5 Smart Money-Saving Landscaping Ideas
Get your gardening fix without breaking the bank.
For all the beauty a home garden can bring, it takes a lot of time, patience and often money to create the lush landscape of your dreams. A few gallon pots, potting soil and a few spring bulbs to tuck into the front yard can quickly add up. For beginners, the initial investment can be discouraging. An unexpected, early freeze can wipe plants out overnight and catch even advanced gardeners off guard – better luck next season!
And while accidents will always happen, you still don’t have to spend a small fortune to green up your outdoor space. We rounded up our favorite budget-friendly landscaping ideas to help put some of that green back in your pocket.
Buy Seed Packets
One of the easiest ways to save is by buying seeds instead of potted plants. Starting from seed can be intimidating for new gardeners, but I dare you to take the challenge. It’s extremely rewarding to see your first flower or eat a salad with lettuce you grew from seeds. Start with something easy like radishes or lettuces and build from there.
Turn Anything Into a Container Garden
I love looking at those gorgeous, glazed stone pots. The price tag? Not so much. Being creative with containers will allow you to put more money toward flowers and plants. Hit the thrift store to find old wine crates, salvaged wood and other items to make planters. My first “raised bed” was a large wine crate lined with scrap fabric, and my family grows tomatoes in 5-gallon buckets from the hardware store. The key is to always create drainage holes in your chosen vessel, since most plants’ roots will rot if they’re left sitting in standing water for too long.
Take a Seat
Old wood chairs can easily be converted into holders for flowerpots; simply cut a hole in the seat and slip in the pot. Doll-sized chairs don't need any extra preparation because you can just set a small pot right on the seat. Potty chairs work the best because the hole is already there. Design by Nancy Ondra
Give old hats new life as hanging gardens. Baseball hats make instant pot covers: Simply open the sizing tabs in back, slip the opening around the base of the plant and snap the tabs closed again. On straw, felt or fabric hats, cut a hole into the front or top and gently feed the plant stems through the hole. Design by Nancy Ondra
Recycle old paint cans or buy metal paint cans at hardware stores and home centers. To dress them up, drizzle craft paint around the top rim and add some drips down the sides. Cover with a coat of polyurethane to stop the cans from rusting, or leave them untreated and enjoy the rusty, rustic look that develops within a few months. Design by Nancy Ondra
Ditch the Grass
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The EPA estimates that one-third of all residential water use is for landscape irrigation. That unfortunately means a healthy, green lawn can be a water guzzler – especially during hot, dry summers. Consider replacing all or part of your lawn with low-maintenance groundcovers, mulch or softscaping areas with small stones.
Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum)
Groundcovers don't just provide color and interest in winter; they can also help control erosion and suppress weeds that try to sprout when the weather warms up. Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum, a mat-forming woolly thyme) is rugged enough to walk on and releases a pleasant scent when crushed.
Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
Roman chamomile creates a pretty, low-maintenance lawn that releases an apple fragrance with every step. Plants prefer a sunny location but will grow in part shade. Soil should be well-drained in all seasons. Remove white blooms as they fade, or leave in place — it depends on your preference. You can mow this groundcover regularly or to remove spent flowers. Once established, Roman chamomile withstands normal foot traffic. Minimize traffic on young plants. This chamomile spreads rapidly, almost aggressively in ideal conditions. Plants are hardy in Zones 4 to 9 and grow best in areas with cool summers.
Irish Moss (Sagina subulata)
When you decide to replace your lawn with a groundcover, you’ll create easy-care beauty that trims your landscape chore list. Select lawn alternatives like you would any other plant. Consider the plant’s light and soil needs, as well as hardiness and maintenance requirements. With a lawn replacement, it’s also important to know how much foot traffic a plant can tolerate. Use groundcovers that don’t tolerate foot traffic in areas where you want to eliminate lawn but don’t want to install high-maintenance plantings. Add stepping stones to protect even walkable plants, like Irish moss. Check out this selection of botanical starlets that can stand in for lawn.
