Hiring a landscaper? Avoid pain with this checklist

Large lots are hard to find and very expensive in South Tampa, but Stacey Whidden and Kurt Handwerker lucked out when they found a neglected waterfront home on a half-acre of prime waterfront real estate. But they weren’t so lucky when they hired a landscaper — and another and another — to execute their vision of a tropical backyard paradise.

They went through several and Stacey learned a lot along the way. She created a terrific checklist for anyone hiring a landscaper or any other company to work on your yard or home. (Check out the fruits of her labors in this tour of her garden.)

backyard of Florida mansion, cerulean blue tiled hot tub in foreground, matching couches, swimming pool in background, christmas palms, bright, sunnyHiring a contractor? Avoid losing money, and your temper,      by using Stacey’s terrific checklist.

Stacey Whidden’s hiring checklist

Interview your builder/subcontractor. 

That’s right, just like any relationship you enter into, you     need to talk and exchange information. Be informed!   Choose the best one for you! Some conversation topics for   you to ask for suitor contractor/builders:

  • What other businesses do you own?
  • Who are your partners and/or investors? (Get names!)
  • What businesses do your spouses and children own?
  • What is your license number?
  • Are you insured? Do you have workers compensation?
  • How long have you been doing business in my county?
  • Do they have any pending lawsuits judgments or liens? If so, explain.
  • How is your credit?
  • Are you okay with me calling some of your previous clients from the last 10 years?  (Ask for names and numbers, then call some randomly. See 3b. below)
  • Are you a member of the Better Business Bureau?
  • Are you current with your taxes or have any IRS liens?
  • I’d like to see a sample of a bill: What is the billing cycle? How do you bill?  If you have subcontractors, how often do you bill them, How do they get paid?
  • How do you handle complaints from customers?
  • How are things to be handled if one of your subs does a bad job?       orange and purple orchid blooms, plants tied to Christmas palms with fishing line, close-up of blooms with palm trunks
  • Do your get lien waivers from your subs?
  • When I pay, will I get a lien payment from you?
  • Please show me a sample contract.

Search the state license registration. 

Search each partner/investor and individual family members. In Florida, visit Sunbiz.org. Document every name listed on the business registration.

Conduct a “public record” search.

Search for the government website for your city or county, not only for the business name, but for every person listed on the registration.

Clerk of the Circuit Court, Hillsborough County, Florida

http://www.netronline.com: The data presented on this website was gathered from a variety of government sources and allows you to look up county websites across the country.

Check with the Better Business Bureau. 

http://www.bbb.org.  Is the business you are considering hiring accredited by the BBB?

Use a private investigator and/or background check/criminal records search.

There are a number of online resources to allow you to do background checks.  Here are a couple:

If this is a sizable project, use a private investigator.

Hire an attorney.

Building a new home or remodeling your existing home may be one of the largest investments you will make.  Protect your rights and assets and have an attorney look at the contract before signing.

Ask for photos of other completed projects. 

Beware of website picture galleries.  Yes, some people use stock photos to “represent” their work – beautiful pictures of homes they never worked on. Ideally, the homeowner of the sample photos is also a reference willing to speak to other clients about their experience.

The inspiration behind Busch Gardens’ new topiaries

How did this 1901 bronze candlestick …
1901 bronze candlestick art nouveau inspired topiary at Busch Gardensbecome this?

topiary in the works of giant woman ladder leaning against her eyeJoe Parr, director of horticulture at Busch Gardens, Tampa, spotted the art nouveau candlestick while shopping antique stores — a pasttime he loves.

“I was hoping that she would be beautiful, so she embraces a watery looking glass,” Joe says of The Spirit of Spring, one of many new topiaries created for Busch Gardens’ new Food & Wine Festival, running weekends now through April 26.

Joe started planning the topiaries for this event nearly two years ago, taking his cue from “things that amused and inspired me along the way.” One of my favorites is Topiarazzi, which I can only guess came from watching park visitors.

5 topiaries life-sized men with cameras, kneeling and standing

Meet Winston, Jack, Otto, Cecil and Joe, who’ve been brought alive with 2,500 plants, including red, yellow, green and white Alternanthura and green creeping fig.

Florida sealife also captured Joe’s imagination. Here’s a Florida octopus in progress.

half finished giant octopus topiary surrounded by ladders

And the finished product!

night view of giant octopus topiary at busch gardens

“There are a handful of plant workhorses for topiary in Florida: Alternenthera, creeping fig,  wax begonias are some of the major species. Succulents are great for added texture and color,” Joe says. “The bigger the topiary the more varieties you can use.”

