There are a number of general categories of landscape professionals in the industry and understanding the differences between them will determine which professional is most appropriate for your project. Before hiring any landscape professional, it is best to review work that they have already performed for past clients and their portfolio.
LA's have training in creative and technical skills to design grading, irrigation systems, layout of drives, paths and other hardscape features, construction details, and planting plans. The LA may work purely as a designer and consultant, or he may work for a design/build firm which is set up to carry the design through to completion. In Illinois, there is a law that states that in order to call oneself a landscape architect, one must have a four-year degree from an accredited university and have passed a national exam. In addition, once registered by the state, an LA must maintain his registration from the state by paying a periodic fee. Registration is not, however, necessary to practice landscape architecture, and many LA's choose not to maintain their registrations. Furthermore, the field of landscape architecture is broad. LA's may specialize in subdivision layouts, corporate and university campuses, town centers, shopping malls, wetland mitigation, or residential design. In fact, residential design is only a small portion of the field. If you hire an LA, make sure he has sufficient experience in residential design.
LD's are every bit as diverse as LA's. Some are 'unregistered' LA's; others limit themselves to designing perennial gardens. There are a great many in between. Many LD's have degrees in related fields, such as ornamental horticulture, art, or architecture (or landscape architecture). Most LD's have good plant knowledge, and can lay out paths, drives, patios, and simple drainage. Some are very design-driven, while others work on a sales commission. Many LD's are in the employ of garden centers or landscape contractors. Landscape Designers' abilities vary, depending on experience, education and background. If possible, it is always best to visit past projects and talk to their references. See if they are members of professional organizations like the Landscape Design Association or certified members of APLD (Association of Professional Landscape Designers). Membership in these organizations indicate a commitment to professional standards and development.
This is the guy (or gal) who installs the design. Sometimes a contractor will install a plan according to the specifications provided by an architect or designer. In a design build firm, a company will provide the plan, the equipment and expertise to install the project. Many companies specialize in different areas of installation from container gardens to garden beds, hardscape patios, landscape lighting, native restoration and so on. Some landscape contractors are capable of installing hardscape items like walks and patios in-house, while others sub-contract it out. Others still would rather stick to things they know best, which may be limited to planting design and installation.
A distinction must be made here between landscape contractors. There are those that install new landscapes or renovate older ones, and there are those that specialize in maintenance. Landscape design build firm are generally are more expensive than firms dedicated to maintenance for a good reason. Their work requires a range of experience and equipment to insure proper installation of a design. Companies that do both installations and maintenance generally have different crews for each function. The point is that the guy who cuts the lawn may not be the ideal one to install your new landscape.
Garden centers focus on the retail customer and do-it-yourselfer. Usually they have a better selection of plant variety and quality plus a staff that can make recommendations about your purchase. However, some do have landscape divisions which can provide design and installation services.
An arborist is a tree care specialist. The two types of arborists are working and consulting. Consulting arborists are just that. Many are members of the American Society of Consulting Arborists, which is a selective organization. They charge a fee for their advice. Working arborists are those who provide services like pruning, bracing, cabling, fertilizing, and spraying. They can also remove trees and grind the stumps. Some states require licenses for arborists. In addition the International Society of Arboriculture certifies arborists who meet certain requirements and pass an exam.
How do you decide which professional is best for your project?
The best way is to check them out. Ask for references, and contact them. Ask to see some of their work; if you cannot see it in person, then at least ask to see their portfolios. Keep an eye open for successful projects and find out who is responsible. Of course, a reference from a friend is helpful. You can arrange a site visit with a professional and find out if they provide consulting services. Whether or not a professional will charge for a visit depends on the company. If their time is paid for, they are likely to share all of the ideas they come up with while speaking with you. You can decide for yourself whether or not those ideas are to your way of thinking.
Check with local and national trade organizations such as the Landscape Design Association (LDA), Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD), American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), or the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association (ILCA).
Copywrite Tim Thoelecke, Jr., APLD, ASLA