Creeping Lilyturf (Liriope spicata)
Also known as monkey grass, creeping lilyturf is a tough perennial groundcover that withstands some foot traffic. Pale lavender flower spikes appear above leaves in midsummer. Plants spread by underground runners to form a weed-resistant mat. This is a groundcover that can compete with tree roots, making it an ideal lawn replacement beneath trees. Creeping lilyturf is bulletproof, resisting high humidity, heat, pests, diseases, deer and rabbits. Plants are hardy in Zones 4 to 10 and tolerate sun or shade, but prefer rich soil in light shade. Mow lilyturf in spring to remove winter-killed or discolored foliage and encourage new growth.
Black Scallop Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop’)
Black Scallop bugleweed boasts near-black leaves that hug the ground. Use plants in areas where only moderate foot traffic occurs or to create a striking bed or path edging. Ajuga forms a thick mat that crowds out weeds, and this particular variety doesn’t spread as aggressively into lawns as other types do. Plants demand good drainage and spread at a medium rate (roughly 6 to 10 inches a year). This bugleweed is hardy in Zones 4 to 10. While plants love soil that’s high in organic matter, they tolerate poorer soils, too. Ajuga is susceptible to crown rot. Rake plants regularly to keep debris out of growing beds. Trim spent blooms using a mower or string trimmer.
Hardy Ice Plant (Delosperma cooperi)
Fluorescent-pink blooms cover hardy ice plant all summer long. This drought-tolerant perennial craves sunlight and well-drained soil that isn’t waterlogged in winter. It’s a perfect choice for a slope or hillside planting. Hardy ice plant doesn’t withstand foot traffic. Use it to replace lawn as an ornamental in areas that aren’t walked on much. This perennial is evergreen in warmer climates and hardy in Zones 6 to 9. Leaves develop a red tint in fall and winter.
Dutch clover (Trifolium repens)
Dutch clover is a familiar face in meadows and lawns and actually makes a terrific lawn replacement. The deep green plants withstand normal foot traffic, but aren’t an ideal choice for a heavy traffic area, like a play area beneath a swing set. The small plants boast heat and drought tolerance and stand up to repeated mowing with ease. Newly developed micro-clovers are smaller and designed to blend in with turf grasses better. Dutch clover is hardy in Zones 3 to 9 and isn’t damaged by dog urine. Plants flower heaviest during a small window, but frequent mowing can keep flowers in check.
Dwarf Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon japonicus 'Nanus')
This evergreen turf alternative grows in dense clumps. It prefers filtered light and to be watered regularly. It's a good match for Zones 7 to 11. As the name of the grass suggests, it is a smaller plant and only grows up to four inches in height. It is fairly drought-resistant as long as it has enough water during germination. It does take some time to fully grow, but is worth it for how striking it looks in full landscapes or as edging.
Juniper 'Old Gold' (Juniperus x pfitzeriana)
Spreading junipers like 'Old Gold' can be planted approximately three feet apart for groundcovers that hold their color all winter. This slow-growing juniper, which tops out around 2 to 3 feet tall, is an attractive golden-yellow. It is a low maintenance variety that serves as a great hedge as well. It grows best in Zones 4 to 9.
Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia)
Creeping Jenny, sometimes also called moneywort, is a creeping evergreen that is another great option for winter color. In the summer, the plant blooms with small, cup shaped flowers to add another dimension to the lovely groundcover. It is a quick-growing plant that only takes a little time to establish, so it is best to plant it 18 inches apart in moist soil. It's best in Zones 3 to 8.
Vinca (Vinca major or Vinca minor)
Plant Vinca major, sometimes called periwinkle, or Vinca minor, for an evergreen ground cover in shady or wooded areas. Both will bloom, starting in the spring, and both can spread aggressively under the right conditions. Some states list one or both as invasive, so check to see if there are planting restrictions in your area. Shown here: Vinca reticulata, an annual trailing plant for containers or landscapes that is hardy in Zones 7 to 10.
Dead Nettle (Lamium galeobdolo)
While there are over 50 varieties of the Lamium species in the mint family, Lamium galeobdolo will produce small yellow blooms. As any gardner knows, mint plants can run wild if left unchecked. However, that makes Lamium a perfect alternative to traditional turf. It grows great in partial to full shade. Called "dead nettle" because of its resemblence to the stinging nettle plant, this beauty is best for Zones 4 to 10. Another bonus: it's deer-resistant.
