If you’ve found yourself flipping through the pages of a home and gardening magazine while daydreaming about creating an inviting landscape for your own property—one that inspires oohs and ahhs from friends and neighbors (or at least one that makes you want to spend more time outdoors), you’re not alone. Taking the time to thoughtfully landscape your property can be a rewarding endeavor, but it’s not necessarily an inexpensive or budget-friendly pursuit. Professional landscape design can cost thousands of dollars—and that’s before you’ve even purchased the plants.
To avoid the steep price tag, you can instead opt for a DIY landscaping project. Before embarking on the work, however, be sure to do your research and determine the specific types of plants and landscape elements that will be most appropriate and long-lasting for your property, and region of the country. This extra step will help save you from needlessly wasting money. Here are some of the additional ways to stretch your landscaping budget as far as possible.
Start with a plan.
Just because you’re not hiring a landscape designer doesn’t mean you should skip advance planning altogether. In fact, not having a professional to guide your project is all the more reason to engage in careful advance planning.
“Think carefully about how you’d like to use your outdoor space, or how you already use it: Do you need a path to the front door?” asks Mary Jane Duford, gardening blogger and creator of Home for the Harvest, who has landscaped several properties on a budget. “What about an outdoor sitting area? Would some privacy hedging or shade trees make a big difference? Get outside and start dreaming about your outdoor space, so you can put together a solid plan,” she adds.
Once you’ve developed a rough outline of your plans, begin researching costs. Knowing approximately what the price tag will be for various elements of your project can help you eliminate wishlist items that simply don’t fit the budget, says Duford.
Opt for long-living structural plants.
While garden centers are often overflowing with row after row of bright, colorful annuals—which can be incredibly tempting—a landscaping budget is often best directed towards long-living plants that will make an impact year after year, says Duford.
“This includes evergreens, shade trees, and ornamental perennials,” Duford explains. “Start with large feature trees, hedging plants, and any mass plantings of perennials such as rows of ornamental grasses. You can fill in the extra spaces with flowering perennials, annuals, and container plants in future seasons.”
When it comes to purchasing perennials in particular, you may also be able secure a discount if you buy them during specific times of year.
“One of the smartest things for saving money when doing a landscape project is to get perennial plants instead of annuals—especially in the fall when nurseries have deep discounts on their perennials,” says Anton Schwarz, CEO of Lawn Care Guides. “Plant them once, and enjoy them coming back season after season,” he adds.
Buy smaller versions of plants.
Yet another point about plant purchases and saving money: Garden centers generally price plants by the size of their planter pot. While large plants (those that come in big planter pots or balled-and-burlapped) can make an immediate impact on your landscape, they’re usually very expensive. Instead, you may want to opt for smaller versions of the same plants, which tend to be much cheaper.
“While the impact on the landscape won’t be as dramatic, younger plants typically root into the surrounding soil quite well,” suggests Duford. “It’s not uncommon for small plants to grow more quickly than those planted at a larger size when given adequate care as they get established.”
Plan for growth.
While this may not seem like an immediate money-saving tip, planning for growth is an approach that will ultimately save you money.
“It’s important to understand what you buy and the rate at which it will grow,” says Warren Byington, of Backyard Brothers. “Plan for the future by not overcrowding. While things may look spaced-out and even sparse at first, plant according to specific spacing guidelines, giving plants time to grow and flourish. When you crowd immature landscaping, it will will plants—and your wallet—in the long run.”
Purchasing plants that are native to your region or local area—meaning they’ve grown there for thousands of years rather than being imported from other parts of the world—is another way to ensure your landscaping money is being well spent and goes further.
“Because they’re accustomed to the local climate, native plants tend to be easier to grow,” says Haeley Giambalvo, creator of the site Native Backyards. “Native plants are hardier, drought tolerant, and don’t require any additional fertilization, saving you money on watering and care, as well as on having to replace plants that have died.”
Conduct a soil test.
This is an extra step that will pay dividends. Conducting a soil test before planting anything in your yard helps ensure that the plants you select have the proper conditions to survive.
“Prepare the soil well enough for it to handle the load, making sure to match its acidity and nutrient balance with the plants you hope to grow,” says Ronnie Collins, creator of Electro Garden Tools.
Soil test kits can be purchased at big-box stores such as Lowe’s for as little as $12, and they’ll help you determine the pH level of soil as well as identify any nutrient deficiencies. Meters that test soil pH are also available on Amazon for about $12. However, it’s important to bear in mind that these simple home soil tests don’t always provide the most accurate results, says Collins. You may need to spend a bit more for a professional lab test of your soil.
“Lab tests generally take one to two weeks to get you back results, but they are very accurate,” adds Collins. “You can order different testing options, depending on your budget. General health testing costs $50 to $100, and nutrient or pH testing for gardening is usually around $75.”
Try DIY drip irrigation.
Irrigation systems for garden beds and feature plants are generally a major line item on landscaping projects. The good news is that it is entirely possible to cut costs here as well, says Duford.
“This is one task that’s approachable for DIY-inclined homeowners,” Duford explains. “Most garden centers carry rolls of drip irrigation line, and DIY drip irrigation kits are available online. Many types of drip irrigation can be installed with only a few handheld tools. There are also quite a few excellent video tutorials available for handy homeowners to follow,” she adds.
Reduce mulch costs.
If you’re spending a great deal on mulch throughout the year, consider doing a bit of networking to reduce your costs significantly, says Michael Dean, co-founder of Pool Research, a company that provides expert advice on pool builds, maintenance, and general landscaping.
“Try contacting local landscaping services, as well as your local municipality, and ask them if they have any wood chips you could collect,” suggests Dean. “If there are landscaping workers in your area, simply approaching them and letting them know you’d be happy to take some wood chips from them can have you on your way to free mulch in no time.”
In case you haven’t received the memo: Landscapers often have excess mulch that they’re willing to part with. “Any arborist or landscaping company that cuts down trees is likely to have some excess wood chips that they’ll be happy to offload,” says Dean.
Yet another option for securing free wood chips is ChipDrop, a service that’s active all over North America and connects arborists who have excess wood chips with gardeners in need of them.
Eliminate mulch altogether.
Homeowners can save money on annual landscape maintenance by installing river rock in gardens and landscaping beds, rather then mulch, says Bryan Clayton, CEO of GreenPal, a lawn care app.
“This serves as a one-time, upfront investment and adds beauty to the lawn and landscape,” explains Clayton. “It never has to be redressed or redone the next season.”
Opting for river rock instead of mulch is apparently a growing trend across the country. It used to be just homeowners in warmer climates using such material to save costs, but more recently those living in cooler regions of the country are also making the switch, says Clayton.
“People are just tired of wasting money year after year on mulch, straw, or other organic materials to put into their gardens,” continues Clayton.
Expect to spend anywhere from $75 to $100 per ton for river rock, adds Clayton. You’ll want to research commercial landscaping suppliers in your area for this type of gardening item, as big-box stores such as Home Depot and Lowe’s don’t usually carry it.
“River rock will have to be locally sourced, but most every part of the country has their local suppliers that dig out river rock and make it available in bulk,” says Clayton.
Find what’s free.
Look around your neighborhood or community at large. You’ll discover that there’s always someone moving, or expanding their home, or adding a pool, deck, or some other feature to their yard. Meaning: It’s not unusual for landscaping to be uprooted and given away, says Byington, of Backyard Brothers.
“Scan local marketplaces and utilize community connections,” says Byington. “You might also want to offer to dig up landscaping and transport it to your yard. You may make local connections and friends in the process.”