Sure, you want your lawn to be as green as Yankee Stadium s outfield. But does your landscaper need to poison it in the process? Gloria Megee knows what harm grass-protecting pesticides can do. Several years ago, after a landscaper had sprayed pesticides on the yard of her Arlington, Va., housing development, Megee s bichon frise, Monique, started to nibble the grass. Seconds later the dog was vomiting; she would experience seizures throughout the night. Monique eventually became riddled with skin cancer and tumors. The cause? Megee s vet blamed it on the pesticides. The poor dog s paws were totally raw from walking on sprayed grass, says Megee.
Indeed, research has linked pesticides to Parkinson s disease, Hodgkin s disease, and liver cancer. One of the major culprits in insecticide poisoning, diazinon once an active ingredient in Ortho and Spectracide, among many other pesticides was so dangerous that the Environmental Protection Agency banned it from all household and gardening products in 2004. But a spiffy lawn and long-term health are not mutually exclusive. Rather than chemicals, some landscapers now use bug-eating birds, kelp spray, and insects that prey on vegetarian pests, the ones that harm trees and plants. Says Steven Restmeyer, a landscaper who has practiced such techniques: When landscapers deal with pesticides, they deal with liability and health issues, and they are replacing the natural process of the soil microbes that feed the plants.
A month ago your landscaper planted new shrubs in your front yard. They looked great for a day. Now they re dry as a wheat field. The landscaper blames you for failing to water them enough, and you blame the landscaper for buying bush-league bushes. Who s right? It doesn t matter the plants are dead, and don t expect your landscaper to cheerfully reimburse you.
Jeff Herman, the owner of a landscaping company in Fair Lawn, N.J., says landscapers get no money-back guarantee from the nurseries on the plants and shrubs they buy for homeowners. They figure that the landscaper ought to know what he s doing, Herman says. Still, that doesn t mean your landscaper can t provide you with some protection. While you ll have little chance to get a refund on such things as rose bushes (they re prone to bugs) or ground cover (ivy, for instance, which will die quickly if not watered), you should demand some kind of payback from the landscaper if it s obvious you properly cared for the plantings. Show your landscaper the grass around the dead plant, says Hugo Davis, former president of the Kentucky Nursery and Landscape Association, a trade organization for landscapers and nursery owners. If it s green and thriving, well, then you did all the watering you needed to do.
Michael Torquato wanted to take advantage of the well behind his new home in Port Charlotte, Fla. So he hired a landscaper to build an irrigation system that would provide fresh, free H2O, but the plan quickly sprung a leak when the landscaper ended up connecting the irrigation system to a city water pipe a maneuver a city inspector later told Torquato was illegal. Torquato s big mistake? Hiring a landscaper to do work he wasn t licensed for. (In this case, he should have had a well-driller s license.)
Licensing regulations involving landscapers differ from state to state. Still, with jobs that result in water running underground with the potential to flood your basement in a big and costly way James Hsu, executive director of the New Jersey State Board of Architects, offers this rule of thumb: Unlicensed landscapers should not do anything involving grading or drainage. And don t be swayed by reassuring words without the paper to back it up. Some landscapers tell clients, Don t worry, I m capable. I can take care of this, Hsu says, when often, it s impossible to tell what they re capable of.
How much fine print can there be in a contract with a landscaper? You d be surprised. In ant-size lettering you ll find the kinds of clauses that can raise an annual landscaping bill by 25 percent. For instance, you may be obligated to pay maintenance and upkeep costs, such as a $300 spring-cleaning fee or extra charges for the trimming and disposing of excess growth on bushes. And these types of add-ons may be applied at the landscaper s discretion without your prior approval.
Why not include the charges up front, maybe even in the big print? They re trying to make extra money without the [customer] being aware of it first, says Jeff Herman. He tries to avoid confusion by sending out fliers that keep his customers informed of work that needs to be done. Many competitors, he gripes, don t even give the customer a chance to turn down the service.
If you want a deal on bulbs, plants, and topsoil, go shopping with your landscaper. He ll know how to trim the bill. Nurseries have a secret code for landscapers on the price tags, says one New York area landscaper. There ll be 10 numbers, and I know which ones to look at to decipher the professional price, usually around 30 percent off of retail. He says he then regularly charges customers the retail price for the plants and pockets the savings.
Some landscapers are known to be even more enterprising. Fly-by-night landscapers go out, steal plants, and then plant them in other people s yards, says Mary Ellen Burton, whose family-owned business in Frederick, Md., has been selling plants since 1929. We had $8,000 worth of plants stolen from a model home, Burton says. I guarantee [they re] in somebody s yard.
