Cultivating a long-term relationship with your gardener

Linda Hosier and nurseryman Bill Kirkpatrick collaborated to redo the front, sides, and back of her property.

The worksheet is two full pages of questions - about likes and dislikes, pets, dining habits and entertaining style, favorite seasons and vacation spots. There's even this one: "Do you have any personality quirks we should know about?"

Sounds like an online dating service laying the groundwork for a possible relationship. And, in a very real sense, that's true. This is about ground work - the making, and long-term maintenance, of a garden, something many of us spend less time thinking about than what to serve at a holiday dinner.

Craig Rybinski, owner of Creative Garden Solutions in Avondale, Chester County, uses the worksheet to learn about prospective clients so he can design a garden tailored to their tastes, habits, and lifestyle. He also uses it to let them know that hiring a professional gardener needs to be a thoughtful decision, not the horticultural equivalent of a one-night stand.

"It's not about we show up on Tuesday, we're done on Thursday, and have a nice life," says Rybinski, a master gardener with a landscape architecture degree from Pennsylvania State University and a landscape design/horticulture degree from Temple University Ambler, who still has clients he started with in 1982.

"A good garden requires maintenance over time . . . and it's really important that you have a relationship with your gardener. It makes all the difference in the world," he says.

Important as it is, hiring a garden professional can be bewildering.

There are the "mow, blow, and go" guys. Also known as "lawn jockeys" and "grasshoppers," they're the least specialized and, because of the economy, more numerous and visible than ever. Armed with truck, lawn mower, and tools, they handle the basics.

Then there are people who have studied horticulture or ornamental design, maybe had some experience at a plant nursery, working in the field as landscapers, garden designers, and landscape designers. (Landscape architects, on the other hand, are registered and state-regulated, but a home garden rarely requires their expertise.)

To add to the confusion, there are folks out there with little training or education who also call themselves designers and landscapers.

What's a homeowner to do?

In a word: homework.

Horticultural educator Rick Ray believes we need to take responsibility and educate ourselves so we can make intelligent choices about whom to hire and what to plant.

"If the homeowner doesn't know his ash from his elbow, he's lost. It's like telling someone who knows nothing about brain surgery, 'Sure, go ahead and do my craniotomy,' " says Ray, who taught at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown and Temple Ambler for many years and has been doing the same at the Barnes Foundation Arboretum School in Merion since 1986.

He suggests "getting at least a basic foundation" by studying up on plants, taking classes or workshops at the region's many arboretums and public gardens, and thinking about what we want our garden to be.

"There are so many factors to consider," Ray says, not just what plants we like, but whether they're suited to our property and region, what their mature size will be, what their soil, light, and drainage requirements are, and many other issues.

"Most people have no concept of these things . . . they don't know which side of the sod to put up or down," Ray says. "That's why they hire someone."

Linda Hosier definitely knows how to lay sod. She and her husband, John, put down a full acre of it after buying a three-story Victorian on two acres in Middletown Township in 1992. The original part of the house dates to 1747, and both house and grounds had long been neglected.

Hosier, a biology major in college and a longtime gardener, was faced with a "garden" of poison ivy, weeds, junk trees, brambles, and wisteria. "It was backbreaking," she recalls.

So Hosier hired Bill Kirkpatrick of Kirkpatrick Nurseries in Glen Mills, whose work - and wife - she knew. "Bill was a known commodity," she says.

In stages over the years, Hosier and Kirkpatrick, a graduate of Penn State's ornamental horticulture program, have collaborated to redo the front, sides, and back of the property. They've installed native swamp maples along the 150-foot driveway, built and landscaped three berms out front to block the view of traffic, and added roses, viburnums, hollies, and other plantings.

The communication between the two has been frequent and productive. "Bill's good at listening. We've stayed with him. It's an ongoing relationship. Why mess with success?" Hosier says.

She likes how Kirkpatrick is often on site to supervise, and how he drops in to check on how things are growing. "The trees in front are prone to bagworms, and Bill actually stops by and pulls them off," says Hosier, who couldn't be happier with her garden professional.

As for that worksheet with the question about personality "quirks," Rybinski reports that most prospective clients leave it blank. Some offer up things like "If I call you at 8 a.m., I want a response by 9." Others insist, "I don't have any quirks, but my spouse has plenty."

And once in a while, pay dirt.

"I want privacy at the pool," one client wrote. "I like to swim in the nude."

"OK," Rybinski says, "we need to know that."


Thinking About Your Garden

Elizabeth Alakszay, coordinator of the Chester County master gardeners, looks at planting or redoing a garden this way: "It's no different than when you redo the kitchen or living room. Think of the thought you put into that."

What better time to think about next year's garden than over the fall and winter?

Here are some thoughts from the experts:

Stop and ask. If you see a landscape in the neighborhood you like, find out who did it. Ask friends who are good gardeners. Do not just pick someone from the phone book or online.

Think big picture and long-term. If you can afford it, look for someone to draw up a master plan that can be implemented in stages.

Check education, experience, credentials. Academic degrees aren't the be-all and end-all, but they can make a big difference in outcome. "Cutting the grass is not 'designing a garden,' " says Peter Landrum, who earned a degree in ornamental horticulture and environmental design at Delaware Valley College and owns Landrum Landscaping in Havertown.

Ask for references, then go see the landscapes. Nobody's going to refer you to unhappy clients.

Ask for a written contract and a one-year guarantee on plants. Fortunately, this is pretty standard now. But how many contracts guarantee start and finish dates? "A lot of contractors won't agree to a final date because they're doing two to three jobs in addition to yours," Alakszay says. "I'd weed them out."

Also, include in the contract that you must approve changes in design, plant material, or cost.

Ask about insurance. Not just whether a contractor has a policy, but what it does and doesn't cover - light tree work, for example, or fertilizer and pesticide applications. It's a bit indelicate, but ask about criminal background checks on workers, too.

Insist on an itemized list of tasks and plants, rather than one big bottom line.

Make sure there's an actual business address. Says Bill Kirkpatrick of Kirkpatrick Nurseries in Glen Mills: "Some of these guys don't have one. Should you be suspicious? I would be."

Once a plant list is drawn up, check them out on science-based academic websites such as Rutgers and Penn State Cooperative Extensions.

Be realistic about cost. "Gardening is not inexpensive - $40, $50, $60 is not unreasonable for a decent-size shrub, given what went into growing it," Alakszay says. (And cheap job bids often result in cheap work.) Labor costs can run around $30 an hour or more.

Decide what level of maintenance you're willing to assume and, if you can afford it, what you'll want someone else to do. Understand that, as Landrum says, "there's really no such thing as a low-maintenance landscape unless it's all rocks."

Heed these words from Craig Rybinski, the Chester County master gardener and garden designer: "The fact is, no matter how good I am, no matter how good the crew is, when we leave if there's no plan for maintenance to some degree, everybody wasted their time."

And factor into your maintenance budget the idea that not every professional does it all. You may need an arborist for tree care, for example.

If all this sounds like a lot of work, it is. And even if you do it, there's no guarantee of absolute success.

But if you're smart about planning and hiring for your garden, you should be well-rewarded - at least for a few years.

Because once you've got things just the way you want them, the garden will change. And you'll have to deal with it.

But this time around, if you've paid attention, you'll at least know what you're doing.

- Virginia A. Smith

Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or