First, let's look at the difference between them all. Gardeners tend to do more soft landscaping (plants and turfing) and garden pruning/ care / tidy up services. They may have some formal training in horticulture; others are very experienced while others dig and prune where you specify. Landscapers tend to have a mix of soft and hard landscaping skills (they can plant, lay turf and do paving, decking and basic walling).
A landscaper usually costs more than a gardener does, and they tend to work to a set time, and price, whereas gardeners tend to charge by the hour. Some landscapers do offer maintenance services for customers; similar to those a traditional gardener will offer. A good landscaper is as highly skilled as any craftsman, sometimes more so in fact.
They need to be good at laying paving, building retaining walls.
They also need good carpentry skills. Some are good all-rounders whilst others specialize in either hard or soft landscaping and work together as a team. Sometimes people don't realize how much skill goes into building a garden. It can be considerably more than goes into building a kitchen or bathroom, and your landscaper has to contend with the weather, level changes, they need to get the drainage right.
All this is done, whilst working on time, to a quote, and doing it with as minimal disruption to you and your neighbours as possible.
Builders. This is a tricky one. Technically speaking, builders are more than capable of building a garden. However, I've not seen many do a really good job of it. I've seen a lot of gardens builders have constructed over the years, and whilst they are well-built (i.e., they won't fall to bits anytime soon), the attention to detail and understanding of levels and materials, sometimes leaves a lot to be desired.
It's a totally different skill going vertically with bricks, to build a house, than it is horizontally with paving. People often assume that if they get their builder to do the garden, it will be cheaper. There is a good chance it may not.
If your builder is on a day rate payment, instead of a fixed quote, with the lack of day-in-day-out experience laying patios, they are not going to be as quick or as skilled as a good landscaper.
Laying paving well, is an art. Attention to detail is critical, as is a good understanding of levels, drainage, and the materials they are working with. I've lost count of how many builders' jobs I’ve been to and have seen the pavers and slabs laid upside down. No, unfortunately, I'm not joking. See the photo below.
The builder who built the step on the right builds the most beautiful houses. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for his concrete steps. The slabs have been laid upside down; there is concrete all over them; this will take time to remove with acid, which may stain and harm the natural stone.
The photograph on the left shows how the same paving should look, when laid the correct way up, and without getting concrete all over it. Hard to believe that it's the same type of paving used in both photographs, isn't it!
So what is wrong with the York Stone path in the picture above? At first glance, it looks OK but it would have looked a lot nicer if the paving slabs with the broken edges had been cut and hammer finished to size. The spacing between the paving is different thicknesses, and the uneven line down the middle doesn't look great. Notice how different the steps in the photo below are, that the landscaper built. He's neatly cut them to the right size whilst maintaining the beauty of the old stone. It's the same garden and we had to use the left over a stone the builders didn't like!
The landscapers have made the slabs equal sizes and the gaps between the paving stones are consistent. They've achieved this using the worst of the stone. The attention to detail and the time they spent making the stone usable and 'facing' it by hand, really shows.
I have quite a simple rule: I wouldn't get a landscaper to build me a house, and I wouldn't get a builder to construct a garden. Builders will hate me for saying that, but my experience hasn't shown them to have the experience to do it to a consistently high enough standard.
There are exceptions to the rule and builders are talented guys. Laying bricks well is a heck of a lot harder than it looks. So I'm not knocking them, I just don't want them to build any of my gardens, unless they are really experienced with landscaping! OK, I've more than knocked builders enough, but you get my point. Not all builders make good landscapers, some will be able to do it, but most don't have the necessary landscaping experience.
Attention to detail does make a difference and good landscaping does take a bit more time and skill than most people
imagine. If you do want to use your builder to build your garden, do have a look at other gardens he's built and check out the finish for yourself. If you don't have a good eye for levels, visit on a rainy day and see if there are big puddles that aren't draining.
Important Things To Do and Look For When Hiring a Landscaper
Similar process to hiring a garden designer: Make sure you have seen photographs of their work or visited one of their previous clients. Choose someone you get on well with, that will listen and understand your needs.
Look for attention to detail. Has the landscaper the skill to cut paving well? Look at corners and check the finish. Imagine how awful the paving and decking would look in the photograph below, if the edges had been poorly cut. I've seen some landscaper's circles look more like hexagons. It's not a pretty sight and can ruin your design. Remember you could be looking at this garden for a long time so you don't want to have to pay to get it done twice.
How To Spot a Really Good Contractor From an Average One
The best contractors I've ever worked with have several things in common: They care about their work. They have great attention to detail. They tidy the site at the end of each day and leave it clean, tidy and safe for their client. They have well organised tools and vehicles. They communicate well with the client.
For example: if they can't make the start date, they phone and tell the client rather than just not bothering to turn up (something that is unfortunately all too common mentality in the landscape and building industry). They understand how the design works and don't alter things just to make it easier for them to build!