Designer Spotlight

Hire a Landscape Designer: What You Need to Know and Mistakes to Avoid

Looking to hire a landscape designer but not sure where to start? Read our handy guide to finding the right professional
There are many benefits to hiring a landscape designer like Melissa Gerstle who created this pool area for the 2020 Kips...
There are many benefits to hiring a landscape designer like Melissa Gerstle, who created this pool area for the 2020 Kips Bay Decorator Show House Dallas.Photo: Stephen Karlisch

If you’re a new homeowner dreaming about overhauling your outdoor space, or want to spruce up your backyard but haven’t had time, maybe you’re ready to hire a landscape designer. Like an interior designer, a landscape designer or landscape architect has the knowledge, training, and resources to help you realize your vision for a space or, if you need some inspiration, guide you towards one. “I can walk into a space and tell you 10 different things you can do in 10 different ways, and that’s really what you’re paying for—after learning from people’s mistakes over the years, we know what works, what materials we should use, what’s going to last, and what native plants are going to work, so there’s no guesswork,” says Kristin Monji, founder and principal at Birch and Basil Design in New York City. Monji also adds that working with a landscape designer or landscape architect is a worthwhile investment when you decide to put your home on the market (think curb appeal). “You’ll absolutely get that money back when you sell your place,” she adds.

Another thing to consider: Because environmental conditions are changing as extreme heat and drought alternate with heavy rainy seasons, it’s especially important to have a pro in your corner when you’re planning and executing a landscape architecture project. “Hiring a licensed, trained professional who is well-versed in drought-tolerant planting, sustainable irrigation and drainage methods, and best practices for fire prevention is key in today’s changing world,” says Patricia Benner, founder and principal at Benner Landscape Design in Los Angeles.

We asked Monji, Benner, and other landscape designers and landscape architects for their best tips in finding the right person to transform an outdoor space.


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What’s the difference between a landscape architect and a landscape designer?

Although many people use the terms “landscape architect” and “landscape designer” interchangeably, there are some differences. Landscape architects, who often work on larger commercial projects, must have at least a bachelor’s degree and state license, and they’re trained to deal with tricky construction issues such as elevation and slope issues, retaining walls, irrigation, drainage, and big-picture concerns such as driveways and parking areas. Landscape designers can often have similar credentials and experience, but aren’t required to have the state license. 

How can I find a landscape designer or landscape architect?

Google and Instagram are certainly useful tools as you begin your search, but it’s worth doing some additional legwork as well.

Ask friends and neighbors

In addition to searching online, Monji suggests asking friends or neighbors for suggestions, and meeting with at least three potential landscape designers or landscape architects. The experts you interview should be willing to pass on the names of former clients who can act as references. “Someone may have a certain style that their work will speak to and that may be your thing, but if you meet with three designers and talk to their past clients, you can say, ‘Oh this person is legit and they can do the work I am looking for,’” says Monji. If you’ve recently remodeled your home, your interior designer may have suggestions as well. “We get a lot of referrals through architects and interior designers, or people’s friends use us, and they see our work around town or they follow us on Instagram, so it’s usually someone who keeps popping up on the periphery,” says Dan Houchard, co-owner of From the Ground Up Landscape in Dallas. If you’re new to your area and don’t know many people yet, you can also ask the staff at your local nursery for recommendations.

Meet the designer: Birch & Basil Design, founded by Kristin Monji, is a boutique Manhattan-based landscape design firm that brings a California sensibility to East Coast gardens. Read more…

Cory Monji
Check with professional organizations

Both the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) and the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) have search tools that can help connect you with experts in your region. Both organizations require members to have a certain amount of educational and professional experience and also expect them to follow a code of ethics. 

Search the AD PRO Directory

This helpful tool, which was created by AD editors, is an open-access list of AD-approved architects, interior designers, and importantly, landscape specialists. Homeowners or anyone seeking design talent can search the online platform by profession and location to find the perfect horticulture professional and hire a landscape designer for their next project. 

How can I prepare for the initial consultation?

Once you’ve scheduled your initial interview—which will hopefully be in person so the landscape designer can scope out your outdoor space—it’s time to prepare.

Make a list of questions

You’ll want to come with a set of questions, but keep in mind that the designer or architect should be curious about you too. “It is equally important that the designer also asks good questions. This is a sign that your designer is in tune with you and is listening to your needs. They should want to get to know you, your lifestyle, and family, as well as how you live and entertain and how you want to use your property and outdoor spaces,” says Melissa Gerstle, founder and principal at Melissa Gerstle Design in Dallas. 