Wanna try this one at home?

giant coiled topiary snake, dark green, yellow, red

Passalong Florida plants & memories

hummingbird zooming toward bright red blossoms of firespike. crimson tubular blooms on a brown stem with dark green oval leaves that come to a point

I asked Tampa Bay Times readers and fellow gardeners to share their favorite Florida passalong plants — hardy, easy-to-grow veggies, perennials and trees — and the memories that came with them.

Wow. So many great stories! It was like coming home with way more new plants than places to grow them.

Several ran in the Sept. 21 Times — here are a few more. (Sadly, even a blog post can get too long, so I couldn’t share all I received. I enjoyed every email. It was like Christmas!)

Most of these are wonderful plants for your Tampa Bay garden. The photos were supplied by the gardeners, including the great shot, above, of a hummingbird zeroing in on a firespike, by Doreen Damm of New Port Richey.

Here’s her story:

Co-worker nectar

I worked for Kathryn at Hallmark for 11 years and we always ended up talking about gardening. Several years ago her husband took it upon himself to clean up her garden and cut her firespike bushes to the ground.

“I have a great plant for attacting hummingbirds, I can’t believe you don’t have one,” she told me.

She dug up some of the stubs and I planted them in my garden. They became an instant hummingbird favorite.

Kathryn moved out of state a few years ago, but when I pass by the firespikes,  now 6 feet tall,  I think of her.

When co-workers leave, they always say, “We’ll stay in touch!” but that rarely happens. Thanks to our shared love of gardening, Kathryn and I have actually grown closer! 

Bread and roses

rustic brown sign, post is a thick brown branch topped with an engraved wooden sign that reads Elijah Paul Duncan Garden

Susan Mallett Eckstein did a beautiful job telling her 94-year-old mother’s story of passalong inspiration. Her mom is Frances Mallett of Port Richey.

The carved wooden sign in my front yard reads, “Elijah Paul Duncan Garden.”  The story behind that sign tells of a long-ago
friendship, love of plants, and making a home where your flowers grow. 

In the mid 1950s, E. P. Duncan, an avid fisherman, pulled off Highway 19 at my husband’s bait and tackle shop, The Outpost, to buy supplies and get the scoop on the local fishing hot spots.  E.P. — “Sarge” — had recently driven from tiny, oval shaped white buds with pink to red tips of shell ginger. cluster of more than a dozen buses on a single stem California in a homemade truck camper to find a friendly small town where he could afford to live on a retired military pension. New Port Richey fit the bill

My husband and Sarge soon became friends. He was a frequent guest at family dinners and a fishing buddy for our oldest son.

 I had always been a practical gardener, focusing mainly on growing vegetables. It was Sarge whose small trailer was surrounded by beautiful flowers, who encouraged me to grow  flowering plants. He shared cuttings, potted plants, and seeds. I was hooked!

Sarge  told me that I was always to share plants with others so that they might experience the joy  of gardening.  Today,  I share cuttings from a gorgeous pink plumeria, brilliant blooming bromeliads, mysterious night blooming cereus, shell ginger (pictured.)  

The “Elijah Paul Duncan Garden” sign reminds us of family memories, of love for a man, his love of growing things, and the passing along of plants to others so that his legacy continues into the future.

Old eggs don’t stink!

If no one else has it, we love it! Lori Pacheco of Gainesville, Ga., got her “scrambled eggs” from Betty Montgomery of Scotts Hill, Tenn.

scrambled eggs plant, bright yellow blooms with five ruffled petals surrounding a swollen center. Foliage is green stalks like tall, wide grass blades

Lori writes:

Betty has the farm across from my family’s farm — 1 mile away and our closest neighbor.  When I went up for a visit a couple years ago, I noticed her unusual yellow daffodils. She told me they were scrambled eggs

“They’re not all that purty,” she said. “But they’re old-fashioned and nobody else has them anymore.” 

So, I wanted them!!

(From Penny: I found plenty of references online to this heirloom daffodil also called ”butter and eggs.”  Most were gardeners looking for bulbs or talking about their own plants, descended from century-plus-old gardens. Dixie Gardens, a Louisiana daffodil lover, offered “rescue Bread and Butters” from a construction site, but they’re’re sold out. For future reference, Dixie Gardens says the botanical name is Narcissus x incomparabilis var. plenus Butter and Eggs, and recommends them for zones 5-8 and “upper 9 with afternoon shade.”)

