Tips for Landscaping on a Budget

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Everyone who watches home improvement shows knows that landscaping a house will not only add curb appeal but also increase its value. A rule of thumb is to spend 10 percent of the home value on landscaping. But if you don't have that kind of cash to spend, don't despair. You can achieve great results by investing time and seeking out talent to save your hard-earned treasure. There are any number of ways to find free or inexpensive resources to transform your yard.

Flowers, shrubs, and trees of varying heights create soft, flowing lines that naturally draw people to the front door.
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The overall cost to install a new landscape or update an existing one depends on the scope of the project, design elements, labor, equipment, hardscape materials, and plant material (softscape). If your goal is to spruce up an existing landscape with minimal time and expense, focus on the following priorities:

  • Replace dead plants, shrubs, and trees. Remove weeds.
  • Add color with flowering shrubs and plants.
  • Add potted plants near the front door.
  • Replace edging as needed and spread mulch.
  • Weed and feed the lawn to make the grass as green as possible. Mow and water regularly.
  • Start small by dressing up whatever landscape features you can see from the street.

Tip

If you need to remove one or more large trees, hire a licensed and insured professional. They will protect your home from accidental damage and use special equipment to do the job safely and thoroughly.

Saving on Landscape Design Assistance

A landscape is an extension of a house. And just as a house begins with a blueprint, a landscape begins with a plan. Not only will it tell you what to plant and where, but it will also incorporate features such as sidewalks, driveway, fencing, patio, firepit, retaining walls, lighting, irrigation, and other design elements. Most cities require you to submit a plan for major features, such as a deck, fence, pool, retaining wall, or exterior drain tile.

Landscape architects are licensed and trained to design landscape plans and large features. They can adjust the slope of the land, design retaining walls, place and build a large structure (such as a patio or gazebo), and create a water feature. They're especially skilled at designing a landscape that complements the architecture of a home, is viable for the particular conditions of the property, and meets local codes and covenants. Landscape architects also choose plants that are aesthetically pleasing for all seasons and most likely to thrive. If you have a new home without an existing yard or an older home that needs significant upgrades, you'll likely need this type of professional help. Landscape architects typically charge by the hour or a percentage of the overall cost of the project.

If your plan simply involves refreshing border plantings or establishing a new flower bed, you can create your own simple drawing or work with a landscape designer to help you select plants and draw a plan. Landscape designers charge either by the hour or by the job.

Thankfully, there are a lot of valuable resources that are free or will help you lower your overall costs. To begin, conduct an online search to see whether your state university extension provides resources for landscape design. For example, the University of Minnesota Extension Landscape design webpage connects people with landscape professionals, master gardeners, and students or alumni who may charge less for their work as they build their portfolios. Such websites can also provide resources for selecting plant material. Extension servies or university arboretums may also offer design seminars at a very affordable fee, taught be well-respected lanscape design professionals or university faculty members.

Other great resources are available at your local library. Books and magazines contain DIY plans and planting guides that are appropriate for your plant hardiness zone. And if you're a classroom-style learner, many communities offer a variety of gardening classes.

Once you have a plan in place, you can consider saving money by implementing the design in phases. Not only can you spread out your expenditures, but also you can take advantage of any promotions or season-end sales. If you plan to do some or most of the physical labor, a phased installation allows a more manageable amount of time to complete the work as time allows.

Save on labor costs by doing some or all of the grunt work yourself.
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Saving on Labor Costs

Once you have a plan in place, you can determine whether you'll need specialized equipment along with skilled labor, or simply basic yard tools and a will to work. Generally, it depends on the scope of the project. If you're updating existing plantings and structures, you're likely able to dig, plant, and mulch on your own. However, if you need to build a retaining wall, pour a cement driveway, or install an irrigation system, you'll need to honestly assess your skill level and the cost to rent or buy any equipment. Some homeowners are comfortable tackling large projects like these, however, most rely on professionals because the cost of materials is too high to risk making mistakes. But there are also ways to save money even when you need help for the work.

  • If you have friends with landscaping experience and you admire the quality of their work, consider asking for help or making an exchange of time and talent.
  • Perhaps all you need is unskilled help to speed up a big job, like laying sod or spreading mulch. In such cases, you can usually hire a few teenagers for several hours to lighten your workload.
  • Hiring labor from established landscaping companies generally comes at a premium price. Small local garden centers may be able to refer you to self-employed workers offering labor for a reasonable hourly fee. Classified ads in neighborhood weekly flyers can also be a good place to find such workers.
Decide whether you need to purchase a mature tree that will provide shade or a few saplings that will transplant well.
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Saving on Hardscape and Softscape Materials

When you or a landscape professional prepares a landscape plan, consider how your choice of materials will impact the overall cost. For instance, will recycled cobblestone, natural stone, pavers, or stamped concrete be most cost-effective to build a small patio? Also, you can choose common native plants that cost much less than unusual hybrids. Did you know a native purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) for example, will likely be less expensive than named red, orange, or pink cultivars?

Where you purchase your materials will also make a difference. And you might be surprised by what you can find for free! It's possible to score timbers, stone, or pavers from people who are removing an aged building or landscape. All you will need to supply is the muscle and equipment to haul a heavy load. Look for items on Craigslist, buy-and-sell groups on social media, and even local newspapers. Some cities and counties have yard waste disposal sites where residents can bring yard waste or pick up compost for soil enrichment and wood chips to use for landscape mulch.

  • Purchase trees, shrubs, and perennials near the end of season when they're on sale.
  • Compare prices between garden centers and smaller retailers. Plant goods at small retailers is often considerably cheaper, and often they sell unique varieties unavailable at big-box garden centers.
  • You can also purchase hardy native plants at farmers' markets and garden club sales, usually earlier in the growing season.
  • Consider growing perennial flowers from seed. Seeds cost a small fraction of what potted seedlings cost.
  • Some cities and counties have Arbor Day sales for residents to purchase trees at a discount. These trees are usually native species that will thrive and provide natural biodiversity.
references & resources

Tracie is a technical writer who earned her home and garden expertise while extensively remodeling two homes, custom-building a new home, and designing and building a cabin. Additionally, she and her husband, a former landscape professional, have created gardens that feature native plants and locally-sourced limestone. Tracie loves a cozy minimalist home and sews her own pillow covers, quilts, and curtains. Learn more at RicefordStreams.com.

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