Jess Stryker's Landscape Tutorial Series

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Landscape Maintenance Specification

Questions & Answers

Topics:

Contract Oversight

Fertilization

Insurance

Irrigation

Mulch

Plant Care

Reviewing Contractor Bids

Yearly Inventory


INSURANCE

Q. Does the contractor really need all this insurance required by the Landscape Maintenance Specification?

A. The insurance is there to protect you. Chances are the contractor has no assets beyond a beat-up truck and a few tools. That means you're the deep pocket if someone falls over a tool he left in a planter and sues. The total dollar amounts are up to you. We suggest you consult an attorney or insurance agent for advice on coverage limits.

Q. The contractor's lawn mower caught a rock and hurled it through the plate glass window on the store. He says our insurance should cover it.

A. Your insurance might cover it, but the contractor is required to pay for the repair or replacement of anything damaged as a result of his operations, so he pays for the window. That's why the Landscape Maintenance Specification requires him to carry liability insurance. You should confirm that he does carry it by requiring that he have current insurance certificates sent to you for each policy. New certificates should be required each time the landscape maintenance contract is renewed or a policy expires.

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REVIEWING BIDS

Q. A contractor bidding on the maintenance work wants to skip some of the things in the Landscape Maintenance Specification in exchange for a much lower price for the maintenance. Should we negotiate a deal?

A. The old saying goes "you get what you pay for". The items we include in the Landscape Maintenance Specification are what we believe is the minimum care necessary to consistently maintain an attractive landscape that appreciates in value. The key is "appreciating in value". Anyone can "mow, blow, and go" for a low price, but the lost value of the landscape itself may be greater than the savings in maintenance cost. It is possible, however, that you can get by with less care than we prescribe in the Landscape Maintenance Specification. We realize that changes may be necessary to completely customize the Specification to your needs. If you do decide to modify the Specification after requesting bids, we suggest that a new, modified copy of the specification be sent to all the landscape maintenance bidders, so they can each have a fair shot at getting the work! Please use a great deal of caution in making changes. Don't be penny wise and pound foolish!

Q. When the bids for maintenance came in, one bidder was much cheaper than the others. Should we accept this low bid or toss it?

A. This is a really common situation, and there are no easy answers. The first thing you need to do is contact the low bidder and question him/her to make sure they are aware of the requirements set forth in the Landscape Maintenance Specification. There are many maintenance contractors who have never had to deal with a bid where the work to be performed was specified for them. Make sure the contractor included costs for fertilizer, soil amendments, weekly weed control, liability insurance, mulch replacement, irrigation system maintenance, and tree pruning. Many contractors don't normally include these important items in their maintenance work. (That's why so many of them are slowly killing the landscapes they care for!) Next, check their references carefully. Does the contractor have any jobs of a similar scale and scope? A lot of maintenance contractors simply don't have a good handle on their costs. One thing is for sure. If they underbid the job and you hire them, you will soon know it. They will start cutting corners and making excuses. Unfortunately, the only way to find out is to hire them. Make sure the contract has a clause in it that will allow you to cancel if the contractor fails to comply with the requirements of the Landscape Maintenance Specification!

Q. Why isn't the contractor required to include in the bid price replacement or repair of everything in the landscape that dies, breaks, or is stolen? The Landscape Maintenance Specification only requires replacement or repair at the contractor's expense of problems caused by the contractor's negligence.

A. One reason is that this makes it very difficult for the contractor to prepare an accurate bid. These things are beyond the contractor's control, so the contractor is put in the position of providing "insurance" against loss. Since risk management is not the contractor's business, he/she adds a large buffer amount to the bid that will hopefully cover any loss. If the contractor is lucky, nothing goes wrong and he/she makes a windfall profit! By not including these unknown costs in the contractor's work, the contractor is able to remove that "buffer" from the bid. You still pay the cost of these losses, of course, but now you pay only the cost of the losses! Also, check your own insurance policies. Many policies cover these items. So why pay out of your operating funds for something your insurance already covers? The second reason for paying for these repairs and replacements as additional work is to force the creation of a record of the repairs. This record allows you to identify and address "problem areas" in the landscape, those areas that every landscape seems to have where problems seem to always occur. Make a sketch of the property and mark the location of each repair. Use a color code, such as a green dot represents a plant that was replaced, a blue dot represents a repair to the irrigation system, etc. This will create a visual guide to problem areas. You may note that the plants frequently die in one area or that the irrigation is often broken in another area. Carefully check these problem areas to see if there is an underlying cause. Perhaps the soil had something spilled on it that is killing the plants, or vehicles are frequently jumping the curb and breaking the irrigation system. By identifying these problem areas and correcting the problems, you will help control losses.

