DO YOUR HOMEWORK
"The more thought you put into what you want out of a garden renovation before you go to see a landscape architect, the more you'll get for your money," says John Parker, professor of ornamental horticulture at Orange Coast College. "Think about your wants, needs, lifestyle, the hours per week you are willing to spend in the garden, and whether you want to do the work yourself or have someone else do it. Take pictures of gardens you like and decide what it is you really like about them. When you break it down, sometimes it's just one little thing. DON'T THROW OUT THE BABY WITH THE BATHWATER
Renovation doesn't mean razing. Kathryn Rue of the Rue Group says she hates it when her clients tear everything out and then call her. "I look at their before pictures, and I always see something I wish I could have saved. But by then, of course, it's too late." PAY FOR A PLAN
Rue says her clients are sometimes shocked at the proportion of a garden-renovation budget devoted to drawing plans. "Half the budget can go into drawings, especially if it is a complicated plan," she says, "but I think it's an absolutely essential expenditure." Parker agrees. "Landscaping is a considerable investment whether you use a designer or not. It's too much money to be spending if you don't know what you're doing." SHOP FOR A PLANNER
"Shopping for a planner is like selecting a doctor," Parker says. "Everyone should get a second opinion. Keep searching until you find someone whose ideas complement your own and you're comfortable dealing with." ONCE YOU'VE PAID FOR A PLAN STICK WITH IT
Rue took on partner Ken Lee, who handles the installation/construction end of the Rue Group's projects, because she found it difficult to find installers who would follow her plans to the letter. But firms that combine both services are rare. So how do you ensure that a contractor follows the plan you paid for? Be firm with them when you interview them for the job, says Parker. "Tell them you're happy with the design you have, you've spent a lot of time and money getting it to the point it is, you don't want any deviations from the plan, and if they run into any problems, you want to be consulted. Then you consult the designer." The problem is, Parker says, most craftsmen are suppressed designers. And they tend to look at projects from the standpoint of their craft only. A building contractor, for instance, might look at a plan and think it lacks a shade-providing structure, not realizing landscaping will provide the same function. "If you're working with several contractors and you allow each one to reshape your plan a little, you're going to lose the integrity of the design," he says. "And then you might just as well have not spent the money." DON'T TRY TO SKIMP ON THE BASICS
Both Rue and Parker agree that soil preparation, adequate drainage and good irrigation are vital to any garden renovation. "Trying to skimp in these areas is like wearing a designer suit but having holes in your underwear," Parker says. "If you have to cut the budget, this is not where to do it," Rue says. "Buy smaller plants. The smaller the plant, the faster it grows." SCHEDULE PERIODIC CHECKUPS
No one is born with a green thumb. If you don't have much gardening experience, it might be a good investment to have someone who does examine your landscaping periodically to see if you're taking care of it properly. Are you watering too much, too little, feeding often enough, pruning correctly? The Rue Group has a "continuing care" division that provides this service. Other design firms may, too, or be able to refer you to professional gardeners who can provide this service.