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A garden `expert'? Find out for sure

It pays to know which fields are regulated when looking to hire a specialist.

July 13, 2006|Lili Singer | Special to The Times

IF you own a home and plot of land, you may, at some point, need a landscape professional. Perhaps to restore an old garden or build a new one, to prune lofty trees or handle the challenges of a steep, fire-prone site. Indeed, some jobs are best left to experts.

There's no shortage of specialists for hire: landscape architects, designers, contractors and various arborists. But which one is right for your job -- and your budget?

Let's start with landscape architects, who must complete years of advanced education, on-the-job training and be licensed by the state.

These well-paid professionals and their firms can handle big commercial, municipal and residential jobs -- complicated projects that are reviewed by public agencies. They're usually involved from concept through construction.

The Landscape Architects Technical Committee, in the state Department of Consumer Affairs, offers consumer guides and license status checks on its website ( or call (916) 575-7230.

Unlike the architects, landscape designers are unlicensed and unregulated. There are no formal training programs for garden designers in this area. The Assn. of Professional Landscape Designers (, based in Harrisburg, Pa., offers networking and professional certification. A Southern California chapter was recently formed.

Designers usually charge less than landscape architects, and are preferred by homeowners who don't need or can't afford a landscape architect, says Don W. Marquart, a landscape architect and Culver City parks manager.

He teaches design at Cal State Northridge and UCLA Extension, as well as landscape architecture at the latter. Good referrals for a designer often come from other homeowners, public gardens and local nurseries.

In California, designers may only plan, draw and specify plantings for use in single-family dwellings, and prepare drawings for conceptual design and placement of landscape features (walls, decks, pools). Designers may not prepare construction documents, details and specifications for those features, or prepare grading or drainage plans for the alteration of sites.

And they may not install the job, unless the total for labor and materials is $500 or less.

So who does the installation? Not the landscape architect or designer, unless they're also licensed landscape contractors. According to state law, a job costing $500 or more must be constructed by a licensed contractor with an active "C-27" landscape contractor's license. As required by law, a contractor may not ask for more than 10% of the project price, or $1,000, whichever is lower, before starting.

For license verification, sample contracts and a free brochure, "Steps to Take When Hiring a Landscape Contractor," contact the California State License Board at (800) 321-2752 or visit The California Landscape Contractors Assn. ( also provides consumer information.

When tree work is needed, hire the best help you can afford. Bad care can do irreparable damage.

Certified arborists are tested on all aspects of tree care and accredited by the International Society of Arboriculture. They will prune but not top, remove, plant or fertilize trees. They use trained crews and carry insurance.

Consulting arborists and registered consulting arborists, both accredited by the American Society of Consulting Arborists, typically don't climb or prune. Consulting arborists diagnose, appraise and evaluate trees in conjunction with a problem or dispute (think property damage and safety issues) and where an independent resource is needed.

Registered consulting arborists are the highest authority in arboriculture and provide detailed damage assessment, expert witness, landscape planning and development and tree preservation.

To find a tree expert, contact the International Society of Arboriculture at (217) 355-9411 or visit

Expert help of any sort is rarely cheap. But in the long run, hiring a well-qualified professional can save you money, protect you and your property, and enhance your garden in ways you could never imagine.

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