There is one question every homeowner has probably asked themselves at some point: should we hire a professional to do this project, or should we do it ourselves? For the most part the answer depends on the skill/experience required to do the work, the amount of labour required, and the available budget. Changing lightbulbs, fixing cupboard fittings, or installing a new product from a DIY store are usually all DIY projects. But when it comes to larger projects like plastering or painting walls, installing windows, doors or cupboards, or tiling a floor, most homeowners will engage professional help. And for projects that involve electrical work it is of course best to hire a qualified electrician, since there might be multiple factors that are not obvious to the average homeowner, but which are important for safety and compliance.
When it comes to hiring professional help, there are a number of ways to approach it. For painting a wall, one could find a reliable painter and hire that person directly, in which case the homeowner becomes the 'project manager'. For more complicated work, such as installing a security system, the homeowner might engage a small company specialising in that particular system, in which case the company will likely bring a small team and their own project manager (usually the owner) to run the project. Larger projects, such as major construction work - perhaps requiring civil engineering - might require a larger company.
So, there will always be different skills/experience/labour requirements depending on the scope of the project. And when it comes to gardens and landscaping, the same is true. Projects such as creating a small vegetable garden, planting some shrubs or trees, or potting up plants, are usually DIY projects. Apart from the cost saving, it can be rewarding knowing your time and effort has gone into your new vegetable garden. And of course, there is the excitement of wandering through your local garden centre on a Saturday morning selecting your plants and materials from the endless options available - it's surely more exciting than wandering through a mall!
Modular vertical gardens such as this are sold as DIY kits and can be fun DIY projects
But when it comes to larger projects, such as renovating an entire garden, the homeowner may start wondering whether they should be hiring professional help. Like any project, landscaping comes with its own factors and nuances that are important to get right, so depending on the scale of the project, hiring a landscaper might be worth your while. Design, soil preparation, plant selection and placement, not to mention all the hardscaping decisions that need to be taken into account are important factors to consider, and shortcuts early on during a landscaping project can be costly later.
It's also worth mentioning that unfortunately many people can attest to having hired professional help and it still went wrong, or at least wasn't done to their satisfaction. The best advice is to do your homework on the professional you intend to hire, speak to their references, have a look at their Facebook page or website, and read their reviews. And then, if possible, start small or split the project into manageable phases. A large garden doesn't need to be done in one go, and once a professional has started working you will get a sense of how they work and the quality of their work, before you spend any more money on them.
Below is our opinion on when you should DIY and when you should consider engaging a landscaper.
When to DIY:
Small vegetable garden
Projects such as a small vegetable garden, are ideal DIY projects. The multitude of vegetable garden planters and accessories at a garden centre makes this a rewarding project, not just for you but also family and friends. You can select the styles and colours you want, and perhaps add some new/innovative DIY products - like a mini-irrigation system. And then of course there are all the vegetable varieties available in trays or in seed packs - the options here are almost limitless.
A small garden for fun or experimentation
Designing your own small garden is fun and rewarding, and allows you to experiment without spending too much money. Start by gathering ideas from books, magazines or the internet, or even a show garden (*see our note below on this), and then design and install the garden yourself or with the help of your gardener. A small project such as this will also mean you will only have to make a small number of trips to nurseries or other outlets to gather the material you need. Small gardens can also be changed as and when required, perhaps seasonally if you are using annuals, without too much expense.
*Note that if you are going to use a show garden as your reference keep in mind that show gardens are usually over-planted, often with the plants still in their bags. There is nothing wrong with this if a show garden is your goal, but for an established garden it is best to choose your plant material and quantities based on the plant's full-grown height and width.
