10 Backyard Landscaping Ideas on a Budget

If your backyard looks like this, some of these tips may come in handy.

If your home is your castle, but the area right outside looks like a blackened, scarred landscape worthy of a medieval battle scene, you know you have work to do. Your home's landscape wasn't meant to be abandoned, abused and neglected; it's an asset. In fact, a functional, beautiful yard can increase a property's value by as much as 20 percent [source: Colorado Business Magazine].

But maintaining your home's exterior takes time and money, and you're running short on both. However, there are ways to turn your no man's land into a gorgeous, eye-grabbing haven, without laying waste to your wallet.


First, let's define what we mean by landscaping. Some people think of grasses and flowers as the foundation of landscaping challenges, but there's more to it than greenery.

Instead, think of your yard project as a holistic environment in which the plant life, terrain, water bodies, and human-created elements, such as fences, walls, decks, patios and other structures, all combine to present a specific feel and function.

In order to create a lasting, beautiful, and valuable landscape outside your home, you'll have to do some planning. By taking the time to really ponder about how you want this precious space to look, you'll wind up with an area that not only looks great, but costs you a lot less money in the long run. Although Americans might spend around $45 billion in a single year for landscaping and lawn services and supplies, you don't have to contribute your hard-earned income to that huge figure [source: National Gardening Association].

On the next page, we'll dive into our series of 10 tips that will help you morph a yard into your castle's exterior paradise, and for less cash that you imagined.

10: Get a Land Plan

The scenario is all too real. Beautiful weekend weather sparks your desire to get outside and finally get to work on your yard. So what do you do? Hop into the car and head to the home garden center at your nearest store, where you go on an expensive spending spree worthy of Edith Wharton.

Then you arrive back at home, throw your new tools on the turf, and realize you really have no idea where you're going with this project. So you retreat indoors and swear to never watch a home care TV show again.


In order to do good, lasting landscape work, you must have a plan. And to have a plan, you have to know your land.

Observe the way rainfall and runoff flow through the yard, and the way light falls in certain places throughout the day, and in different seasons. Think about how you want to spend your time in your yard, and whether you really want an expansive and time-consuming garden, or a huge, plant-less patio where you can lounge without worrying about weeding the tomatoes.

Ask a professional landscaper for a free estimate or a paid consultation for advice on how to best use the space you have. Sketch diagrams of the final project, and use that picture to build a list of necessary supplies, along with their costs.

Use tips from the experts at sites such as Better Home and Gardens and HGTV to refine your ideas and prioritize. And then plan to work on your project in phases so you aren't overwhelmed by either labor or expenses.

So now you have an idea of where to start. Keep reading and we'll tell you more about one major (and potentially majorly destructive) foe of landscaping projects.

9: Eliminate Water Worries

Rain can hydrate your thirsty lawn, but if you have a grade problem, it can also lead to water woes.

Nature might abhor a vacuum, but it loves water. And seemingly without fail, if you live in a climate where rainfall happens, Mother Nature will find a way to put water where you don't want it.

The way your yard works with (or against) drips, downpours, and deluges can affect your entire landscape project, and if done improperly, can cause serious issues even inside your home. That's why this tip is less about saving money on construction and more about preventing ghastly, costly mistakes.


Runoff and rainfall tend to follow the grade, or slope, of the ground around your home. If you often have water in your basement, a poor grade may contribute to the problem, requiring a dirt-moving project on your part. And if you've never had an interior water problem, you'll want to keep it that way by making sure the grade continues to push water away from the foundation.

Similarly, you may find that after a hard rain, you wind up with standing pools of water in the middle of the yard, providing a nice bedroom community for mosquitos making the commute to your skin. In short, you need to think about how you want to shape the land to make water go where you want it to go…and away from the places you don't.

Proper grading, correctly positioned downspouts and drains, and other factors all change the way water flows through and around your yard. In order to control water, observe your yard before, during, and after a rain shower. Notice any areas where runoff-related erosion is a problem. And then develop your terrain plan accordingly.

8: Recoup Costs on Air Conditioning

In many parts of the world, heat and humidity go on a long, torrid love affair each summer. Together, these weather elements make homes almost unbearably uncomfortable -- unless you're lucky enough to own an air conditioner.

But air conditioners are expensive to operate. Proper landscaping, on the other hand, can make it seem like cash really does grow on trees.


A big, healthy shade tree can provide roughly the cooling potential of 10 room-size air conditioner units running for as much as 20 hours per day [source: Scotts]. Shade trees have to be in the correct location for the best effect though, and in the Northern Hemisphere, that generally means the southeast, southwest, west sides of the home.

As for your air conditioner itself, you can improve its efficiency by 10%, just by planting a tree or bush that shades the unit.

7: Smarter Supply Shopping

Why is this lady so happy? Maybe because she bought her landscaping tools late in the season.

When spring hits, so does gardening and landscaping fever. Hardware and gardening supply stores capitalize on this trend and mark-up their products accordingly. So to borrow another retail axiom -- buy your winter sweaters in May.

