous jobs.

Use the reference list and make sure you call the people on it. Ask them how the service was, if the work was done on time, and if it was completed within the estimated budget. Ask how satisfied they were with the job and if the work is standing up — meaning are the plants doing well, and are any of the construction projects leaning or falling apart. You may even want to ask if you can see the job.

Ask the landscaper how they prefer payment. Some like to be paid 50 per cent of the total when the job is 50 per cent completed. Always hold back some of the payment at the end until the job is totally completed to your satisfaction. 

Make sure the landscaper completely understands what type of work that you want done, so that the finished product meets your expectations. If you are leaving the landscaper alone to work during times when you are away, make sure they know exactly what you want. Check to make sure they are licensed and bonded as well.

I have a horror story to share from my own personal experience. Several years ago we had a new home constructed in a new subdivision. While I did most of the landscaping myself, I hired a contractor to install patio pavers in the backyard. I did not do my due diligence in selecting this contractor. Most of the work was completed while I was at work and was unsupervised. The completed project looked OK, but there were some issues with the work that I thought I could fix myself. The following spring, after the snow had melted, I noticed that the patio was beginning to sink and ended up sinking nearly three feet!

When I called in a reputable contractor he informed me that the soil had not been properly prepared, resulting in the collapse. I ended up paying for the same job twice because I had not done my research on the contractor’s reputation.

Q: We read your column regularly and are requesting your advice regarding our trees. We planted four Swedish columnar aspens three years ago. They are in shade for the first half of the morning and full sun for the rest of the day, watered every second day with a watering system for about 20 minutes, and fertilized every spring with a root feeder. They have grown like crazy and tripled in height.

Our problem is that a lot of the branches are spindly and droop down away from the trunk, leaving large patches of bare trunk. Are we doing something wrong here? Is pruning or cutting them to a lower height a possibility? If so, when and how should we prune them? We tried tying them up, but they still droop and the ties cut into the trunk.

A: I asked the reader if the leaves had changed to a bronze colour or if they had any visible mottling, and the reply was yes on both counts. 

The columnar aspen is highly susceptible to bronze leaf disease, which is caused by a fungus. The disease begins on the leaves and can be seen as areas of yellowish-brown, orange-brown or reddish-brown discolouration on the leaf margins. It then spreads across the leaf, taking on the characteristic bronze colour. Eventually it spreads through the tree systemically. 

In the spring, new leaves will be undersized and yellow in colour, and if the tree is heavily infested the branches will experience dieback. There are no registered chemicals to treat the problem. Cutting off affected branches is the only means to contain the disease. Since I have not seen the tree I highly recommend hiring an arborist to confirm that it is in fact bronze leaf disease before doing any cutting.  

Gerald Filipski is a member of the Garden Writers Association of America. E-mail your questions to He is the author of Just Ask Jerry. To read previous columns, go to

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