Q. A new contractor just started the maintenance last week, and he just handed me a long list of items he says are missing, dead, or broken, along with a quote for additional work to correct them. What is this all about?

A. When you rent a car, the first thing you do before you drive it away is make a list of all the dents, dings, and broken or missing equipment. The contractor is doing the same thing with the landscape. He or she doesn't want to get stuck with replacing or repairing problems that were not caused by his or her operations. Essentially these are things that fell into disrepair under the care of the previous contractor, and they should be fixed by the previous contractor. Realistically, that probably is not going to happen. The previous contractor likely has his/her money and is long gone, leaving you to pay for repairs. Even if you do get hold of the previous contractor, he/she will probably claim that these items weren't his/her responsibility. In the absence of a contract saying otherwise, it will be difficult to make a claim stick. That's why you now have the Landscape Maintenance Specification that spells out the contractor's responsibilities. Most of the time the owner just has to swallow hard, pay for the corrections, and chalk it up as a lesson learned. If you're lucky, you weren't paying that last contractor much anyway, so maybe you saved enough to cover some of the cost. There is one thing you can do to try and cut your repair costs. If the list of items is long, find several local landscape contractors and ask them to give you proposals for the corrective work. You may get a better deal from a licensed landscape contractor who specializes in installation rather than maintenance. They can often buy plants and irrigation parts cheaper than maintenance contractors can.

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CONTRACT OVERSIGHT

Q. When conducting a regular checkup of the landscape, we noted a missing plant. The contractor says it was stolen this week, but it looks like its been gone a lot longer. How do you recommend that we handle this?

A. The Landscape Maintenance Specification requires that the contractor notify you of stolen or vandalized plants within two weeks of the plant being stolen of vandalized. We recommend that you use discretion in enforcement of this provision. If missing plants are seldom found on your regular check-ups, give the contractor the benefit of the doubt and treat it as an additional work item. If this happens each time you do a check-up, then you may need to get tough. Locate a problem, then wait two weeks to see if the contractor catches it and notifies you. If the contractor hasn't reported the missing or broken items by then, you have proof that the contractor failed to report it. The contractor should be required to make replacement or repair at his/her own expense. This will encourage the contractor to keep better track of landscape problems in the future. Don't allow the contractor to turn you into his/her "problem locator". That's what you're paying him/her to do!  

Q. The contractor just handed me a quote for repair of a minor item. The repair cost is hardly worth the cost of cutting a check. Can't he just absorb a small cost like that?

A. The Landscape Maintenance Specification requires that the contractor make minor repairs at no additional cost. This is a difficult call. The Landscape Maintenance Specification does list some specific items that are to be considered minor. As a general rule, if it can be repaired without a special trip to the site or a major purchase of parts, consider it minor. Repairing a broken sprinkler nozzle would be a minor item, replacing the whole sprinkler would not.

