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In the Garden

Time for a Yard Tuneup? Call In the Professionals


I am frequently asked if I can recommend a good gardener, even though I'm the last person anyone should ask since I do all my own gardening.

It's a good question, and there are ways to go about getting a knowledgeable gardener, although even landscape professionals are reluctant to recommend anyone in particular.

"It's a lot like recommending a used car," one said. "It might be a great car or you might regret the recommendation."

The most obvious place to find a good gardener is in your own neighborhood. Find out who cares for gardens you admire. "Shop your neighborhood" is how Westside landscape architect Andrea Gardner put it.

If a gardener is already working in your neighborhood, you're probably on his or her route. If he or she doesn't have to go out of the way to get to your garden, the fee should be reasonable.

But I suspect this is not the kind of gardener I am being asked about.

Most working gardeners are what many in the landscape profession call maintenance gardeners or weekly gardeners. They charge a flat rate, so they must work fast to stay in business.

They can mow the lawns, rake or blow the litter off patios and driveways, trim hedges, and take out the trash in a matter of minutes. For this, they probably charge in the neighborhood of $35 a visit. They might even keep garden beds weeded and cultivated, and, for the vast majority of homeowners, this is enough.

"But you have to be realistic," Gardner said. "A maintenance gardener's profit margin is so slim, you can't expect them to dust off the patio furniture or get the cobwebs off the lampposts."

Ask a maintenance gardener to prune the roses, and you're likely to be disappointed. If a plant can't be quickly pruned, the work is generally outside the worker's expertise. What you need for more complicated garden jobs is what Agoura landscape designer and contractor Colleen Holmes of New Leaf Landscape calls a detail crew.

"I've been in this profession a long time," Holmes said, "and I can say that you'll never find the one perfect gardener who can do everything. Don't expect miracles from your regular gardener."

People who want a sophisticated, great-looking garden will probably need two crews, one for maintenance and one for periodic garden tuneups, what many call specialty maintenance.

Holmes suggests looking under Landscape Contractors, Landscape Gardeners or just Gardeners in the yellow pages. Or ask at good nurseries for recommendations. Interview several candidates.

Landscape contractor Joan Booke of Pacific Palisades suggests asking if the person you are interviewing will appear at the job site and be involved, or if someone else is going to do the work.

Holmes suggests doing this major garden work once or twice a year--usually in fall or winter and, if you have it done a second time, in spring or early summer. Tuneups are especially important for new gardens, she said, or "they quickly begin to crumble." If trees look out of sorts, she recommends calling in a certified arborist or tree surgeon.

Even though Booke is a landscape contractor, her crew does not do trees. Contractors and professional gardeners often don't. Trees are a specialty and best taken care of by tree companies and certified arborists, who have the knowledge, equipment and insurance.

Everything else can be done by specialty maintenance crews.

"We do light pruning, stake and unstake trees, removal and replanting, renew mulches, check irrigation, weed, deadhead, even divide plants," Booke said.

For the garden, "it's like getting a good haircut that doesn't look like you just got a haircut," Booke said. The more often a garden gets its "haircut," the less obvious.

The cost for a complete garden tuneup is in the neighborhood of $300 to $500 for a smaller garden, $500 to $800 for a medium-size garden, and $1,000 and up for a larger garden.

Most specialty maintenance gardening outfits charge $100 to $150 an hour for a crew of about four, although the price can vary widely depending on how easy the garden is to access, the garden's complexity and the cost of hauling.

Because so many people have called asking for this kind of regular garden maintenance, Barbara Engels of the Sunshine Greenery in West Los Angeles has established a specialty maintenance crew as part of her landscape installation business, and this seems to be a trend.

Booke--a former teacher and amateur gardener who graduated from the gardening certificate program at UCLA Extension and took classes at Pierce College--says there are great opportunities for people who want a career in specialty maintenance.

Judging by the amount of calls I get from homeowners looking for knowledgeable gardeners, I would have to agree.


In the Garden is published Thursdays. Write to Robert Smaus, SoCal Living, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053; fax to (213) 237-4712; or e-mail to

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