In other words, you'll find that landscaping tools of all kinds are much, much cheaper if you buy them in late summer or autumn. Everything from hoses to hoes will often go for prices that are a fraction of their springtime peaks.


Become a coupon clipper. Circulars in your Sunday newspaper will help you find steep price drops on tools and supplies. If you need landscaping services, go directly to a company's Web site to find any available discounts. Sign up for newsletters and alerts from big hardware stores to receive updates on major price reductions.

And weigh your purchases carefully. Don't buy fabulous tools just because they're on sale, and think twice about stockpiling 10 pallets of bricks that you don't have room for.

6: Pick Your Plants Precisely

Sure, those tropical carrion flowers are incredibly beautiful, and as a bonus, they smell like rotting meat. But are they really going to thrive in a backyard in Boulder?

If your green thumb actually has coloration that's closer to black than jade, take heed -- you can't pick and choose plants willy-nilly and expect them to survive in your yard. You can easily spend hundreds or thousands of dollars hoping that various a species or two will finally stay alive for more than a week or two. Or you might spend that much trying to eliminate a non-native, invasive plant that has taken control of the entire place after you made the boneheaded mistake of planting it.


For starters, you can get a rough idea of whether a plant will survive by checking an interactive map like the ones from the National Gardening Association, Better Homes and Gardens, or Mother Earth News. But don't depend on solely little colored climate region maps that supposedly show places that are suited for certain plant types. Success depends on more than weather patterns. Soil type, other plant life, animals, and many other variables also factor into the equation.

When it comes to picking plants, experienced local gardeners can offer tips that will save you a ton of time and money. Local government agencies, like a county extension and university horticulturists, also are happy to help you determine which plants work best in the area, and how to avoid the kinds of foliage that amount to no more than pestilence.

Finally, consider substituting vegetables for less functional plants. The Great Recession has helped boost gardening by more than 20% in the United States, as people look for ways to lower their food costs and have higher quality food [source: NGA].

5: Avoid Seedy Salespeople

Planting seeds will save you money, but you'll have your work cut out for you.

Plants are often expensive in comparison to seeds. So logically, you'd want to buy cheaper seeds, start them yourself, and then watch in wonder as you fill your back yard with plants for a fraction of the cost of pre-started plants. If only it were that easy.

Growing plants from seeds isn't always as simple as putting seeds in potting soil and watching your new garden spring to life. Rather it's a bit like taking on a new pet that requires lots of time and attention. And those seeds necessitate lighting supplies, soil, plant food, and a bevy of other products that can actually cost you more money than plants that are already partially grown [source: NewsMiner].


And that's just for one type of plant. Other species often require different care as they begin to extend their delicate tendrils skyward. So if you choose to invest in your own plant-growing system, understand that this process can save you money in the long run, but only if you're committed to the work.

If you do plunge into seed planting, be sure to comparison shop online. Online retailers frequently sell seeds for far less than retail stores, and they have a larger selection, too.

4: Be a Bulk Buyer

Hardware superstores are wonderful in that they carry a tremendous range of landscaping supplies to suit your needs at a moment's notice. But you will often pay a dear price for the convenience.

As evidence, you can evaluate prices for common products, such as mulch. Mulch is an incredibly basic and simple material, and it's easy to pick up a bag or two at a time when you're gathering supplies for your projects.


But those individual bags are enormously expensive when you stop to add up the numbers. Local landscaping companies often drop truckloads of the stuff right at your home (minus the fancy bags) for a much lower price. What's more, some cities give away mulch for free, so long as you have a vehicle to transport it.

The same logic applies to other landscaping items. That includes sand, gravel, straw, wood chips, and much more.

3: Develop Recycled Ideas

Flea markets are a great place to find treasures for your landscaping project.

You already know that a lot of supplies at gigantic hardware stores have high prices. Remember that as you develop your overall landscaping plan, and as you integrate items both small and large into the project.

Sure, you can save on seasonal items by shopping at the right time, or by buying online. But on items from tools, to chimeneas, to decorations of all types, garage sales and flea markets can be your best landscaping friend.


You can take this concept even farther by keeping your eyes open for demolition and construction sites. Whether these are commercial or private projects, they'll often have piles of old bricks, concrete, usable lumber, and other items that are destined for the dump. You may be able to snag some of those supplies for free. Just be sure to ask a site supervisor before you start loading up your truck.

In short, the stuff that other people just want to get rid of can become inexpensive treasures that make your yard look gorgeous. But stick to your plan. It's easy to rationalize the purchase of cheaper used items simply because they're inexpensive compared to new. Do you really think that old wagon wheel will fit the theme of your yard, or are you just buying it because it's only $10?

So feel free to browse online classifieds and local flea markets to your heart's content. Just be sure you use your brain when it actually comes time to buy.

2: Whoa on the Water

In an era when climate change is taxing all sorts of environmental resources, clean water is getting more and more expensive. Use water wisely and not only will you reduce your environmental impact, but you'll save cash on water.