There are some very good reasons you hire a landscaper to keep your garden looking like Versailles: You don t have the time or the know-how to do it yourself. And crooked landscapers thrive on your ignorance. Less-than-reputable people will do whatever they can to get by, says Hugo Davis.
One trick he says some landscapers favor: planting fast-growing bushes that are less expensive than slow-growing bushes, but will later require more care and labor from the landscaper. Also, instead of planting high-tech trees engineered to repel insects and resist diseases, they ll simply plant a cheaper, old-fashioned version a distinction you won t notice until the tree becomes riddled with fungus.
What can you do about it? Not much, according to Davis, who admits that even he can be tricked by look-alike plants. It s similar to buying a car and being told that it gets 22 miles to the gallon, he says. You won t know that for sure until you ve owned the car for a while. All the more reason to choose a landscaper with a good local reputation.
Deborah LaBate hired a landscaper she d found in the yellow pages to plant trees and bushes around her Florida home. Before taking the job, the landscaper wanted $1,000 up front, $1,000 when the job started, and $2,000 at the job s completion. Sounded legitimate until she gave him the initial $2,000. I didn t see him for a week, LaBate says. He d tell me it was too cold to work, that it was raining, that the ground was too wet to dig anything to keep from working on my yard.
You might suggest that she file a suit. Bad idea. You can t prove fraud or deceit, because these guys start the job seeming like they intend to finish, gripes Erin Mullen-Travis, licensing manager for Charlotte County, Fla. s building construction services. The way to protect yourself is to get job parameters in writing and parcel out the payments very carefully. If somebody asks for a 50 percent deposit, that should throw up flags. A more agreeable figure is 30 percent.
Mullen-Travis says that if you do run into a snag with a landscaper, consider going to small-claims court especially if money was given and no work has been done, she says. Under any law, that is theft. Or just do what LaBate did. I relentlessly called the landscaper every day, she says. Finally, he came back, and I told him, Finish the job, this week, or I ll become your worst nightmare. The threat worked. LaBate says she now has the best lawn in the neighborhood.
Debby Bright, a real estate broker in Gilroy, Calif., estimates that homeowners can recoup 150 percent of their landscaping costs when they sell. But there s a hitch: You need the right landscaping. Oleander bushes, for example, look great, but they re poisonous and a turnoff to botanically knowledgeable house hunters.
Bright s ideas for home enhancements include trees that block noise and shrubs that create a sense of privacy; you don t want just a large, house-exposing lawn. While Bright points out that lattices and high hedges are more appealing than brick-and-cement walls, one quaint touch to avoid is climbing ivy. It attracts roaches and termites, Bright says. You ll think your landscaper s ivy is very nice until you are about to sell your house, you have a termite inspection, and wind up spending $8,000 to resolve the pest problem.
A man in Arizona claims that his landscaper stole pills from his medicine cabinet. A Tennessee woman says she left a group of landscapers home alone, then later discovered that they d gone down to her basement to drink her beer and play eight ball on her pool table. Because the landscaping profession generally has a low barrier for entry, homeowners need to be particularly vigilant in checking references and finding out about a company s track record.
Mary Ellen Burton says be wary of so-called pickup truck landscapers. These nefarious gardeners often affix magnetic signs to their trucks as identification rather than using the more permanent painted-on logos. Their inexperience can do lasting damage. Burton says these landscapers will commit such mistakes as applying too little mulch to soil or planting a tree too deeply. She has even seen landscaped homes with Leyland cypress planted near the front door a major foliage faux pas. Typically, Leylands are used as a screening plant, says Burton, but if you plant one too close to the house, in two years it will grow to be as tall as your entryway.
To avoid such foul-ups, make sure the landscaper has liability insurance about $1 million is a reasonable amount of coverage and vet him through the Better Business Bureau.
You re relaxing on a crisp autumn afternoon, planning to do nothing more than catch the Cowboys Giants game on TV, when suddenly, your couch time is blasted to pieces by the roar of a leaf blower. Suburbia s equivalent of Black Sabbath practicing in your basement, leaf blowers can pump out 75 decibels of rumbling, high-pitched noise.
How bad can it get? Enough to prompt the passage of a few rules and ordinances in towns where neighbors have gotten fed up with the unrelenting racket. The gentle people of Palo Alto, Calif., for instance, banned the use of gas leaf blowers in residential areas in 2005 and have set limits on the hours when electric leaf blowers can be used (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week). Since then, Leaf blowers cannot be used on Sundays or on any holidays and that goes for electric ones and gas blowers that are only allowed in commercial areas, says a spokesperson for the Palo Alto police department.