Landscaping is the kind of home improvement that pays for itself. Return on investment is usually immediate, as adding curb appeal and square footage for you and your family to enjoy the outdoors is something every property benefits from.
Not everyone has the budget for large projects up front, however, and when it comes to home improvements, the words "cheap" and "beautiful" rarely go together.
There are things you can do to improve your landscape without having to spend a fortune. Here are some inexpensive, but stunning landscape ideas for you to start planning with today.
Garden centers and nurseries sell different sizes of the same plant, especially the popular ones. Evergreens, perennials, annuals, and trees can all be found in different states of maturity, at different costs.
The smaller the pot, the cheaper the price, so an easy way to cut your plant budget in half is to choose one-gallon size pots instead of two, five, or ten-gallon sizes.
Smaller plants will take longer to mature, but all new plants require the same amount of care when establishing in the first year and will eventually grow to their maximum height and width.
Ground cover plants are excellent ways to cover a large area or fill in difficult spots like rocks, pathways, and under trees and large plants. These can be bought very cheaply in one-inch pots, and planted individually where needed.
Buy your plants in the springtime and give them enough space to fully mature to get the best results. Don't bunch the plants together for immediate coverage, but consider the spacing requirements so that everything fills in nicely in two-three years.
Choose Fast Growing Plants
Being patient with growing times will save you a lot in the beginning, but you can also find a few species that are known to grow quickly for faster blooms and coverage.
Clematis are flowering vines that will often produce flowers in the first year depending on their bloom cycle and when you buy them. Fast-growing perennials like hardy geraniums, lavender, hay-scented ferns, or certain hostas can be planted for a variety of quick color and interest.
Thuja "Green Giant" cedar trees provide much-needed privacy at a fast pace, growing 3-5 feet every year. Butterfly bush, dogwood, and dappled willow are all fast-growing gorgeous shrubs, so much that you need to keep them in check.
If you want a quick growing tree, hybrid poplars grow 5-8 feet a year! These are best planted in large areas away from homes and structures, as roots often disrupt sidewalks and patios, or get into sewers.
"Autumn Blaze" red maples grow 2-3 feet a year, and won't cause issues as long as they are planted at least 15 feet away from structures if you want something a little closer to the home.
Creeping phlox or moss phlox is a beautiful fast-spreading ground cover with tiny, pink and white flowers that bloom in the spring. Creeping thyme, Irish or Scotch moss, sweet woodruff, and sedum ground covers will also start to fill in areas within a year or two.
Beware the urge to buy invasive ground covers like periwinkle, lily-of-the-valley, ajuga, English ivy, goutweed, vinca, or mint varieties. While these are often touted for their rapid growth, this is not beneficial in the end as they can quickly take over areas you don't want them to, choking out native plants along the way.
Design Around a Focal Point
Ornamental trees offer a wonderful way to plant and design around a point of interest and are cost-effective ways to make a big statement. Prices will range from cheap to expensive depending on the variety you're after, and their size, but there are more than enough options to suit any aesthetic and budget.
Japanese maple trees are bold and beautiful, with a variety of sizes and colors to choose from. They can be finicky, and need protection from harsh winds or extreme conditions. Place them in a calm spot with dappled light and you'll have a beautiful, long-lasting show-stopper.
Dappled willow and dogwood were already mentioned because of their fast growth, but they are also excellent focal point shrubs that show off white, variegated leaves in the spring and summer, and turn a crimson red in the fall and winter for all-season interest.
Lilac trees, forsythia, and hydrangeas are some other options to plan around, but have a look around local garden centers and nurseries for deals on ornamental trees and plants. There are many other options including beautiful evergreen varieties, and flowering fruit trees, as well.
Keeping your site conditions in mind, once you've chosen your focal point, you can gradually add other shrubs, bulbs, and perennials to your overall vision as your budget allows.
One of the cheapest ways to get a lot of flowers quickly is to plant an area of wildflowers and let them go wild! You can buy bags of pre-mixed wildflower seeds or see what starts to grow naturally if you leave an area alone for a while.
