Hiring a Landscape Designer in Madison, WI

Landscape design is a process.  Like many things in life, the more effort you put into it, the more you will get out.  Based on years of experience in the industry, these are our top tips for hiring and working with a landscape designer or architect. 

Gather Relevant Site Information

Before talking with a designer, you should compile all relevant information to help the designer understand the site and related considerations. This information includes:

  • Surveys, site plans, house plans, and similar information.

  • Info on deed restrictions, covenants, and other restrictions.

  • Talk to previous homeowners about anything to be aware of. These may include:

    • Buried items/ like old tree stumps or pet cemeteries

    • Soil issues

    • Product information from pre-existing plants and hardscape elements you may want to match

  • If you have any landscapes you really love or photos of your ideas, start compiling them (see our thoughts below on Houzz.com).

At Aspen, we try to make this easy. Our Landscape Client Questionnaire (Download Here) contains a list of these items to think of.

Talk with Neighbors & Check Out Online Reviews

Asking neighbors for a landscaper referral is a good idea because you can see the work they’ve had done onsite, see how the work has weathered, and also ensure that the designer is a good fit to work in your neighborhood.  Some designers are more geared towards modern styles that may not be appropriate in a neighborhood of bungalows, for example.  Other contractors may only have huge equipment that would do a lot of damage just accessing the back yard. 

Online reviews can be great resources as they have become trusted and valuable tools.  Just keep in mind that some of these ranking services require contractors to pay large sums to be listed.  We won’t name names, but you should know that some of these lists, such as “top ten landscaper” and "Advisor", only feature companies that pay hundreds or thousands of dollars a year to be listed.

At Aspen, most of our work is generated through client referrals and repeat business. Some of our clients even share reviews online. We love that our clients are comfortable sharing reviews of our services online, but we don't love the idea of raising our prices to pay for more online marketing. Please realize that if you don't see us listed somewhere online it’s likely due to cost considerations.

Talk to Several Landscape Companies And Start Early

You should really talk with at least three companies/ designers before making any decisions.  Every landscape firm and designer is different and you will learn which service provider most appeals to you only by talking with them (and thoroughly reading their website).  You don’t need to commit to a site visit right away but you should at least chat a bit.

To accomplish this please contact designers well ahead of your desired landscape installation time. If you wait the best designers will all be too busy!  The most desirable designers are often booked out for several months.  The same is true for landscape installers.  Many installers are booked through July before the season even starts in March.  The best may have their entire seasons booked up.  So if you want your choice of installers you should be in communication with them, with a plan in hand, in late winter.

Compounding the issue is the difficulty of truly understanding site conditions during snowy winter weather.  As a designer, I know it’s impossible to get accurate site information with several feet of snow on the ground.  Ideally, you should have a designer come out in mid-fall if you'd like a project installed the following spring.  They will be less busy in fall and can see almost everything on the site. Some providers may even offer a discount if they can measure/analyze the site in fall and complete design work over the winter.

At Aspen, we’re pretty busy all the time between work and family life. That said, we are always happy to chat and let you know about our availability. If we’re too busy to help create a landscape plan, or think another designer (or installer) would be a better fit, we’ll let you know. We generally have good availability for landscape design services over winter. In spring we have limited capacity, but give a call and we can discuss.

Find A Designer You Are Comfortable With

Your landscape is the first thing you’ll see when you look out the window each morning, and you deserve to work with a designer who listens to your thoughts, ideas, and dreams.  Don’t be intimidated by a designer - if you don't feel comfortable sharing your ideas you will never have a landscape that is truly “yours”.  Many design professionals come off as arrogant and may be difficult to really talk to.  They may have good reviews and pretty websites, but are they really the best fit for you?

At Aspen Garden & Landscape we focus on relationships and communication. Most clients really like how we work (just see our reviews). We realize though that we can’t be a good fit for everyone - and that’s okay. Just let us know and we can likely help you find a designer (or installer) that will be a better fit.

Understand That Most Designers Have Specialties

There's no such thing as a “one size fits all” landscape designer.  Some designers focus mainly on new construction projects while others specialize on landscape renovations.  Some designers are more attuned to natural or Asian styles while another may be an expert with a more modern look.  Many landscape architects focus on commercial buildings and corporate campuses rather than the residential scale.  Be sure to ask for examples of the type of work you are looking for to be sure your designer is a good fit.

Keep in mind that most frustrations and cost-overruns happen when a designer or contractor is working outside of their normal comfort zone - They simply don't have the experience to understand everything that goes into a different project type.

At Aspen, we focus on residential Landscape Renovations. Most projects start when an older home has a new homeowner or when a home addition is planned. We are well equipped for these projects and have the experience and knowhow to ensure your project runs smoothly. Another specialty is Solving Grading Issues - especially regrading / water management around existing homes. With all of our projects we keep sustainability in mind.

Regarding general landscaping - Sure, we can do the rest but we’re not as experienced with new construction or large commercial jobs.

If you are interested in talking to one of our past clients, just let us know and we’ll make the connection. Contact Us

Understand The Landscape Designer’s Process

All designers work differently and it’s critical to understand how they work if you want to have a low stress process.