Asiatic Jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum)
Something of a misnomer, this plant isn't related to the common jasmine plant. It is, however, another low maintenance groundcover option for the turf-averse. The plant grows anywhere from 6 to 18 inches tall and at least 3 feet wide. It tolerates many different growing conditions and actually prevents weed growth. They should be planted 18 inches apart and will take two growing seasons to completely fill in. After that, the plants require very little maintenance to look spectacular. Asiatic jasmine is best suited to Zones 8 to 10.
Blooming Lamb's Ear (Stachys byzantina)
The lovely lilac blooms in this picture represent blooming lamb's ear, a wonderful groundcover plant that prefers full sun. Too much shade can make this wooly plant prone to disease as it won't dry out all the way. For use as a groundcover, it is best to plant lamb's ear 12 to 18 inches apart in Zones 4 to 8.
Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata)
Creeping phlox, a deer- and drought-resistant flowering plant, is a great groundcover option. Native to rocky and sandy areas of the Appalachian region, these beauties bloom in April or May. Pictured is the 'Candy Stripe' variety, a lovely, pink-and-white-striped creeping phlox that creates a carpet of color in the spring—plus, its foliage is evergreen and its typically hardy in Zones 3 to 9, making it a great year-round groundcover for most gardeners.
Fall in Love With Foliage
Big, showy blooms can be costly. Mixing in foliage plants like coral bells, liriope or mondo grass adds budget-friendly beauty, plus it gives you something to look at while you wait for bulbs and flowers to bloom. Reach for blooming evergreens, like camellias or azaleas, to get the most bloom for your buck.
Catch the Sales
Don’t neglect the garden center during the off-season. Sign up for your local nursery’s email newsletters if they have one or get to know the staff to catch sales. On Black Friday, instead of fighting chaos at the mall, I went to a garden center near my house that was having a sale. At the end of the season or during winter you can get heavy discounts, but don’t be surprised if you end up with a “naked” plant. Be patient – that hydrangea may look like a twig now, but will eventually bloom just the same. And only you willl know the difference!
Buy plants that fit your climate and soil conditions. Balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus) doesn't tolerate heat, humidity or poorly drained soils, so planting in the Deep South or in wet soils is a recipe for failure. Instead, this summer bloomer is a long-lived garden stalwart for USDA Zones 3 to 8, in well-drained soils.
Use cuttings instead of buying more plants. If you love the coleus (such as 'Indian Summer' shown here) that you already have, there's never a need to buy more. Take cuttings in the fall, pot up the new plants, keep them indoors by a window for the winter and you'll have plenty of instant color for the garden after the last frost in spring. For more varieties, exchange cuttings with friends, neighbors or garden-club members.
Take softwood and hardwood stem cuttings to propagate some of your favorite shrubs. The method and timing for woody-shrub cuttings depends on the variety. For the common flowering quince (Chaenomeles) shown here, August is the best time. Softwood cuttings, dipped in rooting hormone, are usually successful.
Lasting a Lifetime
Choose long-lived perennials. Plants like scabiosa, wallflower and hardy mums typically last 3-5 years. Other perennials like blanket flower, columbine and coreopsis are equally short-lived but reseed freely. Others are long timers, such as bearded iris, daylily, hellebore, astilbe and bee balm, to name a few. Peonies, seen here, are extremely enduring, sometimes lasting for more than a century.
Divide, Then Multiply
Multiply your plants by dividing them. Some plants like daylilies, bearded iris, yarrow and ornamental grasses need to be divided every few years to reinvigorate them and to reduce overcrowding. What you'll gain for your efforts are new plants to expand your beds and to share with friends.
Late-blooming perennials like helianthus, shown here, are best divided in spring. Filling your beds with a variety of perennials that give successive seasons of bloom, blooming shrubs and colorful conifers means you'll be less apt to load up on trays of annuals to fill holes in the landscape.