Q. It seems like each week the contractor hands me a request for extra work. Do I need to process these requests weekly?

A. Yes and no. Using a standardized form like the one included in the "forms" section of this software can help. We recommend that you verify the need for the work at the time the contractor makes the request. If it checks out, sign the request form authorizing the contractor to do the work and return it to him. This shouldn't take more than 5 minutes. Often it is important that these repairs be made immediately to prevent further devaluation of the landscape. The contractor should complete the work, then submit the work authorization forms you signed along with his normal monthly billing. You can then verify that all the work for which billing has been submitted has been completed and authorize payment through your normal procedure. A set-in- concrete rule for dealing with contractors is never pay the contractor until the work is completed and has been verified! As you verify the completed work for each form, be sure to record the type and location of the work on your property map as a visual record of repairs. Use a color code, such as a green dot represents a plant that was replaced, a blue dot represents a repair to the irrigation system, etc. This will create a visual guide to problem areas. You may note that the plants frequently die in one area or that the irrigation is often broken in another area. Carefully check these problem areas to see if there is an underlying cause. Perhaps the soil had something spilled on it that is killing the plants, or vehicles are frequently jumping the curb and breaking the irrigation system. By identifying these problem areas and correcting the problems, you will help control losses.

Q. Is there anything else I should do each month before I authorize the contractor's payment?

A. Yes. You should make sure that you have current certificates of insurance on file for the contractor. If they have expired, have the contractor order new ones before you pay him. The contractor requests the certificates from his insurance agent who mails the original certificate directly to you. There is usually no charge for this. If there is, the contractor should pay it. You should have a certificate on file for each policy required.  

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YEARLY INVENTORY

Background: We strongly recommend that the plants be inventoried once each year. The inventory requirement is not included in the Landscape Maintenance Specification because we feel it is better if some-one other than the contractor performs the inventory.

Q. Why inventory the plants every year? That's a lot of work!

A. A business inventories it's merchandise to establish a value for taxation, determine what's in stock, and control theft. The purpose of the plant inventory is similar in some respects. With a landscape, a value for taxes isn't needed, but it is important to know how many plants are present and make sure they're not "disappearing". Most plants disappear over time, and like a child's growth rate, the change isn't readily apparent to someone who sees the landscape daily. The only really effective method to determine that the plants are all present is to count them. Time after time we see landscapes where the maintenance contractor claims to have replaced all the plants that died or were stolen, but after an inventory is completed, it is found that 5% or more of the plants are missing. With a mature value of at least $20.00 each, the lost value of dead and missing shrubs adds up fast! And that's only part of your loss. How about all of the money you paid the maintenance contractor to keep the plants alive?

Q. Can I have the contractor make the inventory?

A. Yes. But you should probably spot check it in a few places. There is the obvious risk of "putting the fox in charge of the henhouse". If you want the contractor to perform the yearly inventory, you will need to add that requirement to the specification. Add the following to the end of section II. "Scope of Work": "The contractor shall make a complete inventory of the plants once each year as part of the maintenance contract. The inventory shall be performed in early spring. The exact quantity of trees and shrubs in each planter area shall be counted and recorded on an inventory form provided by the owner's authorized representative."

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PLANT CARE

Q. The trees are blocking the view of my signage. Can they be topped off so the sign is visible?

A. Absolutely not! Topping off the trees to control growth is like trying to put out a fire by adding gasoline to it. When you cut the top off a tree, the tree puts all of it's energy into growing a new top. The result is that the top grows back twice as fast and twice as thick. The tree is also severely weakened and may become diseased. In a few months the problem is worse than ever. Select "Common Landscape Problems" at the main menu for suggestions on some very effective ways to make signs visible without harming the trees.  

Q. I asked the contractor if he would prune some of the shrubs into animal shapes. He said the Landscape Maintenance Specification doesn't allow him to. Why not?

A. If you like the look of "It's a Small World" at Disneyland, it's no problem. It's just a little unusual. We suggest you purchase topiary shrubs with wire frames from a nursery that specializes in topiary. You really need the frames for the topiary to look right. If topiary appeals to you, go for it! Anything that makes your landscape say, "Hey, check out our store" is a great idea!

Q. Why do replacement shrubs need to be 5 gallon size and replacement trees need to be 24" box size?

A. They don't really. The larger plants will be closer in size to the existing plants in your landscape. In areas where pedestrian traffic passes through planters, 5 gallon shrubs survive better. Fifteen gallon trees work fine in areas where people don't bother them, but the tiny trunks don't hold up well in areas with lots of people walking through. By the way, did you know that if you plant three trees of the same variety, one from a five gallon container, one from a fifteen gallon container, and one from a 24" box, that in 10 years they will all be the same size? It's true! The larger sizes are stunted from growing for years in a container, and take years to recover.

