How much should I pay a gardener in Oakland? Help me not kill everything
January 31, 2021 10:42 AM   Subscribe

We purchased our first home six months ago. It had nice landscaping when we arrived, and we were given the bad advice that it didn’t need much support from us, other than infrequent watering. Now, six months later, it’s starting to look a little rough. There are large boxwood hedges that I’ve learned are really hard to trim on my own because they’re about 11 feet tall. There are roses, bougainvillea, agapanthus, pampas grass and a white oleander tree. Truly lovely six months ago. Now everything is less green and has less flowers than it did before. The boxwood hedges filled up with dead leaves in the center of them, which doesn’t seem good. The pampas grass shriveled and looks dead, but I think can be revived. The oleander has no flowers and the leaves are looking a sickly yellow. I obviously don’t know what I’m doing, and I want to get some help with this before I ruin all of it. I’ve had some people come out and give me quotes of around $500-700 just to trim back the hedges. And most of these people have given me the impression that they might not know much more than I do about how to make the plants happy and healthy. These prices seem completely insane to me. Is this normal? How do I care for all of the plants on my property before they all die without going broke? How much should I expect to pay to get help with this? I both need someone who can trim the hedges and someone who has good knowledge of what stuff needs to grow and be happy.
posted by buddylove to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This would actually be a good question for Nextdoor, tbh.
posted by aramaic at 10:48 AM on January 31, 2021 [3 favorites]

Routine landscaping (ie weeding, leaf blowing, etc.) in Southern California is about $20-40/hour. A typical single family home might need an hour a week. YMMV.

Bigger one off jobs involving trees, hedges and removal of waste obviously cost much more. Trimming hedges involves a huge amount of waste that needs to be removed. 11 feet hedges involve a ladder so are probably a two person job. If it’s a short hedge it’s probably half a day’s work, plus an hour of driving and possible fees to get rid of the waste. So $500 doesn’t seem crazy to me.

Just because you can do something yourself, doesn’t mean it should be cheap (especially in the Bay Area!)
posted by caek at 10:57 AM on January 31, 2021 [3 favorites]

I live in Oakland, I'm a hoticulturalist, and I have worked as a professional gardener for years.

I would expect to pay a minimum of 35 dollars an hour per person for a good gardener that knows plants. As you pointed out, lots of people with a truck full of power tools are happy to call themselves gardeners without any horticultural knowledge. You'll be able to find people who work for less, but I can tell you they won't be very good.

I would call Berkeley Horticultural Nursery and see if they have recommendations.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:58 AM on January 31, 2021 [11 favorites]

Also bigger company does not necessarily equal better, so keep that in mind when interviewing. There are lots of great plant people in the East Bay because of Merritt College's horticulture program.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:02 AM on January 31, 2021 [3 favorites]

And fwiw it sounds like something is up with your irrigation system. Be sure to ask any prospective gardeners about irrigation troubleshooting experience.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:03 AM on January 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: When you say $35 an hour, how much time should I expect to pay for? We have a small corner lot.
posted by buddylove at 11:13 AM on January 31, 2021

I will share with you my shame: I am a homeowner in San Diego. I have a few plants, mainly succulents but my strawberries are excellent. I have come to murder so many more innocent plants in my yard, simply because of this: I didn't take the time to become educated in their needs. ("It's a cactus! Give it sun and a little water! What's the deal?")

I have come to realize, over the years, that these plants depend on me to care for them. I was irresponsible. "Just put 'em in pots! They'll be OK!" is NOT the right way to care for your garden. You need to educate yourself and consider their needs. This might be obvious to you, but actually considering the needs of my plants changed me.

And I say all of this because I believe that just passing on the responsibility to your landscaper is wrong. Of course, employ a landscaper, by all means! But they are your plants, your care, not just decorations.
posted by SPrintF at 11:25 AM on January 31, 2021 [3 favorites]

Definitely ask for recommendations on Nextdoor (or just ask your neighbors in person). Because we're in a severe drought, the plants probably need more than infrequent watering, recent rains notwithstanding. (Also, if you add any new plants, go for drought-tolerant to help save water/make them easier to care for.)
posted by pinochiette at 11:52 AM on January 31, 2021

When you say $35 an hour, how much time should I expect to pay for? We have a small corner lot.
If you’re talking about routine maintenance, we pay for an hour a week, which is enough to hold back the tide in our “low maintenance” desert planting garden (no lawn). It may or may not be enough for your garden but we found an hour a week is a lower limit. It’s not worth their time to do less.

A landscaping crew is fine for this if you know what you want. But it sounds like maybe be you don’t, so talking to a horticulturalist or designer might be money well spent.
posted by caek at 12:24 PM on January 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

Others have addressed the cost of landscaping, but I would add that it is January, and all the flowering plants you mentioned don't flower year round. Even in Oakland winters, I would expect these plants to die back some. Pampas grass is classed as an invasive species in California, and overwintering will not kill it; many ornamental grasses die back in winter and are often cut back almost to the ground in late winter/early spring.

It sounds like you have a good understanding of what type of plants you have; you will need to pay someone to care for them well throughout the year, or you will need to learn more about what the plants require and do it yourself. Some combination of the two might be the best option. If you have a local horticultural society, you could ask for help from them, as they are likely to be very knowledgeable about local conditions and provide advice on specific plants.
posted by sizeable beetle at 12:32 PM on January 31, 2021 [6 favorites]

how much are you watering now? how often, how many minutes at a time?