Below is a list of questions you’ll want to ask them:

  • What is your approach to garden design and landscape architecture? How would you describe your style?
  • What direction do you envision for my landscape project? 
  • How do you prefer to communicate? How frequently do you update clients? (As Gerstle says, “Once a project begins, there’s a period of silence where the work is happening but it can feel like nothing is happening from the client’s perspective. We inform our clients of what’s going on behind the scenes, even if they are not involved in the progress.”)
  • What is the process for revisions, and how many revisions are acceptable?
  • How do you handle project management and collaborating with contractors and other tradespeople, like swimming-pool installers, outdoor-kitchen builders, and those working on hardscape and walkways?
  • How should we plan for maintenance of the landscape? Can your firm help with that?
  • How well do you know the regulations and laws in my area?
  • What kind of investment will this project require?
  • What is your fee structure? (“Some landscape designers charge hourly for their services, and under those arrangements, many designers will offer a likely range for their fees by project phase. Other landscape designers charge a design fee and markup on plant material, while others may charge a percentage of the total project,” says Benner.)
  • What might the timeline be for my project? (Our experts said that, depending on the project, it could take six weeks for a small backyard patio to a year or longer for a bigger renovation. “The longer time frame would apply to projects involving construction of a pool or a major hardscape remodel. For a major house remodel or new construction, the timeline tracks the length of time involved in the work on the house typically; landscape and planting go in near the end of the construction process,” says Benner. “Retaining walls and work on a new pool can start while the house is under construction.”)
  • Can you share the contact information for recent clients?
  • What’s your favorite recent landscape architecture project?
  • What’s a challenge you experienced recently, and how did you rectify it? (“As with any construction project, unexpected issues can pop up, such as the discovery of hidden underground utilities that might prolong a project. Being prepared for the unexpected and being patient are keys to making the process smooth and less stressful,” says Gerstle.)

Working with a firm like Benner Landscape Design, which completed this “lawn-less” garden in Brentwood, can be invaluable if you're considering a climate-conscious approach.

Photo: Jessica Sample
Bring some inspiration

Whether you want to use a Pinterest board or tear out photos from magazines, it can be helpful to have pictures on hand that resonate with you. “It always helps when clients have concept images of gardens that speak to them,” says Benner. That said, don’t stress if you’re having trouble finding photos. “We tell our clients that some images are always helpful, but if they don't have them, we can provide some to help them think through the process and provide inspiration,” says Gerstle.

Offer a tour of your home

While of course it’s important that the landscape designer walks around your outdoor space, Monji says that you might want to show them the interior as well. “Walk them around and tell them the things that you really like. I get some of my biggest clues this way. If they let me, I even look in their closet to see what colors they wear and their style. Having them explain what rooms are their favorites, what colors they like, things that they don’t like—sometimes knowing what they dislike is more helpful. Maybe they don’t like brick, or they don’t want something that looks too modern. All of that can be really helpful and illuminating for the designer,” says Monji.

Mistakes to avoid when hiring a landscape designer

Our experts see the same pitfalls time and time again—here’s how to avoid them.

Know when to walk away

Your potential landscape designer or landscape architect should come back with a schematic design and concept development, which is the first phase of the landscape design process. If you don’t love their initial master plan, it’s better to move on and interview others. “Pretty soon it should be apparent if the designer’s conceptual ideas for the garden fit with yours. If they diverge significantly and can’t be made to converge with your own, it’s time to start looking for a different designer,” says Benner.

Be realistic

A vision is great, but it’s also important to think through the time and effort that will be required to execute it and stay flexible as you work with your landscape designer. As Houchard says, “Someone might say they want seasonal color, but they don’t necessarily want to be changing things out three times a year. Can you use perennials or flowering shrubs instead? Or maybe you love the idea of something formal, but you don’t want to pay to maintain acres of boxed hedges. Some of this is about maintenance, but this is also why the design process is so important.”

Meet the Designer: From the Ground Up Founded in 2005 by owners Dan Houchard and Ryan Burkhart, the Dallas-based firm offers landscape design, installation, and garden maintenance. Read more…

Play the long game

Speaking of maintenance, you’ll be spending a lot of time and effort planning your new space, but don’t forget about figuring out how you’re going to care for everything once your contractor and subcontractors pack up and leave. Some larger design/build firms offer maintenance as part of their services, while others can make referrals. “We started our company’s garden maintenance division because initially we would go to a project two years later and it would be not maintained well, so for us it was really making sure the vision we created was sustainable and went beyond the planning, care, and design installation, and took it the distance,” says Houchard. “Something can go in beautifully, but you really want it to be enjoyable for decades, and maintenance can make it or break it.”

Houchard says that if your designer doesn’t offer maintenance as part of their services, a solid plan must be created during the design phase. “Identifying who is going to be maintaining it is as important as the design,” he says. Monji also stresses that finding the right irrigation system company is key. “We use a specialty water company that handles all of our installations, and I would say it’s more important to hire the irrigation company than it is for you to hire us to take care of your plants, because if things aren't getting enough water, you aren’t going to have a garden,” she says. 

Look for good vibes

As you speak to potential landscape designers and landscape architects, use your instincts to help figure out if they’re a good match for you. Remember, depending on the scope of your project, you might be spending quite a bit of time with them. “Ask yourself, Do you feel comfortable around them? Are they someone that's trustworthy? Is there a good connection between you—do you like them? If they’re overseeing the installation, they might be in your home for a month or more. So make sure you’re going to look forward to corresponding with them and not thinking, Uh-oh, why are they texting me again?” says Monji. 

Looking for a landscape design professional to help you with your next outdoor project? Browse our list of AD-approved designers on the AD PRO Directory