Q. Why double stake the replacement trees? A single stake will easily hold the tree up!

A. The primary purpose of the second stake is to protect the trunk from damage. In some areas where there is a lot of pedestrian traffic, it's not a bad idea to use three stakes as a barrier around the trunk. Do not tie the tree trunk tightly to the stakes. The trunk should be able to move back and forth at least 2" in each direction with the wind. Movement of the trunk helps create a stronger, less brittle trunk. If you tie it tightly to a stake (like the way it was probably staked by the nursery when you bought it), there's a good chance the trunk will snap in half when the stakes are removed. We've seen it happen many times!

Q. Why sterilize the cutting blades on the pruning shears? What do you think this is, a hospital?

A. Picture in your mind 300 India Hawthorns, all dead from fireblight, because it was spread to all of them by a single pair of infected pruning shears. Now, to really appreciate it, visualize paying to replace every one of those India Hawthorns at $20.00 each!

Q. Why don't you include recommendations for chemicals and application rates to control common diseases and pests in the landscape?

A. We are not licensed pest-control advisors and are prohibited by law from making chemical recommendations. Even if we were, blanket recommendations would not be wise due to numerous variables which affect chemical selection and application rates. You should obtain the advise of a local pest control advisor if application of chemical controls become necessary. Where possible, we believe that cultural practices aimed at keeping plants healthy and resistant to pests and diseases are superior to chemical controls.  

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FERTILIZATION

Q. The contractor wants to delete the foliar fertilization. Is this O.K.?

A. The use of foliar fertilizer is generally a faster, more effective method of fertilization and is strongly recommended for young landscapes and replacement plants. It is especially effective for the minor nutrients that are often overlooked in granular fertilizers. The plants can absorb these foliar-applied nutrients directly through their leaves. Any fertilizer runoff is utilized by the roots. Because the plant can directly absorb the nutrients, the results are often immediate, especially if the plants have nutrient deficiencies. Once the shrubs have reached full size, they no longer need frequent fertilization. In fact, for some shrub varieties fertilization of mature plants can result in ugly, woody, growth and loss of leaves. For this reason, we recommend that when the shrubs have filled in the planters, the foliar fertilizations be deleted from the Monthly Maintenance Checklist items. Be sure you request a decrease in maintenance cost from the contractor to reflect this reduced work!

Q. The contractor has asked if he/she can use a different brand of foliar fertilizer.

A. Any brand with the same approximate formulation will do. Be sure that the fertilizer is made and labeled for foliar use. Not all fertilizers can be absorbed through the leaves, and some will burn or kill the foliage. For example, did you know that many of the cotton defoliants used to strip the leaves off of cotton plants for harvest are a form of concentrated nitrogen fertilizer?

Q. Is it really necessary for the contractor to turn over copies of itemized receipts for fertilizer and soil amendment purchases?

A. It is our experience that contractors almost universally short their clients on fertilizer and soil amendment quantities. It is very difficult to monitor application of these items. The only other ways we have found effective are to stand around all morning watching the contractor apply the products and counting how many bags or boxes he uses. If you like the scientific method, you could perform before and after soil nutrient tests! Requiring itemized receipts, while not perfect, is the easiest way we've found to encourage compliance.  

