Do I need a professional landscaper to plan my backyard?

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Putting up a few hanging plants and planting whiskey barrels with geraniums will certainly brighten your outdoor living space, but when you're ready for a landscape makeover, it's time to call in the big guns.

Hiring a professional landscape designer or landscape architect—depending on your needs and the scope of your project—could be one of the best and most beautiful investment decisions you’ll ever make. And it can be an investment indeed. According to the American Society of Landscape Architects, one rule of thumb for planning a budget for major landscaping is to allocate 5 to 10 percent of your home’s value. To put that guideline in context, research from Virginia Tech shows that landscaping can represent 15 percent of your home's overall worth—plus the plants, trees and shrubs of a landscaping design literally grow in value over time as seedlings become mature plantings. That's the closest you'll ever get to a true money tree!

Since you might be spending a substantial amount on improvements, you want the eye of someone who knows how to "paint" with plants and hard structures to create the oasis you're looking for. The more complex your vision for your outdoor space, the more important it is to hire a properly trained and experienced landscape specialist. Are you looking for a pro to select plantings and flowers for the area around your deck? Then a garden or landscape designer could be the professional for you. Do you need a designer to envision the deck itself and all the other hardscapes, like a water feature, as well as appropriate landscaping—in other words, an entire outdoor living environment? Then a landscape architect might be the best choice. (For more specifics on the credentials of these designers, see the FAQ, "What is the difference between a landscape designer and a landscape architect?")

Think of a landscaper just as you would an interior designer for inside of your home. In the words of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, landscape designers are skilled practitioners of fundamental design concepts—proportion, unity, balance, perspective, color and texture—who can realize a fully integrated design. They have a comprehensive knowledge of plants so that you get the right plant that grows to the right size for the right place in your garden. They can maximize the land you have and design components that work together and flow from one into the other. And they can make the space not only suit your tastes, but also your ability to maintain it whether you want a low- or no-maintenance outdoor room or a garden concept you can nurture and build on. Whatever your vision, a landscape pro can turn it into a reality.

As always when choosing a specialist for a project, meet with a few candidates whose style you love. Talk to satisfied clients for references and to see how well they stick to a budget and a schedule. Then ask to see renderings of what they'd propose. It could be worth a small fee to see the concept on paper before you commit to a contract and a long working relationship.

Above, a garden at Riverbend, the Wisconsin estate of Walter J. Kohler, who commissioned architect Richard Philipp of the Milwaukee firm of Brust & Philipp and the world-renowned Olmsted Brothers (their father Frederick Law Olmstead created New York's Central Park) to design the home and grounds in 1923.