Do your homework before hiring landscape help!

(A guest post by Rich Guggenheim. You can see Rich’s bio at the end of this post.)

When it comes to shopping, my friends all know it takes me a long time to make a decision. I methodically research out what I want. Then I narrow it down to a few items. After I look over my choices carefully, I may go home to get on the internet and look at consumer reviews; I may go from store to store and check out prices. I look for quality and I look to make sure I am getting a product that is worth the money I am spending on it. I want to make sure my investment will last. Sometimes, my shopping experience will last hours, days, or in the case of a car or computer, it could be months.

My yard is no different. When I need yard work done, such as lawn aeration or tree trimming, I am insistent on high quality work. As a homeowner you are the first and the last line of defense when it comes to making sure that a quality job is done, and done correctly! Knowing what to expect in landscape maintenance and being armed with a small amount of knowledge as a consumer can play in your favor.

Always hire a certified professional to do your work. Would you seek medical advice from an individual who was not licensed to practice medicine? Of course not! Why then would you do it with your yard? I recommend that you check into the individual or company before hiring them. Do some homework. How have they been trained? Where is their certification from? Are they insured, licensed, and can they provide you documentation? Are they registered with the Better Business Bureau? If so, what is their rating? Drive around and check on some of their previous work. Is it the kind of quality you would want in your own yard? Ask for references. Ask questions! This is, after all, a job interview for the contractor. Just because they are the cheapest does not mean they should get the job, and just because they slap a business magnet on the side of their pick-up truck does not mean they know what they are doing!  In the following I will be talking with you about what to look for when hiring a contractor to do yard work and how certain procedures should be done. Armed with this knowledge, you will be better able to ensure the work done in your yard is of the quality you deserve for the money you pay.

Lawn aeration is perhaps one of the best things that you can do for your lawn. Done twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall, core aeration combats soil compaction. Soil compaction is a problem in nearly 80% of all landscapes. In addition, aerating your lawn helps combat thatch accumulation and reduces the amount of water you need to apply to your lawn. The reason for this is because when your soil is compacted oxygen and water can’t penetrate into the soil. Fertilizer can’t get penetrate the soil either. As a result, roots are often shallow, and the lawn will need more frequent irrigation. (1, 2, 3, 4)

Core aeration removes small plugs, about 1-3 inches long from the soil. A single aeration using a machine with 1/2-inch diameter tines removes as much as 10 percent of the thatch if enough passes are made to achieve average 2-inch spacing between holes. Remember the key is 2-inch spacing. This may mean that multiple passes on the lawn are required. This small investment of an extra $10 will pay dividends in the end.

What do you do with the cores after you have had the lawn aerated? That really is a personal decision. Some people do not like the little plugs being left on their lawn, although there may be benefits to allowing them to disintegrate into the lawn again.

If you do decide to remove them, they are great for the compost bin. Other options may be to power rake the lawn after aeration, watering, or simply running a lawn mower over the lawn after you aerate (although this practice will cause the blades on your lawn mower to dull). Once you have aerated your lawn if you need to reseed, this is the optimum time to do it. The best part of reseeding now is there is no need to top dress the lawn, as the lawn seeds will have nice little holes in which to germinate!

Another type of aeration being marketed by many lawn care companies these days as a replacement for core aeration is liquid aeration. While different ingredients make up this popular lawn service, the main ingredients seem to be liquid humates (organic matter) and sodium lauryl sulfate (soap). These are nothing more than snake oil remedies and are no substitution for the real deal of removing the plugs from your lawn by core aerating. There is no scientific research which has shown chemical aeration to be effective. You may as well throw dirty dish water out on your lawn. (5)

The thing to remember from all of this is that you want to have your lawn aerated twice a year; in the spring, and again in the fall. The plugs removed should be 2-3 inches long, and on 2 inch centers, which may require multiple passes on your lawn.