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MULCH

Q. Why the recommendation to maintain a 2" layer of mulch? Wouldn't a thin layer be just as attractive?

A. The 2" thick mulch layer serves several purposes. First, it looks better than bare dirt. Second, it helps prevent compaction of the soil from pedestrians walking through the planters by distributing their weight over a larger area. Third, it reduces weed growth because many smaller weeds can't grow up through the thick mulch layer. Fourth, it reduces water loss due to evaporation from the soil surface. Finally, it helps promote healthier plants. It does this by keeping the top 4" of soil, where almost all of the shrub and tree feeder roots are, cooler in summer and warmer in winter. Mulch also encourages earthworms in the soil, which helps aerate the soil, reducing problems with root rot. Bark mulches also decompose into a product called humus, which assists in nutrient uptake by the roots. Thus, the need to add mulch each year to replace the mulch that decomposed is actually almost as important as fertilizing the landscape. (Note that with some desert plantings rock mulches are used. Desert plants aren't as dependant on large amounts of humus.) A 2" layer of mulch should be considered a minimum. More is actually better, with 4" being a common depth. Think of a typical forest floor. It is soft and spongy if you get away from areas where people have been walking. This is because of the thick mulch layer of leaves and pine needles. This mulch layer is what allows the forest plants to grow on the porous, rocky soil found in many mountainous regions!

Q. If mulch is so important, why is it only required in areas where shrubs or groundcover don't cover the soil? Why not put it everywhere?

A. The shrubs and groundcover create their own mulch from old leaves and stems that settle under the canopy of the plant. The trees would produce their own mulch too, if you didn't need to rake up the leaves to keep them from blowing around the parking lot.

Q. The bark mulch in the planters floats away with each major storm. What can be done about this problem?

A. If the bark you're using is the nugget-type commonly sold in bags at nurseries, try using the shredded type. (For safety reasons, you shouldn't be using nugget-type bark anyway. It rolls when stepped on!) The shredded bark mulches tend to mat together and resist washing away. They are usually made from redwood or cedar bark, as they shred better than fir or pine. Shredded bark usually has to be ordered in quantities of at least one cubic yard from landscape supply outlets. It may be called "walk-on" bark in some areas, but sometimes nugget types are also sold under that name. The best way to identify it is to look at it. The shredded bark pieces tend to be long, narrow, flat, and have hairs or splinters. The nuggets are shaped like, well, nuggets! In areas where lots of water flows through the planters, it is sometimes better to just replace the bark with similar-color crushed rock. The rock should be between 3/8" and 3/4" in size. If people walk through the planter make sure the rock is firm and steady underfoot. It may help to work sand into the gaps between the rocks to help hold them in place. Sometimes more shrubs or groundcover can be added to the planter, so that less bark or rock is required. This is often the best solution in areas where foot traffic won't destroy the plants. On sloped areas where nobody ever walks, you can try installing "bird netting" over the bark to hold it in place. "Bird netting" is a black or green nylon mesh used to keep birds out of fruit and nut trees. Most nurseries carry it in stock. Stake down the bird netting at 3 foot intervals using 6" long erosion control netting staples. These staples can be ordered through most irrigation or landscape supply stores. Never install the bird net in areas where people walk! Use it only on steep, isolated slopes.

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IRRIGATION

Q. Adjusting the watering times on the automatic controllers every week is a hassle. Is there an easier way?

A. Yes, but as you probably guessed, it costs money. However, in areas where water is expensive, it may well be worth it both for savings in water and labor. Automated controllers are available that can retrofit the irrigation system so that it measures the moisture in the ground and only irrigates when water is needed. These retrofit systems are fairly easy to install and don't require the installation of a lot of new wires in the landscape. Contact a professional irrigation supply specialty store for more information. We don't recommend adjusting the controllers less often than once a week. The contractor should be checking out the irrigation system weekly for problems anyway, so it's not much more work.

Q. The contractor gave me a quote for replacing a lot of my old above-ground sprinkler heads with new "spring-loaded, pop-up type heads". What's this all about?

A. In a word, safety. The pop-up type heads retract below ground when the sprinklers are off to reduce the trip, fall, and gore hazard. These pop-up style sprinklers are now the industry standard for safety. Simply stated, the old above-ground style sprinklers are unsafe, do not comply with current industry standards, and are a liability hazard. Lawsuits are becoming an American hobby, this isn't the place to cut corners! It's not a bad idea to find several, local landscape contractors and ask them to give you proposals for the corrective work. You may get a better deal from a licensed landscape contractor who specializes in irrigation installation rather than maintenance. They can often buy irrigation parts cheaper than maintenance contractors can.

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Landscape Maintenance Specification
Text by Jess Stryker
Copyright © Jess Stryker, 2000