 Jungle love-hate

bromeliad with wide green leaves, about 3 inches across, growing in a V shape with rede fluorescence in center. Bloom is tall, thin red stem with numerous thin red branches tipped with pale green

When you can’t squeeze in one more plant — or deal with taking care of one more — sometimes one more is just what you need.

This is from Anne-Marie of Palm Harbor:

We have lived in our house for 36 years, so we have lots of roots!  Seven huge Spanish oak trees and lots of plants — it’s a jungle.
After a long time with very little planting– too little space and a hard time maintaining what I have!  — a good friend who has mastered the art of the jungle gave me this beautiful bromeliad. It can take care of itself!
I planted this bromeliad in the last possible little spot and … it bloomed! It was the ultimate compliment for the gift of giving and the pleasure of receiving.
(From Penny: Ann-Marie didn’t identify this bromeliad and I’m not crazy enough to try. If you know the name and shoot me an email, I’ll update this post. And thank you!)

Garden potluck

Tanja Vidovic is a 30-something Tampa gardener obsessed with spreading the love of growing your own edibles. (Find and share freebies on her popular Facebook page.)  Easy passalongs are her favorites. Here’s daughter Kalina with one of her favorites.

Little girl, about 4 years old with flowered dress and sandals, stands in front of a banana tree with her hand on one of about 15 green bananas in a bunch

Tanja writes:

I love all plants that are shared and gardeners the most giving group of people I’ve ever met! The best grow so easily, they almost ask you to share them with others. They’re also able to be harvested quickly and produce enough to share with all your neighbors.

That said, my favorites include sugar cane, cranberry hibiscus and bananas.

In-laws — they’re part of the family!

Janice Vogt  grew up in Seminole Heights in Tampa. But she’s rooted, by marriage, in Arkansas. She writes:
My mother-in-law brought these four o clocks from her childhood home in Arkansas. They were in her grandmother’s garden.
She lived to be 101 years young. I always loved the yellow ones and now I pass them along to others.
Four 4 o' clock blooms, two large in foreground, pale yellow flat flowers with five petals and short, orange-tipped stamen at center. surrounded by dark green oval leaves that come to a point
Me again!
My garden is full of passalongs. Fifteen years ago, I bought most of my plants. Today, at least half — and those I love best — are from seeds, cuttings or small rooted plants shared by generous gardeners.  Look for plant swaps and garden club meetings. Heck, don’t be afraid to knock on a door and ask a homeowner for a cutting. I’m always flattered when that happens!

U-pick your bouquets (for cheap) at this Michigan flower garden

blooming purple phlox, hand lettered small sign on stake, "Purple phlox 10 for $3.50"

I’ve done u-pick-em strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. But u-pick-em flowers? And on the honor system?

Omena Cut Flowers is the big surprise and happy highlight of my northern Michigan vacation this week. I stumbled on Carolyn Faught’s garden of phlox and sunflowers, foxglove and lilac bushes,while en route to one of the many wine-tasting rooms on Leelanau Peninsula, the “Napa Valley of Michigan.” We passed this sign and I warned the kids, “We’re stopping there on the way back!”

U-Pick Flowers sign and hand-lettered Bouquets to Go sign in front of perennial bed with pink, yellow flowers, green foliage

Good kids that they are, they were game.

My hub and son are visiting my daughter, a Florida native and now veteran of a “real” winter in Cadillac, Mich. The kids and I took a road trip yesterday to Leelanau, about 70 miles north of our Cadillac cabin.

I’ve been wanting to experience wine country since reading “Dial M for Merlot,” a great first novel by Tarpon Springs wine aficionado and funny guy Howard Kleinfeld. That book will give you the itch!

The road along the shore of Lake Michigan took us past vineyards, farms, and elaborate estates. And Carolyn’s lavish garden.

