Landscape Design: Do it yourself or hire it done?

January 27, 2010 Print Friendly and PDF

Author: Ann Marie VanDerZanden, Iowa State University[1]

Creating a landscape design for the front or backyard of a residential lot may well be within the capability of many homeowners. However, the perspective and experience of a design professional can greatly enhance the quality of the landscape design.


Landscape Services

Landscape design and planning services are offered through a number of landscape professionals in a variety of ways. Some nurseries and garden centers provide a free landscape plan if plant purchases are made, while others grant rebates based on a minimum purchase of plant and hardscape materials. Landscape plans that are offered for "free" should be looked at with caution. While some may be thoughtfully designed and offered as an extension of other services, "cookie cutter" plans that do not adequately match site conditions with well-adapted plants may limit the plan's long-term usefulness and sustainability. Such plans should be discussed with the designer to ensure they adequately address each individual situation. Landscape design services are also available for a fee. Landscape architects and landscape designers normally charge by the hour,plus expenses, or a percentage of the cost of project materials. Having a plan drawn by someone without financial connections to the source of plants or installation services has its advantages. By viewing landscape design as an investment and a service where you “get what you pay for,” homeowners can begin to better understand the importance and benefits of quality design.

Professional landscape plan (Image credit: Steve Rodie).

The need to hire someone with additional expertise varies by the landscape design project. Small scale, one-acre or less, residential designs may be relatively straightforward and manageable by a homeowner. While larger scale projects that require substantial site manipulation or installation of features like a swimming pool, large retaining wall, driveway or detached garage will require assistance from a professional. The scale and complexity of the project will often be determining factors in the decision to seek professional assistance.

One of the first steps is to decide what kind of help is needed and then find the industry professional who can provide it. Designers have a wide variety of backgrounds, skills and education. In general, most have received some formal education in design, but experience also plays an important role in design expertise. Table 1 summarizes the educational training, type of design assistance provided, and focus of expertise for a number of types of industry professionals.

Landscape Professional Interview Questions

Most states have registration and/or licensing laws that determine the type of services and conditions under which an individual can provide landscape plans; however, registration doesn't guarantee quality or satisfactory workmanship. The following list of questions are issues to discuss when interviewing companies or individuals:

  • What is the company's average size project?
  • How long has the company been in business?
  • Are they familiar with the environmental conditions in your area, including locally adapted plants?
  • What are their areas of expertise? Are they experienced with the type of project you have in mind?
  • Do they provide installation supervision if they do not install?
  • Are estimates and/or designs free? If not, how do they bill? (hourly, percent)
  • Are quoted prices fixed or estimates? How do they bill for plan revisions?
  • How will you be billed? What type of payment do they accept?
  • Can they provide a list of references or recent clients that you may contact?
  • Are there any established properties you can go see?
  • What certifications and/or degrees are held by the owners, managers and workers?
  • Who will be your main contact for additional questions and concerns?

By asking questions directly related to a specific project, the homeowner should be able to determine not only what type of assistance is needed, but also how the skills and experience of the design professional meet his needs. Spending a little extra time at the beginning of the design process -- either with a professional or by researching and brainstorming -- will result in a landscape that meets the homeowner's needs and expectations.

Landscape Professional Education and Expertise Summary

Table 1
Landscape Designer, Garden Designer
  • Residential (all scales, usually small to medium)
  • Focus on design with plant materials
  • Associate’s or bachelor’s degree; no formal education required
  • No registration; wide variety of expertise and skill levels
Certified Landscape Designer
  • Residential (all scales, usually small to medium); commercial (small scale)
  • Focus on design with plant materials
  • Associate’s or bachelor’s degree
  • Certification through Association of Professional Landscape Designers; granted upon fee payment and submission of professional work portfolio
Landscape Architect
  • Small- to large-scale residential; commercial and institutional landscape and site design
  • Well-versed in site development, including land-form manipulation such as grading, drainage, erosion control and master plan development
  • Bachelor’s or master’s degree
  • Registration by State Board of Landscape Architects; registration requirements vary but most states require testing and professional experience.
  • Small- to medium-scale landscape design
  • Focus on plant information and cultural/maintenance practices for vegetable, fruit and ornamental plants; also expertise in plant insect and diseases, native and/or adapted landscape plants
  • Associate’s through doctorate degree
  • No certification
Certified Nursery Professional
  • Residential (all scales, usually small to medium)
  • Focus on design with plant materials
  • No formal education required
  • Certified through state Nursery and Landscape Associations; granted upon completion of professional training and examination on landscape design
  • Plant identification and garden center products/sales information
Certified Landscape Professional
  • Residential (all scales) Commercial (small to medium)
  • Focus on planting and hardscape construction
  • Varied design expertise (usually defers structural designs to architect or engineer)
  • Associate’s or bachelor’s degree; no formal education required.
  • Certified through state and national Nursery and Landscape Associations; granted upon completion of professional training and examination
Landscape Contractor
  • Residential (all scales)
  • Focus on planting and construction
  • Associate’s or bachelor’s degree; no formal education required
  • No registration; expertise may be in construction but not design; may be best suited to implement plans from others
Structural Engineer
  • Large scale projects
  • Focus on structural design (buildings, retaining walls, earth fill)
  • Often collaborates with architect or designer to obtain structural design objectives
  • Bachelor’s or master’s degree
  • Registration by state Board for Professional Engineers; requires testing and professional experience


  1. Ann Marie VanDerZanden, Professor of Horticulture, Iowa State University.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.