Planting a few shrubs or trees
We sometimes get asked by homeowners to assist with purchasing and planting a few shrubs or trees, and we usually refer homeowners to their local nursery. The reason is that some nurseries have their own planting teams, so the homeowner can save costs by going direct to the supplier. Alternatively, one could dig the holes yourself, or with the help of your gardener, ask the nursery to deliver, and plant the trees or shrubs yourself. Planting your own trees or shrubs is rewarding and will help you save costs. Placement, size of the hole, compost and perhaps fertiliser, are of course all important, but these are steps your nursery can help you with. Obviously though if you are planting trees with the intention of upgrading the garden, then hiring a landscaper first is beneficial, as they can plan the exact position of those trees in the context of the new garden.
A DIY water feature
Water features add a new element to your garden, allowing you to add the sound of water to your home, as well as water plants, and perhaps even fish depending on the size of the feature and the quality of the water (circulation/aeration/filtration etc.). Water features in general are higher maintenance; keeping them topped up and clean, and keeping the pump in working order all take time and effort. But if installed and maintained correctly the benefits of a water feature usually outweigh the demands for most homeowners. Most garden centres have water features in different shapes and sizes, and in different materials (e.g. concrete/fibreglass), so again one can visit your local garden centre and choose one that works for you. A bit of labour to dig the hole (depending on the feature), and a bit of plumbing work for the pump, are often all that's needed to get a DIY water feature up and running. And if you are going to install your own water feature, try to choose one that fits the aesthetics of your home, as well as placing it in a location where you will get maximum benefit from it, such as next to a seating area.
We sometimes get asked to assist with lighting for a garden - usually with the placement of lights - but unless it is in conjunction with a garden makeover, a lighting upgrade can be managed by yourself and an electrician, or by yourself only if you are using solar lights. Placement of lights, number of lights, and type of lighting is obviously important, but it doesn't necessarily require professional landscaping help. Most landscapers will in any case hire an electrician to install garden lighting for their clients, so if it is only lighting you want you can save costs by working out the position of your lights and contacting an electrician directly. If you want to know how many lights you need for your garden, and where to put them, consider placing candles in glass jars and moving them around your garden at night to see how they look. For accent lighting, place torches beneath your focal trees and hardscaping features. Once you've found the right positions engage an electrician to put cabled lights in, or try DIY solar lights. We should mention that solar garden lights are a low cost option, but we still prefer cabled lights for our clients. Solar garden lights require adequate sunlight to work optimally, which might be fine if you have a very sunny garden, but for gardens that have shaded areas cabled lights are preferred.
Placement of garden lights can be done with a little bit of practicality and creativity - here a bollard doubles as lighting for a bridge and a dry riverbed, whilst accent lights illuminate the Tree Aloes, enhancing their status as focal points
Felling of large trees isn't a DIY project, but we're mentioning it here because as with lighting, if you're not going to be redoing your garden then tree felling doesn't necessarily require professional landscaping help. A large tree that it is damaging your property, or trees that have died, can be dealt with by going directly to a professional tree felling company, or a professional arborist. These professionals will assess the situation (health of the tree etc.) and advise accordingly. If you are going to be redoing your garden then yes, it would be worthwhile contacting a professional landscaper first and working with them to plan the removal of the tree and subsequent upgrade of the garden.
When to hire a landscaper:
A new garden
Landscaping a new garden is hard work, especially if the garden is large. How large is a difficult question to answer, and depends on a number of factors. Our smallest gardens are usually around 20-25sqm, whilst our large ones might be a hectare or more. Whatever the size, most clients agree that they couldn't have done it on their own, or at least didn't realise how much work was involved. Design, soil preparation, contouring and drainage, plant placement, plant species, type of lawn, type of edging for the lawn, irrigation (if required), and types of hardscaping materials such as gravel or rocks all play an important role in turning an ordinary garden into a beautiful one. Other factors also play a role: sourcing of plants in bulk at wholesale prices can save you costs, not only for the plants themselves, but driving around trying to find them. And what about the wildlife? As wildlife-friendly landscapers we aim to create wildlife-friendly gardens that attract birds and butterflies, and the multitude of other beneficial insects that might visit a highveld garden. Plant selection in this regard is important, so thinking these things through are important in the design phase.
