17 ways to landscape on the cheap (© Getty Images)


Traditional thinking says you should expect to pay anywhere from 5% to 15% of your home's value on landscaping. Even at the low end of that range, you're looking at spending $10,500 if you live in the median-value American home worth $213,000.

That's tough to stomach no matter how much you love the outdoors. Thankfully, you can do it right and still spend a fraction of that amount. Here's how.

Get the most visual bang for your buck: First of all, realize that budget gardening can still be beautiful. Let's say you've got less than $1,000 to spend. The first things you should focus on are improving your soil and adding trees, recommends Joanie Clarke, a design consultant for Classic Nursery and Landscape Co. in Redmond, Wash. "You can spend $500 on plants, but they're not going to grow in clay or sand," she says. Clarke advises amending your soil with compost and other ingredients to improve its quality. Buying soil, in comparison, can cost as much as $27 a yard plus delivery. 

Take advantage of freebies

  • Your city, your friend: Cities often give away free trees, mulch and compost. In Seattle, for example, groups of neighbors can request 10-40 trees from the city in exchange for planting and maintaining them.
  • Demolition sites: These are great sources for bricks and stones, but make sure you have permission to remove them.
  • Fellow gardeners: See something you like in a neighbor's yard? Offer to trade cuttings. Also, set up seed exchanges with other gardeners or check out existing exchanges online such as those on iVillage's GardenWeb and GardenHere.com.

Avoid costly mistakes: Really think about how you're going to use your outdoor space. If you plan a water feature but are annoyed by the noise of babbling brooks, you’re going to spend more money ripping it out and replacing it with something else later.  Take the time to educate yourself and you'll avoid common pitfalls such as planting a tree too close to your house.

What's your home worth?

Work with what you have: Preserving existing plants and trees can help you save the cost, materials and resources needed to establish a new planting. Educate yourself about plant care and pruning; that 12-foot magnolia in the back yard would likely cost you $65 and five years of growing to replace. (For tips on pruning, check out this page on the U.S. Forest Service site.) Similarly, knowing which areas in your yard are flood-prone and which are always in the sun can help you buy the right plants for the right conditions. Some areas might be better for swing sets or patios.

Hire yourself: The best way to save money in landscaping is to do as much work as possible yourself. A 3-gallon bush may cost $20, but the price skyrockets to $30 or $40 when it's planted by a landscaping professional. A $3-to-$4 perennial will cost about $12 installed.

Know when to hire the pros: There are times when it makes sense to hire a pro. Beverly Katz of Exterior Designs in New Orleans suggests hiring help for jobs that take more muscle or design skill than you have, such as creating hardscapes, while you take on more manageable tasks such as planting small shrubs and perennials. (You can find landscape architects at the American Society of Landscape Architects Web site and certified landscape designers at the Association of Professional Landscape Designers Web site.)

When using pros, try to get a packaged deal: Check out nurseries that offer landscaping services. Many will offer discounts on plant material to their landscaping customers. Classic Nursery and Landscape Company in Redmond, Wash., for example, offers a 20% discount on all plant material for one year to their clients.

Hire a consultant: A full landscape design that includes drawings and a planting plan can cost anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to more than $1,000, depending on the complexity of the design and the overall budget of the project, according to Katz. A less-expensive route is to draw your own plan and hire a landscape designer to review it. "I charge $100 to $150 an hour to consult. I’ll make notes and add to the plan," said Katz.

Take a phased approach: Divide your plan into phases and pay as you go with funds on hand. You'll save on loan or credit costs and be able to evaluate your progress and adjust plans before moving to the next phase.

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Time your purchases: Buy trees, shrubs, perennials, soil and mulch late in the season when retailers want to be rid of them. Depending on your region that could be early fall, a great time for planting because it gives the plant time to develop roots before the summer heat arrives.

Check alternate resources: Look beyond stores for bargains. Arboretums, botanical centers, plant societies and gardening clubs often hold plant sales. You can join The National Arbor Day Foundation for $10 and receive 10 free trees shipped to you at no cost. At Free Trees and Plants, a retail Web site that helps train and employ the disabled, you only pay shipping and processing fees on all your orders.

Buy small: Purchase small-sized plants; five 1-gallon Shasta daisies at $3 apiece cost the same as one 3-gallon plant at $15 at Armstrong Nursery in Carlsbad, Calif. Depending on the species, the smaller plants could double in size in two years, giving you more plant for your money.

Protect foundations: Roots can damage concrete blocks, driveways and sidewalks, so plant large trees at least 30 feet from those areas.

Divide: Look around your yard for any perennials that can be divided and used elsewhere in the landscape. A one-gallon perennial can cost about $9 at a nursery, but you can easily divide the one you planted last year into four plants, saving $27.

Compost: Save money on fertilizers and mulch by composting your own, using yard waste and food scraps. Compost piles can be made of recycled 2 x 4s and chicken wire. All you need is access to the pile and enough space to turn it every now and again. You'll pay as much as $5 per small bag of compost at your local home improvement store.

Think about maintenance: A large lawn is great if you don't mind mowing. But if paying a yard guy $50 a week is part of your plan, make sure that goes into your budget.

Be water smart: According the Environmental Protection Agency, outdoor water use constitutes almost 20% of total home water use. Look for plants that are drought-tolerant to save on your water bill.

Finally, be patient. Plants will not fully mature for a good two to three years, longer for trees and many shrubs. Enjoy the process — and the money you saved.