How to talk to your gardener in the fall (© I love images/Photolibrary)

© I love images/Photolibrary

Chances are, you don't have much of a relationship with the person you've hired to trim your lawn or shape your flower beds. You likely know your hair stylist better than the folks who craft and care for the public face of your home. And yet you may sometimes wonder why that landscape doesn't precisely represent you. (Bing: Find personalized landscaping designs)

How can you improve your relationship with your lawn-and-garden pro so you're happiest with those areas? We asked several experts for their advice on the main issues they encounter this time of year — and they told us how to talk about them.

Your timing is perfect: Autumn is "a great time to be thinking about your lawn and garden," says Liza Burke, communications director for Seattle Tilth, an educational nonprofit in the Northwest.

Here are eight tips for talking to your garden pro this season.

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1. Take stock
After the frantic growth of summer, things slow down in the fall. It's a chance to take stock of what worked and what didn't in your landscaping, as well as what problems you had, says Laura Matter, garden-hotline program coordinator for Seattle Tilth. In addition, autumn is time to think about what you liked and what you didn't — with an eye on changing it up in the future, she says.

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What to do: Sit in your yard and look at it with fresh eyes, Matter says. You know more than you think you do about it — its health, its problems, what you liked and didn't like. Make a list of all of this.

Next, invite your landscaper to do a site walk with you and talk over your list. Did a plant not thrive? Ask where it would work in the yard, Matter says. Maybe you'll say, "I hate this plant. Is it OK to remove it?" she says.

Pests are another issue: "Did you have a particular pest in your yard this year?" she says. Ask why that pest persisted and what can fix the problem — perhaps moving the plant, watering better or adding other plants to attract predators of the pest, Matter says.

2. Arm yourself with ideas
In many areas — the mid-Atlantic states, the Midwest and the West Coast from Northern California north, for instance —"fall is for planting," says Kevin Martin, owner of Athens Lawn and Gardening in Athens, Ohio. "It's the perfect time to install a new lawn or landscape."

The challenge, Martin says, is that "one out of 100" homeowners has an idea of what plants or features they want when they call. One of the most frequent questions Martin gets: "I don't know; what would you do?" 

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What to do: A landscaping pro isn't a mind-reader. Think about what you want before you pick up the phone this fall.

"It makes my job immensely easier if (clients) show me a book, show me a catalog (or) tear something out of a magazine"— such as pictures of flowers or brick styles — he says. That way, you won't be surprised later.

Then, don't be coy when it comes to discussing a budget, Martin says. How much do you want to spend? "One of the biggest problems I have is trying to get a number out of the customer," he says. "You can spin off ideas for a person, only to have them say later, 'I only wanted to spend $2,500.'"

Martin says he understands clients' concern about being taken advantage of when it comes to money. The solution: Work with someone you trust and who comes well-recommended.

3. Know what's broken
Summer sees a lot of use on the outdoor areas of your house, and that means a lot can break — things such as patio pavers, garden trellises and in-ground sprinkler systems. Knowing how to convey this to your landscaper can be tricky, though.

What to do: Make a list of what needs fixing. When you call for a broken sprinkler system, for instance, "have a good description of the problem and a description of the location and know, if possible, how the system is laid out," says Andy Nicholls, owner of Ecoyards, a high-end residential yard-maintenance company and design-build firm in the Seattle area.  That includes where components such as the system's valves and the controller are located.

If something is broken, "email a photo of the broken part, or at the least jot down the model name and number of the broken part, if available," Nicholls says. Most good irrigation technicians have a truckload of parts, but sending a picture will help you get the perfect matching part, or else you risk getting a "Frankenstein irrigation system," he says.

If you just need your sprinkler system winterized, let the contractor know how many zones you have and whether you have a proper blow-out port, Nicholls says.

4. Get started early
One of the biggest challenges for lawn-and-garden companies is that homeowners don't anticipate how busy they are — even in autumn, Nicholls says. "It's pretty typical that people call and need something done right away."