Garden with tall purple phlox predominant, yellow sunflower type flowers, hostas, arbor and more plants in background

A few miles later, we reached the tasting room that had been recommended — Leelanau Cellars. (Terrific, by the way. Tastings are free and they have a wide variety; we sampled 17 and left with half a case.)

from left, young woman, young man, middle-aged woman, casual dress, drinking from wine glasses, bottle of Leelanau Cellars Summer Sunset wine in foreground

So, we were in pretty good spirits when we headed back to Carolyn’s u-pick flower farm, but we would’ve been just as nuts about it without the vino! She has more than 40 varieties of perennials and annuals in 24-or-so beds. A charming potting shed welcomes visitors with everything they need for cutting, preserving and transporting.

white potting shed with window and flower box, doors open, table with empty milk jugs, on lawn in front of large, white wooden house with porch, flowers in foreground

Those are cut-down milk jugs on the table. Carolyn also has free jars and inexpensive vases — 50 cents to $3 — in the shed.

row of glass, thrift store vases, yellow price stickers on wooden shelf

 

shed door with chalkboard signs, Always Open, Change Box + Scissors in Shed, Bouquets to Go in Fridge, Flowers Marked by Row, Honor System. Large pot of yellow, red, purple annuals on step

As the sign says, it’s all on the honor system. No one was around to monitor when we visited. Carolyn says she hasn’t had a problem with people not paying; in fact, they often leave extra.

“People who pick flowers have the greatest karma,” she says. (I agree!)

Gray lock box with hand-lettered "please pay here" sign, two hand-written notes above "Honor system" and "Feel free to use the house" mounted on unstained wooden wall

Carolyn, now 58, says this is the 16th summer of her u-pick. She started it after picking up a bouquet of sunflowers at a farmer’s market for a co-worker going through a divorce.

“When I got back to the office, everyone said, ‘Where did you get those? I want some!’ But the market was sold out,” she says. “It gave me the idea that I could fill my entire front yard with flowers for people to pick any time they want.”

She’d hoped it would allow her to be a stay-at-home-mom, but that didn’t pan out. She still works four days a week as the communications director for Leelanau County’s land conservancy. In the garden, her husband, Dave, helps with the heavy lifting; 15-year-old son Will makes all the to-go bouquets, and Sam, now 24, used to make deliveries.

Carolyn says she has no complaints.

“It’s a lot of work, but I love gardening, and people love it so much. They leave me incredible messages in my guestbook: ‘You made my blood pressure go down’ and ‘This has made our day!’ Families come  back here year after year, taking pictures of their kids in the same spot. It’s just pure joy.”young caucasian woman, dreadlocks, brown and blonde hair, holding bouquet of pink, yellow and red cut flowers and basket

My baby girl picked this bouquet, which cost her $2.85 and gave us all priceless joy. It’s a sunshiny centerpiece on our otherwise very plain cabin kitchen.

Omena Cut Flowers is open dawn to dusk from April through November.

 

If it’s almost spring, it’s almost time for lubber grasshoppers (ewww!)

The other day, I got an email from a gardener friend. The subject line was, “Coming to your garden soon …”

Bill usually sends me photos of beautiful new plants he’s discovered, so I opened his mail with happy anticipation.

I was NOT happy when I saw not flowers, but this:

green black and yellow lubber grasshopper

Although this grasshopper doesn’t look exactly like the Eastern lubber grasshoppers we get here in the Tampa Bay area, it was close enough to make me recoil in horror.

For years, my garden was infested with lubbers — thousands of them every summer! The grasshoppers we get are even bigger than the one in Bill’s photo, and lots uglier. They serve no useful purpose that I’ve been able to find and trust me, I’ve tried!

Here’s what our Eastern lubbers look like:

eastern lubber grasshopper, facial photo, green, yellow black and red on jacaranda tree. looks mean

I usually start seeing the babies in March (hence Bill’s nudge-nudge). If you don’t know what they are, you may think the nymphs are cute. A friend of mine once posted a photo on Facebook with the comment, “Look at all the sweet crickets!”

nymph eastern lubber grasshoppers, black with yellow stripe, swarming new growth on a plant

Not!

I don’t care how innocent they look, these babies need to die! They grow up to be armored monsters that spit, hiss and eat your garden, starting with your favorite plants. Once they’re adults, the only way to slay them is man-to-mandible warfare: Smash them with a rock, snip them in half, stomp them.

They’re so hard to kill, normally gentle gardeners come up with creative ways to send them hopping into the next world.

Andy Carr of Spring Hill uses a Dust Buster for the nymphs.

man using dust buster to vacuum eastern lubber grasshoppers from plants in flowerbed lining a lanai. dog watches from inside lania

“I can collect a hundred or so in it, maybe more, until the battery is dead,” he says. “Once we have them in the Buster, my wife holds the small garbage bags, doubled, and I dump ’em in, tie ’em off and sooo long you ugly little plant-eating varmints.”

Norm Smith, a “Mad Men”-style retired advertising guy, turns them into dioramas.