A garden makeover
As with landscaping a new garden, garden makeovers are just as difficult, and sometimes even more difficult - some existing plants might have sentimental value! Design is an important step for a new garden, but it isn't always possible for an existing garden where the design may already be existing and just needs to be adjusted. In makeovers where the design will remain the same, hiring a landscaper is useful because they will most likely apply their knowledge and experience on the job. Should an existing shrub be removed or cut back? Can existing plants be split and replanted? Is there a drainage problem, or problem with the soil, or a diseased plant - something that wasn't evident in the initial consultation? And what about training your gardener on how to maintain your garden? Not all gardeners know how to maintain an indigenous garden, so having a professional landscaper train them during a makeover can save you years of frustration and costly mistakes. If you are simply trimming shrubs and trees, or doing a general clean-up, then a garden maintenance company should be able to help you. But for a full garden makeover hiring a professional landscaper is worth your while.
Lots of hardscaping
Hardscaping refers to paving, edging, rocks, gravel, water features, and any built structures that form part of your landscape. If you are wanting a lot of hardscaping in your garden - say a firepit/boma, decking, or paving, gravel or rocks, then hiring a professional landscaping team can save you costs. Most landscapers have relationships with hardscaping suppliers, and these relationships come with discounts that they can pass on to you. Additionally, hiring a landscaper to manage the hardscaping quantities will ensure that you are not left with extra materials at the end of a project, such as too many bricks or too much gravel. These items can be used by the landscaper for their next projects, but if you have purchased them, you might be stuck with extra/unwanted stock for years to come. As with plants though, a major benefit of using a landscaper for your hardscaping is their knowledge of the industry: the latest trends, latest products, which suppliers have quality products and materials. We often bring samples of our supplier products for our customers to choose, from suppliers we know and trust, and this saves the client time and money and results in a better outcome for the project.
A natural pond/water feature
As with lighting and tree felling, this is one of those 'grey areas': do you need a landscaper for your new water feature, or should you contact a pond/water feature expert? The answer is 'it depends'. If the water feature is part of your new home construction - e.g. it adjoins the house, then most likely your architect can design it and engage the builder or a water feature professional to install it. If, however, you are planning a new pond/water feature to enhance your garden, then a landscaper can help integrate the design into the garden. A landscaper will look at the water feature in the context of the garden - its shape and size, how it integrates with existing pathways, seating areas and other features, how the water plants (if it is a natural pond) will complement the existing planting in the garden. So a landscaper in this instance will be worth your while. What's more, if it is a natural pond, it will add a new biodiversity hotspot to your garden, allowing you to experiment with a vast variety of water plants and attracting new creatures such as dragonflies, frogs and birds. This is something that should excite every wildlife-friendly landscaper!
We have left this one for last, since - as we have mentioned before - we prefer not to install irrigation for our indigenous gardens. An indigenous garden should mimic nature, and as far as possible rely on rainwater for its water needs. But there are scenarios where irrigation is useful, or even vital, such as newly planted gardens, vegetable gardens, herb gardens and orchards, rose beds, or large lawn areas that you want to keep lush and green.
If you do want irrigation for your garden, keep these important points in mind: Firstly, less is more; i.e. underwatering is better for your garden than overwatering. And secondly, it's worth paying that little bit extra to have your irrigation system installed correctly. There is nothing more annoying than an irrigation system that constantly leaks or the electrics give trouble, so quality materials and a well-planned installation are important.
In terms of whether you should hire a landscaper for your irrigation system as opposed to an irrigation-only company, that would depend on where the irrigation is to be installed and what your plans are for the garden. If you are installing it for a vegetable garden, or for existing lawn areas that you are not going to change, then an irrigation-only company is fine. If, however, you are looking at upgrading your garden, and are therefore installing the irrigation to cater for the changes, then engaging a landscaper first is preferable. Your new garden - or existing one - might have different planting zones with different water requirements, so a landscaper can factor these areas into an irrigation design and install it accordingly.
We hope this answers some of your questions regarding DIY vs professional help, but if it doesn't please leave your comments in the comments section below.