Tree pruning is something I take seriously. It is a science which should not be left to a novice and is far more than could be covered in one article. For me, spotting a bad tree pruning job is as easy as spotting a bad haircut. The only difference is a bad hair cut grows back and has no adverse side effects on your health. However, a pruning job can have enormous effects on the health of a tree, either for good, or for bad. When you hire an arborist, make sure they are ISA certified, licensed, and insured. To find an ISA certified arborist, visit their website.


The key points for a good pruning job really come back to structurally pruning the tree correctly when the tree is young. Improper or lack of pruning when the tree is young can greatly increase the likelihood of tree failure when the tree is older. Cuts on branches larger than 4 inches increase the possibility of decay and disease. If possible, prune trees when the branches are smaller than 4 inches in diameter.

When pruning trees, it is important to prune the branch back to the branch collar. Don’t leave stubs, or what I call “hangars” where you can hang your coat. Leaving these nubs will cause decay and disease to move into your tree.

The last key component to pruning is to always remove a smaller branch back to the parent branch, never the other way around. When you remove a parent branch, unless the wood is dead, you greatly increase the risk of beginning the downward spiral of death and decay in the tree. While this is great for less reputable tree-trimming companies who will have to come back year after year to remove an ever-increasing amount of dead wood from the canopy of the tree, it is hard on your pocketbook; more importantly, your tree’s life is shortened! By knowing some pruning basics, you can ensure that you are hiring a professional who knows what they are doing, and will extend the value and life of your landscape.

  1. Carrow, R. N., B. J. Johnson, and R. E. Bums. 1987. Thatch and quality of Tifway bermudagrass turf in relation to fertility and cultivation. Agronomy Journal, 79: 524-530.
  2. Dunn, J. H., D. D. Minner, B. F. Fresenburh, S. S. Bughrara, and C. H. Hohnstrater. 1995. Influence of core aerification, topdressing, and nitrogen on mat, roots, and quality of “Meyer” zoysiagrass. Agronomy Journal, 87: 891-894.
  3. Erusha, K. S., R. C. Shearman, and D. M. Bishop. 1989. Thatch prevention and control. Turfgrass Bulletin, 10(2): 10-11.
  4. Murray, J.J., & Juska, F.V. (1977). Effect of management practices on thatch accumulation, turf quality, and leaf spot damage in common Kentucky bluegrass [Poa pratensis]. Agronomy Journal,(3), 365-369.
  5. Lloyd M. Callahan, William L. Sanders, John M. Parham, Cynthia A. Harper, Lori D. Lester and Ellen R. McDonald.Cultural and chemical controls of thatch and their influence on rootzone nutrients in a bentgrass green.Crop Science, 1998 38: 1: 181-187. doi:10.2135/cropsci1998.0011183X003800010030x

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Rich Guggenheim is a consumer horticulture educator with the University of Idaho in Canyon County and is the program director for the University of Idaho Extension Master Gardener volunteer program. Rich is also working on a Ph.D. in plant pathology. Rich has been an horticulture extension agent for Colorado State University, horticulturalist for Disney Parks, and is the host of the weekly “Avant Gardener” radio program in Boise. He can be reached at richg@uidaho.edu

3 thoughts on “Do your homework before hiring landscape help!”

  1. Thanks for the tip to make sure a company is licensed and insured before hiring them. I’ve been looking for some landscape maintenance help, so these tips will really help me find a service. Thanks for sharing these useful tips on what to look for when hiring landscaping help.

  2. Regarding pruning, the following comment does not reflect the current national standards or best management practices: “The last key component to pruning is to always remove a smaller branch back to the parent branch, never the other way around.” What is described is the difference between a removal cut (removing a smaller branch to the collar) and a reduction cut (reducing the larger diameter branch to a smaller lateral). Reduction cuts are frequently the preferred approach for a number of pruning objectives. The current professional standards make this clear. For example, structural training of young trees often requires subordinating co-dominant stems to favor a single, strong leader – this is achieved with reduction cuts. Similarly, reduction cuts can be used on long limbs on older trees to reduce the risk of failure without making larger removal cuts. The pros and cons of each type of cut should be understood. A skilled, ISA Certified Arborist should know the difference and when its appropriate to apply each treatment. Its very misleading to say that reduction cuts should “never” be used.

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