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For best results, listen to the landscaper

When homeowners complain about experiences with landscapers, sometimes the complaint seems valid. Other times, it sounds like a misunderstanding or poor communication, and I'm not surprised.

It is complicated to work with a professional you don't know very well to make decisions about something dear to your heart -- your home. And you have to make those decisions about something that isn't necessarily your life's work; landscaping is complex -- site analysis, soil and drainage, hardscape, design, plant selection.

Then there's the matter of taste, a true intangible, that can be tricky to convey even with professionally trained landscapers.

Through the years I've shared my opinions about landscaping mistakes -- volcano mulching, holes not wide enough, failure to remove burlap, failure to remove stakes, lack of watering, poor site analysis and bad plant selection.

Certainly some so-called landscapers do some awful things. But here I'll cover the homeowner's -- the buyer's -- mistakes.

Landscapers want to help their customers understand more about what good landscaping entails, so they get what they want and are able to maintain it.

Most are proud of the jobs they leave behind and sometimes cringe at what becomes of them. Many wish their profession, or at least their own best efforts, would be treated with more respect.

I have asked many certified nursery and landscape professionals (CNLPs) what irks them about customers and made notes. These observations came from at least six CNLPs and a landscape architect.

*Professional: The homeowner has the idea that foundation beds are supposed to be 3 feet wide, crammed against the house. When I show them an appropriate-sized bed in relation to the house, they think I'm just trying to sell them more plants.

The reality is: A planting bed should start a couple feet out from the house anyway and then be many feet wide, so the plants can be out from under the eaves, where they can grow.

You need to look up. Do you want the plants exactly where ice and snow will land? In theory a well-proportioned bed can be one-third the width of the house's height. But at least let your landscaper have a minimum width of 6 feet to work with, for a basic foundation. Bigger is better.

*Professional: If I space the plants right, they think it's skimpy.

The reality is: Customers want it all now. A first-year landscape will look a little sparse. Communicate. Annuals or perennials can fill in a new bed while permanent plants mature. Don't make your landscaper crowd the plants so someone will have to cut them back unnaturally.

*Professional: If you want a tree, let's make room for a tree.

The reality is: Landscapers often are really tree people. I can get a soliloquy out of most of them about what trees they love best and why. Both large/shade trees and small/ornamental trees can get them going.

So they really hate when the customer chooses a "cute, little tree" and wants it 4 feet from the corner of the house. The problem is that almost no trees really stay that small, with the exception of a truly dwarf specimen. Even the word "dwarf" can mean a 12-foot tree.

As examples, my landscape architect rattled off a Dwarf Alberta Spruce that is 7 feet tall, a Rose of Sharon that's a beautiful 15-foot tree, and a graceful Bloodgood Japanese maple that's 25 feet tall. If you're in love with a particular tree, find out its mature height and width, and let the landscaper plant it where the farthest branch tip won't touch the house. Or put it out in the yard. Nearer the house, choose a large shrub or grasses or tall perennials instead.

*Professional: Hire us for maintenance, or listen to instructions.

The reality is: Or at least don't butcher the plants next spring. Bad pruning is upsetting to plant professionals, second only to inadequate watering in homeowner mistakes.

One landscaper tells me he grits his teeth watching his elderly neighbor cut back the shrubs the minute they start to look at all good or, heaven forbid, form buds. He has thought of breaking her hedge shears in the night.

A grower said it killed him to sell some beautifully shaped young trees to a customer who said her husband likes to "cut them back" every year. That may be fine for a spiraea, but please -- don't do that to a Japanese maple!

Many landscapers offer a maintenance contract or follow-up visits. One said he has schooled himself to accept that people retain less than 20 percent of what they are taught, so he repeats the instructions.


More pet peeves

*Customers say they want low maintenance, but they choose spirals and pompoms or fast-growing plants, and they can't handle them.

*They want "organic" but don't understand there is a transition period and they have to invest in their soil and compost.

*They see magazine pictures and think it can look like that, when some of those flowers don't even bloom at the same time. It's hard to show them reality.

*It's not easy being green, no matter what side of the fence you're on.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.