“I try to come up with outrageous themes, something a grasshopper – particularly a lubber – would never be caught doing, like scuba-diving,” he told me back in 2011.

He drops them in a jar of alcohol and leaves them there for weeks so they’re preserved. Here’s the lubber diorama he made for me. (My doppelgänger has lost her legs while swinging on my bookshelf these past three years.)

eastern lubber grasshopper with wig clothes diorama in swing on tree newspaper and potted plant When I first started writing about my lubber problem a few years ago, a couple readers suggested I try  Nolo Bait. It’s not an insecticide in the traditional sense. Rather, it’s an organic bait you sprinkle around your garden, and it doesn’t affect other bugs. If the nymphs eat it, they die. If adults eat it, they’re rendered impotent.bag of nolo bait. drop-out of package

The results aren’t immediate, but I love the stuff.  I’ve used Nolo Bait for three years and my lubber population is down from thousands in a season to a few dozen.

When I first started buying Nolo Bait, I had to order it online. Now, I think a few local shops carry it, but the only one I’m sure of is  Shell’s Feed Store, 9513 N. Nebraska Ave.. Tampa

Owner Greg Shell is taking orders early (and no – I don’t get a cut of the sales for recommending Shell’s).  Since Nolo Bait relies on live organisms, it has a short shelf life, just 13 weeks. Greg’s offering customers who order before March 15  a 10 percent discount because the short shelf life and whopping customer demand once the lubbers appear make it hard to keep it in stock. He doesn’t like having frustrated customers when he’s sold out. (I’ve been one of those!)

Greg has some helpful tips for making your Nolo Bait last longer, including creating feeding stations to place around your garden. That’s what I do, because rain will ruin the bait.

I assure you, it’s lots easier using Nolo Bait than chasing giant grasshoppers with rocks and snippers all summer. Although, if you’re into art, you may prefer the Norm Smith method. His dioramas are loads of fun!

Florida gardeners can find inspiration in … Montana!

What do Florida gardeners have in common with gardeners in the upper reaches of Montana?

More than you’d expect!

rusted bedspring being used as a trellis for a vine. close-up view of X's and O's in the springs

At Angie’s Greenhouse in the northwestern corner of Montana, just outside Glacier National Park, I found beautifully repurposed junk. Owner Angie Olsen is a wizard. I love the X’s and O’s of  this old box-spring (above) turned trellis.

green, red and orange heirloom tomatoes in a basket

She also likes heirloom fruits and vegetables. This basket of tomatoes sat among the plants Angie had on sale (great marketing!)

I often think we here in Florida have it tougher than other parts of the country. But when I saw this product, I realized we ALL have it rough.

white box with red and green letting, Plantskydd Repellent for deer, rabbit and elk

In Montana, gardeners do not rely on boxed deterrents alone!

vegetable garden surrounded by fence made of red posts and screen with deer antlers on top

Whenever I travel, I’m on the lookout for native wildflowers. They’re beautiful and many have a great back story. Fireweed was all over the place when I visited in early August. It’s edible, medicinal (need a laxative?) and pretty.

purple flowers fireweed, clusters of lavender blooms on a tall sake

At East Glacier Park. we visited the Glacier Park Lodge and found this wonderful cottage. A sign in front says “private residence.” It’s the home of Ian Tippet, who has worked at Glacier Park since the 1950s. (He talks about what he does to prep for summer on his Facebook page.)

dark brown cottage with bright red trim in northern Montana near Glacier National Park. flowers tin roof. summer perennials

Need a reason to visit Glacier National Park? This is Lake McDonald after a super rainy day.

mo lake mcdonald I love the yard art! Drive through the neighborhoods wherever you travel, and you’ll be entertained. We found this guy while cruising the neighborhoods surrounding Whitefish, Mont.

metal moose sculpture, life-sized, blue green and gray, moose sculture in whitefish, Momntana

Finally, you don’t need a fishing license to toss a hook into the many streams in Glacier National Park. My husband and I enjoyed a thoroughly heady afternoon (ah, the view!!) on a trout stream along Going to the Sun Road, Eventually, we were joined by a black bear (surprise!) and a wonderful family — the Grindlings.

Elliot, 8, and Simon, 6, were high-energy, non-stop explorers until two other young bucks became as curious as they were. All four stood stock-still for several minutes, checking out the wildlife.

mo boys bucks

(I’ve entered this photo in the national park servce’s viewer-votes driven contest — http://www.sharetheexperience.org/entry/12728181. If you want to vote, I won’t complain!)