What to do: If you're considering major work, such as installing vegetable beds or a new garden, call as much ahead of time as possible. Ask your landscaper what needs to be done now and what can wait.

Prioritizing can help you get on the landscaper's to-do list faster. For example, in the milder Pacific Northwest, mulching of beds and bigger cleanouts are better done in winter when the ground is soft, he says.

5. Clarify the schedule
Come fall, a lot of customers get "nervous (that) we're going to come more often than we do" even though the weather is colder and plants need less care, Nicholls says. He says he knows of homeowners who've been burned by landscapers and gardeners who simply "hang paper" — that is, they drive by, see that the lawn is fine and hang a receipt on the doorknob anyway.

What to do: "Have a good understanding of what the contractor's schedule is like during the winter, when things slow down," Nicholls says. If you don't know how often a crew will come by, just ask. 

6. Consult for the cut
Fall is a great time to have a landscaper, arborist or horticulturalist look at your trees and shrubs with an eye toward the next growing season, says Keith Lemburg, client representative with Mariani Landscape, a design-build and management firm in the Chicago area. But what needs pruning now? And what can you do yourself?

What to do: Here's one rule of thumb: Are you experienced enough in your lawn and garden to know the name of the plant you want to prune? If not, call in help.

"You have to know what the plant is before you can prune it properly," Lemburg says. "If I'm probably a more typical homeowner, then I might want to rely on the knowledge and skills of a professional."

A good arborist or horticulturalist should be able to tell you exactly what needs pruning and how — or if it doesn't need any trimming. For example, some species — such as elms and oaks in the Chicago area — should be pruned exclusively in winter to fight disease, he says. And for the big tree limbs and those over power lines or a house? Call in the cavalry.

"An experienced contractor or horticulturalist can look at a plant and see if it needs to be pruned, and how it needs to be pruned, and when is most appropriate," Lemburg says.

7. Get the dirt on dirt. Fall "is a perfect time to be talking to your landscaper about improving your soil, Matter says. Soil, of course, fuels your lawn and garden, and it is crucial to the health of your grass, plants and veggies.

What to do: Look for warning signs before calling in a pro. "Plants that are not growing properly would be weaker than other plants, often spindly in form with thin leaves that are not as green as they should be," or not producing the fruit they should, Matter said via email. If woody plants are in compacted soil with too much water, they will appear wilted or have dead stems. Plants in dry soils that need organic amendment may wilt and have insect issues. 

Don't doubt your eye, Matter says: "People know more than they think they know, because they’re familiar with the landscape."

These issues can point to other problems, such as lack of light or water or an inappropriate temperature. "But soil health can improve everything," Matter says.

Thus, fall is a good time for soil testing, Matter says. If your landscape is struggling, talk with your landscape pro about testing the soil, which can tell you if it is too acidic for those vegetables you want to grow. Next, ask your gardener or landscaper about addressing these issues.

"You can be amending your soil — adding compost to it. You can be mulching it," which moderates the soil temperature and keeps fall weeds down, Matter says. In a vegetable garden, the answer might be adding more lime to raise the pH, she says.

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8. Do something with those leaves
Come autumn, leaves are on almost everyone's minds — and on their lawns. They can be a lot to manage — and sometimes, even costly. In Seattle, for instance, dumping leaves at a compost facility costs $35 per cubic yard, Nicholls says. Paying someone to haul them away also means you could pay for additional travel and labor costs.

What to do: Ask your landscaper how to compost the leaves and grass clippings on your property, Nicholls says. If done smartly, it's not only good for your lawn and garden, but it also can save you money. If you live on a small city lot, you may need to buy a compost bin. If you live on a larger lot, however, you might only need to form a "cold compost pile," he says — essentially, just placing the debris in a small heap in a wooded area. After it breaks down, "It's free mulch," he says.