Some designers charge by the hour, others may provide designs for “free” if you promise to work with them on the install work (you’ll pay for it one way or the other).

Some designers will have a design done in week - it may be "cookie cutter”, but it will be done and it may suit your needs.  Some designers may take months and deliver a comprehensive stack including design details, elevations, and sketches.  

Some designers will hand draw and maybe even color your drawings while other designers prefer CAD drawings (computer drafted) or even 3D design options. Since we all have visual preferences and see things through our own lens one of these options may be more preferable to you. 

Some designers will meet with you to review initial ideas/ options and may call or email to ask for input throughout the process.  Other designers may create a final plan based exclusively on the information gathered at a single meeting.

There are numerous other considerations. Read their websites, ask questions, review a copy of their design contract & ask to see examples.

At Aspen Garden & Landscape, our collaborative design approach is based on carefully gathering the right information from the outset and being as collaborative and available as possible throughout the process. We love to share ideas and quick sketches along the way to be sure we’re on the right track. We feel this ensures the best end results and the most comfortable process for our clients.

We generally request a reasonable fee if we anticipate spending more than a few hours on initial design work. Sometimes we get so inspired with an idea that we’ll wake up in the middle of the night and just start drawing and researching ideas - in that case we’ll just share our initial ideas gratis.

We often take “baby-steps” with clients to be sure we’re a good fit and the client isn't getting overcommitted. This establishes a good level of comfort without committing to a “full design package”.

You can learn more about our typical design process (here). Rest assured - we can cater our design services to your needs.

Share All Of Your Ideas With Your Designer… In An Organized And Thoughtful Way!

As the saying says, “garbage in, garbage out”.  The more ideas and thought you put in on the front end, the better the end result will be.  And always remember - nothing adds more time and expense to a design than last minute changes to the goals.

At Aspen Garden and Landscape we realize you are busy. So are we. That’s why we’ve created a design questionnaire to better understand your goals, ideas, and dreams. By completing this document before meeting with your designer you will ensure they have a good documentation on what you want and can spend your meeting time developing a better understanding of the site and your personal style rather than simply scribbling notes. Our questionnaire is thorough and reduces the chance of missing any helpful information along the way.

You can Download our Landscape Client Questionnaire for free (here).

We also use Houzz Ideabooks. Houzz is a great resource for finding ideas and photos from top designers and craftspeople around the world. Ideabooks are a simple, fantastic way to organize and share photos and notes with a designer (or friends and family). Photos can be organized by category with notes below each photo. Once you find a few photos you like, the process becomes easier because the Houzz software begins to understand your preferences and suggests similar ideas.

You can see one of our Houzz Ideabooks (here). Pretty Cool, Huh? A designer can start an Ideabook with their ideas or easily be added as a collaborator to an ideabook you’ve created. Ideabooks really make it fun to look at options and allow you to guide, refine, and better envision the final result.

For Couples, Share BOTH Of Your Opinions...And Be Honest About Your Differences Of Opinion

Unless you share your individual ideas, and are open about the areas you disagree on, a designer can’t creatively solve the differences or weigh in on them.  Let’s face it - you can love someone dearly, but disagree entirely when it comes to your dreams for the back yard.  A good designer can often devise a compromise, or explain why one idea may be preferable for budgetary, functional, or aesthetic reasons. 

At Aspen, our training in landscape architecture didn’t include any coursework on marriage counseling - but sometimes we wish it did! Thankfully, our training did instill problem solving skills and years of working with clients has taught us how to manage tricky situations. We always enjoy the challenge of creating a landscape that everyone can agree upon.

Remember, you have to live there - not us. Please be open and honest on the client questionnaire and any other thoughts you share.

Be Honest About Your Budget Expectations

This is critical yet many homeowners aren't comfortable with sharing a budget.  I guess they think that a designer will simply overcharge them if they state a higher budget than necessary.  The fact is that professional landscaping costs more than most people anticipate and a designer needs a good idea on your budget to create a design that is realistic for you.  

At Aspen, the last thing we want to do is design a back yard oasis, get your hopes up, and find that it is simply an unattainable mirage with a price tag beyond your means. We prefer the idea of under-promising and over-delivering!

If we know your budget we can often find creative ways to make your ideas work. We can phase a project over several years, we can use smaller plant materials or specify less expensive materials. We can even work to complete the hard parts of the project and let you complete the more simple “DIY” type projects. Perhaps you have a teenager at home (or in the neighborhood) that could gain some understanding about the value of hard work?

Consider The Value of Design/Build

Simply put, a design/build firm is a landscape company that will both design & build your landscape.  The value of this is clear:

  • There’s only one business to vet and hire.

  • You will work with the same people throughout the process.

  • There are no confusing “hand-offs” or issues of responsibility if something isn't perfect.

  • A Design/ Build firm has a better ability to estimate actual install costs during the design phase and provide an actionable plan.

At Aspen, we’ll design it, we’ll build it, we’ll help maintain it, and if you invite us, we’ll even share a beer and a story there too once it’s built.


If you’d like to chat, click here to set up a time.

To download our landscape client questionnaire before we talk - please click here .