Take a good, hard look at your lawn. Does your vegetation thrive in your region's weather and precipitation? Or are you trying to grow the Garden of Eden in Phoenix?


When rainfall disappears and lawns are really dry, landscaping water usage can account for as much as 75% of a home's water consumption. And using an inefficient sprinkler system can dump 300 gallons (a good-sized hot tub's worth) of water on your lawn in a single hour [source: Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments].

Match your plants to the conditions and you'll need far less water to help them survive. In some case, you may find that you have the wrong type of grass for the soil, light, and precipitation in the area. If necessary, you could replace struggling (or overly thirsty) grass with more sensible vegetation, such as drought-tolerant varieties.

Use watering guides to calculate the amount of water you need and use expert advice as you plan your landscape to be more water efficient. Not only will you conserve this vital fluid, you'll save cash, too.

1: Get Down and Dirty

Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty; it'll save you dough.
Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

Landscaping professionals have heavy-duty equipment, top-notch expertise and plenty of labor to help complete backbreaking projects. They charge accordingly.

Roughly 30% of Americans hire other people to work on their yards [source: NGA]. But you can avoid paying those steep contracting bills simply by doing much of the work yourself. Granted, you'll likely be unable to move that 20-ton hunk of decorative marble on to the front yard with your 1983 hatchback. Hire pros to take care of the really big jobs.

But when it comes to digging, planting, and other time-consuming, menial tasks, you can see significant savings just by putting in the time to do it alone or with well-bribed family and friends. A few pizzas and a beer keg parties are a relatively cheap way lure in your friends for a few hours here and there.

With a bit of your old sweat (and possibly a bit of blood), your home's exterior could literally spring to life. Not only will you get more enjoyment out of your yard by beautifying it on a budget, but you'll save money and add a lot of value to one of your biggest investments.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • American Society of Landscape Architects. "Sustainable Residential Design: Increasing Energy Efficiency." Asla.org. (Oct. 4. 2011) http://www.asla.org/energyefficiency.aspx
  • American Society of Landscape Architects. "Sustainable Residential Design: Maximizing the Benefits of Plants." Asla.org. (Oct. 4. 2011) http://www.asla.org/benefitsofplants.aspx
  • Archer, Ann. "17 Ways to Landscape on the Cheap." MSN Real Estate. (Oct. 4. 2011) http://realestate.msn.com/article.aspx?cp-documentid=13108253
  • Bender, Steve. "Backyard Beauty on a Budget." SouthernLiving.com. (Oct. 4. 2011) http://www.southernliving.com/home-garden/gardens/backyard-landscape-00417000067677/
  • Better Homes and Gardens. "12 Money-Saving Landscaping Tips." BHG.com. (Oct. 4. 2011) http://www.bhg.com/gardening/landscaping-projects/inexpensive/
  • Better Homes and Gardens. "45 Money-Saving Landscaping Tips." BHG.com. (Oct. 4. 2011) http://www.bhg.com/gardening/landscaping-projects/landscape-basics/stretch-your-landscape-dollar/
  • Contra Costa Water District. "Watering Wisely Saves Money." Ccwater.com. (Oct. 4. 2011) http://www.ccwater.com/files/LawnCare.pdf
  • Douglas, Kim. "How Landscape Architecture Can Boost Real Estate Sales." Cobizmag.com. Apr. 21, 2009. (Oct. 4. 2011) http://www.cobizmag.com/articles/how-landscape-architecture-can-boost-real-estate-sales/
  • Dreamscape Lawn Care. "Racine Landscaping FAQ." Dreamscapelawncare.com. (Oct. 4. 2011) http://www.dreamscapelawncare.com/faq.php
  • Forever Green Landscaping. "10 Tips for Saving Money in the Garden." Forevergreenlandscaping.wordpress.com. June 24, 2011. (Oct. 4. 2011) http://forevergreenlandscaping.wordpress.com/2011/06/14/10-tips-for-saving-money-in-the-garden/
  • Gilmer, Maureen. "Cost-Saving Landscaping Tips." Landscaping Network. (Oct. 4. 2011) http://www.landscapingnetwork.com/landscape-design/money-saving-tips.html
  • McKenzie, Paul. "8 Strategies for Smart Landscape Design." HGTV.com. (Oct. 4. 2011) http://www.hgtv.com/landscaping/index.html
  • Reader's Digest. "Landscaping for Less: 8 Money-Saving Tips." RD.com. (Oct. 4. 2011) http://www.rd.com/home/landscaping-for-less-8-money-saving-tips/
  • Tuttle, Brad. "83 Money Tips: Free Landscaping Supplies, Coolest Cars Under $18K, Life Lessons from the Rich." Moneyland.Time.com. June 24, 2011. (Oct. 4. 2011) http://moneyland.time.com/2011/06/24/83-money-tips-free-landscaping-supplies-coolest-cars-under-18k-life-lessons-from-the-rich/