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MORE THAN 'MOW, BLOW & GO' FOR A FEW EXTRA BUCKS, LICENSED LANDSCAPERS CAN MAKE SURE YOUR YARD STAYS IN THE GREEN.

Byline: Christina Uss Correspondent

John and Joanne Tuell and their children enjoy the healthy green grass and shady trees of their Granada Hills yard. And like many families, they prefer to hire a professional to keep that grass green and those trees trimmed.

``Our back yard is like a park, with full-size trees and bushes,'' says John, an attorney. ``The last thing I want to do on the weekends is to spend all my time working out in the yard. I mowed enough lawns as a kid.''

Instead, Northridge-based SK Landscape Design handles the Tuell family's mowing, weeding, pruning, replanting and tree-trimming.

According to the American Nursery & Landscape Association, 17.4 million households in 2003 planned to hire a professional to provide landscape, lawn and tree-care services. California is a particularly competitive market for landscape and gardening companies.

``Ten thousand state-licensed landscape contractors represent just the top of the pyramid in California. No one knows how many are doing it on a small scale, or without a license,'' says Larry Rohlfes of the California Landscape Contractors Association. California law requires contractors be licensed by the state if they charge more than $500 for their services.

The first step in choosing the right gardening service is determining your own needs. There are many inexpensive ``mow-blow-and-go'' workers who will zip through basic yard work in 30 minutes once a week, servicing as many as 15 to 20 homes in a day. But if you need advice on plants, or are concerned about water conservation and fire safety, you'll want a trained, licensed contractor.

Also, consider if you want to be involved in the planning of your yard maintenance. Marcia and George Friedman of Valley Village actively communicate their desires to their gardener of 20 years, Jose Abarca of Five Stars Gardening in North Hollywood.

``I tell him what I want, and we go from there,'' says Marcia Friedman. ``For example, we keep a calendar and tell him what we want fertilized and when. I'll buy flats of flowers and tell him where I want them planted. He's very reliable.''

Five Stars' prices start around $60 to $80 per month for an average lot requiring a two-person crew, and the Friedmans pay $150 per month for regular weekly maintenance of the lawn, flowers, plants, trees and hedges on their half-acre property.

Next, have a realistic budget in mind. For once-weekly maintenance, expect to pay $60 to $80 a month for basic mow-blow-and-go service, or $85 to $125 for the services of a licensed contractor. Before choosing a gardener on price alone, consider that you often get what you pay for.

Steven Kinzler of SK Landscape Design is a licensed contractor and CLCA member. Kinzler usually charges $90 to $125 per month for weekly visits by a three-man maintenance crew and also sends out a field supervisor several times a year to ensure each job is done right.

When a potential client tells him, ``I only pay my guy $60,'' he lays out the math: ``The amount you're paying ends up as $13.90 per week for three guys, plus gas and maintenance on their vehicle and equipment. It's less than minimum wage. Do you think they want to stay there and pull out every weed?''

Nelson Colvin, a director of the local CLCA chapter, says hiring a licensed contractor provides savings in the long run.

``Contractors often have their employees certified. CLCA gives a hands-on Certified Landscape Technician test twice a year,'' he says. The test certifies workers as qualified to handle pesticides and fertilizers, operate equipment, understand irrigation and identify plants. ``You can bank on consistency. That's your savings in the long run,'' Colvin says.

Richard Angelo, a licensed contractor and owner of Stay Green in Santa Clarita, also urges customers to consider hiring professional landscapers.

``The unlicensed mow-and-blow companies don't provide protection for the client like basic liability insurance or workman's comp. They rely on your homeowner's insurance to pay for any accidents or problems. To them, it's a job, not a career. To (licensed contractors), it's a profession - we enjoy taking care of the landscape, bringing beauty and serenity to people's lives.''

With so many gardening companies to choose from, shop around and don't settle. Abarca's son, Jose Jr., who began working full-time for his father last year, says Five Stars Gardening has been successful for 25 years by ``keeping the customer happy.''

When you know what you want and what you're willing to pay, first look at your neighbors' yards. If you like what you see, ask who does their gardening.

``If a company is already working in your neighborhood,'' says Kinzler, ``chances are they'll give you a good deal.''

He says much of his business comes through referrals. ``Also, people will see us working in their area and come ask about services. A clean, visible image is our best advertising.''

How to hire a gardener

Before hiring a gardener, the American Nursery Landscaping Association suggests finding out:

--Is the gardening service a licensed business? Does the company have liability and worker's compensation insurance? You may also ask if employees have completed any certification programs or belong to industry associations.

--Do employees appear professional, arrive on time and use clean equipment?

--Does the company offer all the services you require, from mowing, edging and weeding, to color rotations, insect/disease control and irrigation?

--How are their communication skills? Find out their anticipated work schedule and any warranties for plants that die as a result of conditions within their control.

--Can they provide customer references and referrals? Visit a few sites similar to your property and inspect the work and talk to the owners if possible.

The California Landscape Contractors Association maintains a directory of local, licensed gardening and landscape companies. You can search its Web site at www.clca.org, or call (818) 366-8567 for a referral. The CLCA will confirm a company's licensing status and steer you toward contractors within your budget. Expect a free estimate and references from any CLCA member.

- C.U.

CAPTION(S):

4 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) Carlos Almerez of SK Landscape Design mows the lawn at a Northridge home.

(2 -- color) Licensed contractor Steven Kinzler, owner of SK Landscape Design, makes sure things go right at a Northridge client's home. His company charges $90 to $125 per month for gardening service.

Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer

(3 -- color) Rui Abarca of Five Stars Gardening weeds around a tree in Panorama City. The company charges $60 to $80 per month.

(4 -- color) Jose Abarca Jr. of Five Star Gardening prunes some potted plants.

Andy Holzman/Staff Photographer

Box:

How to hire a gardener (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 30, 2005
Words:1112
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