Budget-Friendly Backyard Landscaping Ideas

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These cost-effective landscaping ideas will help you create your dream garden.

A great garden can raise a home’s value. But, perhaps even more importantly, it can raise your spirit.

A gorgeous garden doesn’t have to break the bank, either. “The key to low-budget landscaping is to create an overall plan,” says Patricia St. John, principal at St. John Landscapes in Berkeley, California. She recently won awards for best cost-efficient garden and best small garden from the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. “That way you won’t do things in the garden you may have to redo — and pay for — later. For example, putting in a concrete patio and then realizing you can’t get access to your water.”

Decisions, Decisions

Once you’ve got a plan, work within your budget by choosing less expensive materials for your design. If, for instance, you’ve got a small budget and want a patio, “use crushed rock or decomposed granite,” St. John suggests.

For a larger budget, “choose flagstone on sand or pour a concrete patio,” she adds. “At each aspect of your plan, you decide which type of materials you want to use.”

Keep in mind that “the least expensive materials for your garden design will be plants,” St. John says. They’ll bring color, texture and dimension to the space.

Whether you hire a professional to help you execute a plan or go it alone, there are a number of elements of good design you’ll want to incorporate into your home garden.

Made in the Shade

How much shade do you want and where you want it?

“Keep in mind that the smaller the size of the plant, the faster its rate of growth,” St. John says. Incorporate a small tree this year, and it should catch up quickly. Plus, a smaller tree is “less expensive to purchase and less effort to plant,” she adds.

If your garden is already shady, a trellis, which you can buy ready-made if you want, lets in sunshine but offers privacy.

“Screening — from other houses or structures — is another key element,” St. John says.

Keeping It Clean

Freshen up your garden by pressure washing an existing concrete patio — and it will look like new.

“But don’t power wash your wood deck or fence,” St. John cautions. “It will break up the fibers in the wood and weaken the structure over time.” She suggests sanding and staining instead. Though “that relegates you to maintaining that effort over the years,” she says, adding, “Often, in California, we just let the wood sit and gray naturally.”

Generally speaking, you can use softer or less-treated woods if you live in a mild climate. In harsher climates, you’ll want to use pressure-treated, more durable woods and finishes.

Paths of Exploration

Create a sense of mystery and exploration with meandering trails that lead to a table, bench or fountain. Decide whether it should be neatly edged and formal or blend into surrounding spaces. Wood chips are one cost-effective way to mark a path, but you can also use pine needles, gravel or decomposed granite. “Or try using a ground cover like woolly thyme,” St. John suggests.

paths of exploration

Fire and Water

Features like a fire pit, bowl or chiminea (a stove-like outdoor fireplace) are portable and offer a design focal point. You can spend a bit more to have a stationary wood-burning stove or plumb a gas line.

As for a water feature, “you can have a totally self-contained one that’s not too expensive,” St. John says. But don’t forget to factor in the costs of running electricity to fuel the pump, which filters and recirculates the water. “The benefit of water is that it adds an amazing dimension to the garden, and if you live on a busy street, the sound of running water in a fountain helps mask noise,” she says.

Outdoor Living

Design garden spaces as if they’re rooms. Carry the continuity of your interior design out to the garden. You can get fairly inexpensive furniture and dress it up with pillows covered in outdoor fabric.

Define the rooms with paths or walls, which also make good extra seating. “We’ll do a raised bed for herbs or vegetables and make it 18 inches high, which is basically chair height,” St. John says. “Using timber is a cost-effective option. Cinderblock with stucco is a bit more expensive. Or you can create a rock wall.”

Extend your home to the outdoors. If you’re going to stop and smell the roses, remember: You have to plant them first.