10 things your landscaper won’t tell you (© Radius Images/Corbis)

1. “My sprays are real killers, all right.”
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,” Megee says.

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.

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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.”

2. “Don’t expect a refund if your garden croaks.”
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.”

No more raking. © George Doyle/Getty Images

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3. “I’m not qualified to do the job, but that won’t stop me.”
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 water, but the plan quickly sprung a leak when the landscaper ended up connecting the irrigation system to a city water pipe — a maneuver that 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.”

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4. “My budget grows like a weed …”
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%. 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 upfront, maybe even in the big print? “They’re trying to make extra money without the (customer) being aware of it first,” Herman says. 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.”

5. “… but meanwhile, I’m reaping big savings.”
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.”