Improvements in your yard and garden don’t have to cost a lot. Tricks for having the yard you want on a budget…
Buy plants in the smallest size available. If the same variety of plant comes in a five-gallon pot and a one-gallon pot, buy the smaller pot. Mature plants are more expensive — you are exchanging money for growing time. Smaller plants look more sparse at the beginning, but they grow faster than large plants.
Negotiate a discount. Once you have determined which plants you want and how many, consider purchasing them all at the same nursery. You probably can negotiate a good price. The nursery also may be willing to hold your purchases for you until you are ready to plant them.
What to say: “Here is a list of the plants that I need. I would like to buy from you, but I also am shopping around for the best price. If I buy all the plants from you, what price would you be able to offer me?”
Shop roots, not top. Ask to see a nursery’s “hospital” — the place where plants that have cosmetic problems are kept. Droopy or scorched plants with healthy roots that form a cohesive ball should do fine once they are planted. You can get these ugly ducklings for next to nothing.
Nursery plants look best in spring and progressively worse through summer and fall, when you can find bargains.
Move low-performing plants. A shrub or small tree that is getting too much shade or sun may thrive in a different spot. Dig a hole in the new location. Then dig up the plant, getting as much of the roots as possible. After replanting, make sure that the new plant gets plenty of water for the first year or so. In mild winter areas, the winter is the best time to plant. In areas where the ground freezes, fall or spring is better. Summer is never ideal, but if you need to move a plant then, be extra vigilant that it does not dry out.
Start lawns from seed, not sod. A lawn grown from seed doesn’t provide the instant gratification of a sod lawn, but the preparation is nearly identical. If you have the patience and are willing to keep dogs and children off the lawn for several months, you can save by using seed (where I live, you can save up to 30 cents a square foot). Your lawn also will be deeper rooted and healthier.
On the other hand, if you already have a lawn and it’s not doing well, don’t waste time and money tearing it out. Instead, mow the lawn very short. Cover the area with sheets of newspaper, then a layer of topsoil or mulch, and plant on top of it — this works for seed, sod and other plantings.
Check online. Scan Craigslist.org for cast-off benches, decorative rocks, ceramics and plants. People sometimes offer these items at no cost just so that they don’t have to pay to have them hauled away.
Buy local. You may love the look of Arizona flagstone for a garden path, but if you live on the East Coast, you will pay a premium for it because of transportation costs.
Before setting your heart on a feature that you saw in a magazine or on a TV design show, spend a few hours walking around your local landscape supply store. Get a feel for the range of materials available and how much they cost. Keep an open mind. Rock from a nearby quarry may be just as elegant, and far less expensive, than the current fad.
Buy in bulk. Soil, mulch and gravel are cheaper in bulk from landscape stores than bagged from hardware or big-box stores.
Measure carefully. Ordering more material than you need is a waste of money. Ordering too little of what you need incurs extra charges to have the additional materials delivered. Landscape supply yards use cubic yards for bulk orders of mulch, soil and gravel. To calculate cubic yards, multiply the square footage to be covered by the thickness (in inches) of what you need, then divide that number by 324.
Example: You need to cover a 1,000-square-foot area with three inches of mulch. Multiply 1,000 by 3, then divide that amount (3,000) by 324. You will need to order 9.25 cubic yards of mulch.
LEARN FROM THE EXPERTS
The more you know, the more you can do yourself. Call on the expertise of Master Gardeners — volunteers who have received intensive training in horticulture from university extension agents. They offer affordable workshops and advice. To find Master Gardeners in your state, visit www.ahs.org/master_gardeners. Also, community colleges and adult-education programs may offer low-cost gardening courses. Check your newspaper’s home-and-garden section for talks and tours. In addition to sharing ideas about gardening, the speakers and attendees at these events often can recommend sources for cheap and sometimes even free materials.