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.

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.

 

Brooksville’s Blueberry Fest – Not Quite an Ode to the Berry, But A Lot of Fun

I promised my co-workers I’d bring them homemade blueberry muffins on Monday morning, but they’re going to be disappointed.

The scads of locally grown blueberries I expected at low, low prices were nowhere in sight at the annual Florida Blueberry Festival May 4 in charming Brooksville, Fla., Florida’s Rural Community of the Year in 2000. The festival continues 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today (May 5.) Parking is $10 and admission is $5 for adults.

After 30 minutes of wandering and browsing, the first blueberries I saw were these.

three white identical sculptures of men bent forward with hands behind backs. Each has a blue beanie, blue bead blueberry necklaces, and clusters of blue balls on their backsides At blueberry festival in brooksville florida “Oh, Blueberry Butt!” a woman standing near me shouted. (Is that the official name for statues with clusters of blue balls on their backsides? I don’t know. But I was glad to see at least some homage to my favorite berry.)

The Blueberry Butts stood in front of a fun antiques consignment shop called Easy Street Home Decor. Loved this giant spider on their storefront, made from recycled metal doodads.

giant metal spider made from recycled parts on the front of a storefront in Brooksville, Florida. three-dimensional spider is attached to aqua colored wall over the words Sweet Home

Fellow blueberry tripper Janna Begole and I soon discovered Island Grove Wine Co. , which offered tastings of 8 wines for $4.

woman with wine glass, white bucket with bottles of wine behind her, wine tasting for Island Grove of Hawthorne Florida

My favorite was Sorta Sweet Blueberry Wine — it’s made 100 percent from blueberries. Most of the other wines, like Bold Blackberry and Southern Strawberry, are merlots and Rieslings with fruit juice added for flavor. Very tasty, but  if I’m gonna drink wine, I want 100 percent.

(Chase Marden, who guided Janna and me through our tasting, is the wine maker. He says the tour of their vineyard  in Hawthorne, Fla., is a whole lot of fun — and I believe him. He’s a lot of fun!)

Another favorite vendor  was Dona Designs. This Jacksonville area artist creates fun ceramic birdhouses and birdfeeders. Janna picked up a great Mother’s Day gift, and I found a very affordable, personalized birthday present for my sister and her husband.

Janna and I both loved this whimsical birdhouse by Dona. (Prices start at about $40.)

ceramic birdhouse orange teapot shape with face on front. spout and lid are blue.closupWe were getting hungry and an elderly woman sitting on a bench near us overheard us debating restaurants.

“The best restaurant in town is Rising Sun Cafe. I know. I live here,”  she said. (Later she told me the proprietors feed the homeless every Sunday.)

Our blueberry-starved souls found nourishment here. We got ’em in our water!

clear plastic cup of water with blueberries and lemon slice. Vase filled with white blooms next to it  I ordered the Blueberry Festival chicken sandwich — pulled chicken with Sonny’s BBQ sweet sauce mixed with a puree of blueberries. Janna got a steak and cheese pannini with onions, peppers and roasted summer squash. Both were excellent. (Cost: About $8 per sandwich. They come with chips and a pickle.)

Other blueberry sightings:white blue and red signs that read blueberry shake-ups, blueberry snow cones anad blueberry corn dogs and slushies

What the heck is a blueberry corn dog? I asked the teenager manning this booth. He said he initially thought, “Ewww.”

The dog’s batter is mixed with artificial blueberry flavorings plus real blueberries.

“I had one this morning. It’s really good,” he said.

Dole is the No.1 sponsor of this fest, and the only blueberries we found (besides plump pints at Rising Sun Cafe for $4.99) were Dole’s half-pints for $3. Which is what I can buy at my local grocer. Disappointing!

But wine-maker Island Grove had blueberry bushes for $5 ,or 3 for $10, and we saw lots of people walking around with them. In fact, people were mobbing Island Grove’s plant stand.

Yup, I bought one.

And they came with, hooray!, blueberries!

close-up of ripe blueberries on bush several blue blueberries and one red