Buyer Beware or Out of Control Lawnmowing Contractors

Our trade magazine, Commercial Horticulture, keeps talking about the New Zealand do it yourself ethic having been replaced by “Do it for me”. You can see this in the explosion of lawnmowing contractors, section maintenance people and landscapers. Even I will admit that not everybody derives the same pleasure from gardening and being creative with plants that we do here.

But I had somebody in recently who told me a horror story which may serve as a cautionary tale. Uncertain what to do with her large section which had some mature plantings, she engaged the services of somebody who called himself a landscaper. She thought she had made it clear what she wanted – a pretty garden which complemented her period villa. Alas she came home from work one lunchtime to find he had chainsawed out all her trees, including her mature apples and plums. She was simply devastated. This cowboy “landscaper” planned to create a minimalist garden in their place – rocks and spiky things and grasses.

Anybody can call themselves a landscaper. We have no regulations requiring registration. But it does not mean they are one, let alone a halfway competent one. Buyer beware.

If you are of the “Do it for me” Brigade, think of a hierarchy and be prepared to pay according to which level you chose. On the lower rungs are the lawn mowing contractors who range from independent operators to professional franchises. As even children can mow lawns, there is not a great deal that can go wrong at this level. They can cut the lawn too short, leaving bald scrapes. They can mow off your bulbs. They can ringbark trees and shrubs planted in the lawn. And they can really annoy you with where they leave the grass clippings (agree on this matter in advance – most will remove them if requested). But generally speaking, lawnmowing is a fairly basic activity which can be carried out to an adequate standard by most people. If you are willing to pay a bit more, you should get a better standard of service.

A little further up the ladder are the section maintenance people and after a month or two of lawnmowing, many operators will start to see themselves as competent at section maintenance. Notice I use the term “section maintenance”. Not to be confused with “garden maintenance” or “gardening”. Section maintenance is what you get done, say, in between tenants on a rental house, before you put an investment property up for sale or an annual cleanup at home if you are not into the lovely garden syndrome (in which case you are unlikely to be reading this). Do not expect your section maintenance operator to know plants, to recognise treasures or to prune well. He or she should swoop in, hack a path through the overgrowth, cut back and clear and remove all visible debris. They will cut back no matter whether it is the right time of year or whether the plant will take heavy pruning. They will probably splash around some spray, hitting other plant material as they go. They may do the edges and blower vac the hard surfaces. At the end of it, you should have a very tidy section – not, under any circumstances, to be confused with a well maintained garden.

If a well maintained garden is what you want, you need to be looking further up the ladder because you want hard working, fit people with some skills in gardening and some plant knowledge who will come in on a regular basis and keep your garden looking good. Because we don’t train gardeners in this country, most good operators at this level will be self trained enthusiasts and the best method of finding a good one is word of mouth referral. They are not thick on the ground, so when you find a good one, be prepared to pay a decent hourly rate which recognises their skills.

You want more? You want a beautiful garden created either with you or for you? Beware at this level and take real care before you part with money or unleash somebody in your garden. Decide first what you want and can afford. There are about three levels of expenditure here.

It may be that you only want some guidance – known as an on site consultation. You may just need ideas and some identification of plants and highlighting opportunities. You are expecting reasonably high level skills here so be prepared to pay at least what you pay a car mechanic or plumber, as well as travel costs. But the investment of two hours of on site advice may give you new ideas and save a lot of money in the long run. Word of mouth or asking a good garden centre is far more likely to find you somebody capable of doing this than looking in the Classifieds or the Yellow Pages. You need a level of skills well beyond a section maintenance operator and usually beyond the paid gardener.

Or you may want a full design and planting plan done, which will cost you considerably more.

On the top rung is wanting somebody to not only prepare a design but also to implement it and do all the construction and planting and maybe maintain it afterwards. You need a little more than word of mouth here. This does not come cheap – and nor should it. You are expecting a high level of skill, some creativity, management and accountability. If you are going to go for the full shooting box, I would recommend you take a look at www.landscapedesign.co.nz.

This useful website contains much information about what you, as the customer, should be looking for and expecting. It also gives guidelines on choosing a designer or landscaper and checking out their credentials, along with managing the contract. I like the pages entitled “Buyer Beware”, “Choosing a Professional” and “The Hall of Shame”.

You would not let just anybody take your car engine apart or do extensive renovations on your house. So why do so many people make the mistake of taking a stranger at their word and letting them loose in their garden? You are going to be spending money well into the thousands of dollars so you are contemplating a significant investment in your property and your lifestyle. You need to be confident that you are hiring a person with the skills and track record and also that he or she will listen to you and take your requirements and your tastes into consideration. Some landscapers, particularly of the more modern schools, often have a signature style and favoured plants they use. If you don’t like their signature style or their plant choices, you are better to look for somebody else. If you are wanting something unique in your outdoors, you may need to think well outside the square or to pay well over the odds for somebody with the skills and creativity to manage a one-off project.

If your budget is modest, do not expect great things from an amateur who comes cheap and lacks training or extensive experience. You are better to think in stages and maybe opt for the on-site consultation only, or to get the basic layout and plan prepared which you can then implement as funds allow. “Do it for me” comes at a price and you can reduce that price by doing some of the work yourself.