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It's summertime and time for outdoor living

Fireplaces are perfect for entertaining on cooler evening nights
Fireplaces are perfect for entertaining on cooler evening nights
Houzz.com

Summer is only a few weeks away, which means entertaining friends and families, hosting cookouts and barbeques, and spending time outdoors. These days, the backyard has become an extension of the home’s family room and kitchen.

Perfect setting for outdoor grilling
Perfect setting for outdoor grilling
Napoleon Gourmet Grills

According to a U.S. online survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET), spending on decks and patios has been on the increase. Consumers have been hiring professional help (see below on tips for hiring a professional) for patios, other hardscape and specialty services.

The experts at PLANET, the national landscape industry association, offer their top five ideas to transform an ordinary yard into the ultimate retreat, family fun, or entertaining space this summer.

  • Add an Outdoor Kitchen. Outdoor kitchens have been growing in popularity for years and have become the center of family life in the summer. They can be as extensive as a complete kitchen made of stone, brick, or concrete pavers with a stove, stone or brick oven, counters, and even a sink or refrigerator or they can be as compact as a patio with a grill and table. There are a wide variety of options for every space, purpose, and price range.
  • Add Outdoor Lighting. Outdoor lighting highlights a home's landscape, special trees, as well as walkways and porches, providing both curb appeal and safety. "Nightscaping" makes gathering spaces usable and enjoyable for entertaining after dark. Landscape professionals can design lighting to complement or highlight important areas of the yard. There is a variety of basic do-it-yourself options, such as adding a set of solar walkway lights if budget is an issue
  • Add a Fire Feature. An option to having a grill is a portable fire pit, chiminea or stone fireplace built into a deck or patio. Having an outdoor fire extends time spent outside and makes a cozy entertainment center on summer nights, into the fall and even the winter.
  • Add a Water Feature. Water features, ranging from small fountains to ponds, streams, or water walls, create a sense of peace and calm adding Zen to connect with nature. It also may attract beautiful aerial feathered songsters.
  • Create a Wildflower or Herb Garden. Wildflowers or herbs make great container gardens or ground cover offering a diverse aroma of scents. Many restaurateurs, as well as home chefs, grow their own herbs and many landscape companies now create edible gardens for clients. These gardens provide organic foods for healthy eating and are a benefit for the environment and for wildlife..

"Outdoor living spaces have evolved from a grill and a picnic table to lavishly landscaped patios and decks with couches, lounge areas and dining spaces under shaded arches, trellises, and porticos," said Sabeena Hickman, CEO of PLANET. "It is a trend that we expect to continue indefinitely. Americans have had a long love affair with the backyard barbeque, and now, they are taking it to the next level."

The PLANET survey showed that the top two concerns for homeowners when hiring a landscape company were price and quality of work. So, how do you hire a high-quality, knowledgeable company that meets your needs?

Tips for Hiring a Professional Landscape Company for Your Home

  • Ask how long the company has been in business and the experience level of its staff. Professional landscape companies should have employees with either a secondary education in the field or several years of experience. In addition, professional companies are most often active members in national associations like PLANET or state associations. Affiliation indicates that a company is interested in excellence, safety, and best practices. Ask the firm for a list of references and professional affiliations or check its website.
  • Select a landscape company that is licensed, accredited, or certified. If required by state law, the company should be licensed. This license will assure you that the contractor is accountable, and that the company is operating legally. Ask if their staff is Landscape Industry Certified. A certified individual has proven experience, skills, and knowledge. Continuing education is necessary to maintain their certification.
  • Ask about the company's safety record and practices. Good companies put safety first through extensive training, power equipment certification and safety meetings. PLANET members participate in a safe company program called STARS. For a list of member companies, visit STARS.
  • Ask for references and check their work. Visit a job in progress. Ask to see a project that will be similar to the work you want to do. You want to hire a company that does good work, and reflects professionalism and integrity.
  • Ask the company to provide a written plan and/or contract. Prior to making any agreement, have the landscape contractor, designer, and/or architect prepare the details in writing. This plan can include the design, plant material to be used, all costs, a time table, and the terms of payment.

For more ideas about creating the ultimate backyard this summer, or to hire a pro near you visit Love Your Landscape and PLANET.

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