First of all, don't freak out - it sounds like a bad CA drought year and inexperience has stressed out your plants pretty bad but some winter dieback is normal and probably they need water first and foremost and that is fixable. Everything but the roses you listed is fairly tough. Winter and early spring is normally when things green up again but that depends on rain; if there is no rain and you aren't watering deeply (not just the top of the soil for 30 seconds but enough to soak a few feet down like a big storm does), your plants will look ragged and lose leaves and yellow, but they can bounce back. If the home came with an irrigation system and you turned it off or it broke that is the first thing to spend money on. If it didn't, you need to either expect to pay a few thousand to have something professionally installed or for the budget option buy some soaker hoses and figure out how and when to use them. Pointing a little water from the hose at the leaves once in a while is not going to cut it at all, they need a long period of several months with no more severe drying out and the soil needs to stay moist deep down, and that needs to happen starting now, before the summer hits, because they probably won't make it another drought summer this way. If you can't commit to watering they will just die and you will still be faced with the expense of replacement xeriscaping - less watering commitment but still $$$$ to dig up and replace plants so the cheapest route is save what you have.

The next thing you probably need is mulch. This will cut down on water loss and help the soil which is probably suffering along with the plants. You don't want to fertilize anything now until you see signs of healthy active growth again. Fertilizer does not help stressed out plants when the main issue is water, but mulch really does. Good mulch costs money, cheap mulch is full of weeds and breaks down quickly. Applying a layer of compost and mulch around everything would go a long way.

Trimming will help the hedges recover from the stress by shedding some dying tissue and encouraging healthy new growth in a nice shape, but if you don't fix the watering issue first you will just end up with tidy dead sticks by next fall. If your budget is really limited you should probably spend it on a dripper system or soaker hoses before anything else like trimming. The quotes you are getting for a hedge trim are pretty standard and yes, you shouldn't expect a good landscape consultant who is actually a horticulturalist and a guy with a truck and a chainsaw to be one and the same and you are probably seeing mostly the latter. The rose bushes and bougainvillea in particular need someone who knows what they are doing to trim them and you should try to learn yourself from Google/Youtube if your budget is low; if you prune them incorrectly, at the wrong time of year or in the wrong places, they won't flower. If you just hire a guy to buzz cut them with a chain saw you are throwing money away.
posted by slow graffiti at 12:32 PM on January 31, 2021 [3 favorites]

When you say $35 an hour, how much time should I expect to pay for? We have a small corner lot.

It's not the size of your lot as much as the type of plants being grown. Really hard to speculate without seeing it or knowing square footage, percent of hardscape vs softscape, access/terrain, &c. It also depends on what's important to you: for instance weeding takes longer than many other tasks. If I were hiring I personally prefer crews that sweep and rake instead of blow, because our old house is not well sealed and I don't need it filling up with pollen and mold spores that are circulated by blowing, so I'd pay for that little extra bit of time to do that right.

Hedges done properly are not low maintenance, especially if they are 11 feet tall. Possibly with deferred maintenance you'll need a 1 day clean-up to whip everything into shape and troubleshoot irrigation (which can take some time). Afterward maybe one-two hours for a two person crew every other week. That can increase in spring as things start growing quickly. But again, I've never seen your garden, I don't know what "small" means to you in the context of a yard. Expect at least a one hour minimum, and I can tell you that ultimately more frequent visits are cheaper than big visits every couple of months.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:58 PM on January 31, 2021 [5 favorites]

I should say you should expect to pay for some inputs like compost and mulch initially, dump fees may be extra (especially for a cleanup, possibly afterward your green bin may be enough), your lawn may need to be aerated, irrigation components replaced. My workplace back in the City in 2007 would charge 125 an hour for irrigation fixes from their install crew*, so if you find a company that does this at their regular gardening rate you'll be doing well.

*the reason I taught myself to fix irrigation for my clients- ludicrous to pay someone to screw on a new popup valve for 125 an hour with a two hour minimum.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:07 PM on January 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

We have large hedges that I pay to have trimmed back annually and we pay around $500. So those prices are not out of line for that maintenance.
posted by wsquared at 1:12 PM on January 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

Doesn’t really answer the price part of your question, but for free advice, you should e-mail/call the Alameda County Master Gardeners. They are volunteers with your county’s extension office that help novice gardeners take care of their landscaping and can give you region specific advice for taking care
of your plants. They are volunteers with many years of experience gardening and can help diagnose deficiencies/issues, especially if you have good pictures.
posted by cybrbananapeel at 8:07 AM on February 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

You have a mix of plants (agapanthus, pampas grass) that need almost no care and nothing more with 'guy with a chainsaw maintaining them) and one that need a lot of care and watering (oleanders, bougainvillea, roses). So if you want to focus your money, water everything a bit more and check them again in the spring.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:12 AM on February 1, 2021

Response by poster: Some other ppl told me that the pampas grass and agapanthus needed almost no care. I followed that advice and nearly killed everything. I hired a gardner to come out for a consult on Monday. $30 per hour for anyone reading who’s curious.
posted by buddylove at 7:01 PM on February 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

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