Ornamental grasses can also be added to borders or in spots where you want to transition to lawn or patio areas. No-mow lawn alternatives like clover, and ground covers can also be combined with grasses and wildflowers to create different heights and textures to the yard without it all being tall plant life.
Herbs fit in nicely with a patch of wildflowers, and some fall into both categories like lavender, wild bergamot (bee balm), milkweed, hypericum (St. John's wort), coneflower (echinacea), elderflower, plantain, yarrow, and rosemary.
These "wild" garden and lawn areas are excellent choices for difficult places in the yard like hills and slopes, rocky terrain, and uneven ground, and are great at luring in pollinators. Choose native species for the best results.
When it comes to trouble free exterior landscape planting, it's hard to beat the appeal and the hardiness of native varieties of plants and flowers.
Planting flowers, shrubs, and trees that are native to the area means these plants are uniquely adapted to the environment around them, which in turn means they will be low-maintenance additions to your landscape.
Native plants get along with each other without being invasive, unlike species that were introduced from other climates. They attract beneficial pollinators like butterflies, birds, and bees, and help to promote the natural biodiversity of your garden.
Add sustainable methods to keep native plants thriving like compost heaps, and natural mulching ingredients. This is another cheap way to add good-quality nutrients and fertilizer to a burgeoning garden space.
Rake leaves and pine needles over plants in the fall for natural mulch, and use non-diseased dead plant material to fuel the brown ratio of your compost.
Adding ways to catch rainfall and runoff can save you money on watering costs, while utilizing one of nature's free resources.
Build a Rain Garden
Rain gardens are a wonderful way to make a focal point in your yard or garden in an environmentally beneficial way. If you have an area that naturally retains water, or can feed downspouts and roof runoff to a spot easily, this is the best place to put a rain garden.
By digging down enough and utilizing slope, different plants are arranged around the perimeter, edges, and middle points of the trench to handle any rainwater that collects after a rain shower or storm.
Plants in the middle will need to tolerate the most amount of time having their roots submerged in water—usually up to two days—whereas moisture tolerance starts to wane as you move up towards the perimeter.
The concept allows for rainwater to be absorbed back into local aquifer systems rather than sewers where it goes to be treated by municipal water treatment systems, but it also waters your garden for free.
Choosing the plants wisely is the most important aspect, but there are more than enough species that can handle all parts of the rain garden, often making a beautiful display of native perennials that range in drought tolerance and water retention.
Local rebates can help with the cost of rain gardens or any system that collects rainwater, but even without these incentives, rain gardens are as cheap as the cost of the plants you choose to plant.
Build a Pergola
Plants aren't the only way to create a stunning landscape, as different hardscape projects can offer breathtaking designs to a bland backyard, as well.
Installing patios and decks can be costly and labor-intensive, but smaller projects like a pergola or archway can be done with minimal materials and labor, but still add visual interest.
Pergolas can be as big or small as you like, or your budget allows. They are often two-sided, completed by an open roof of rafters to give a triangle shape at the top. You can be creative, and make one to your liking, either building one out in the open or attaching it to an already existing deck or patio space.
They can also be built against an exterior wall of the home, offering an overhand for seating areas, and some partial protection from harsh sun and heat.
They pair wonderfully with certain plants, as well, especially ones that climb and drape over structures naturally. Consider adding wisteria, clematis, trailing hydrangeas, grape vines, climbing roses, morning glory, or tropical annuals like rio dipladenia, jasmine, and hibiscus.
Gravel Fire Pit Area
A wonderful project to get friends and family to gather around together is to build a fire pit area. This is another versatile project that can be easily done with minimal materials or even things you may have on hand.
A simple, but cost-effective way to achieve the space is to lay gravel down in a circular or square border. Grass is fine, too, but gravel gives the space a specific design to it, and is cheaper than installing pavers or concrete.
You'll have to excavate the area slightly—just enough to get a layer of gravel that can be compacted and won't move. Installing a border or barrier is paramount as gravel will trail into grass or other spaces unless contained.
You may also have other masonry materials around like extra pavers or bricks which can also be used to either create the seating area or to make the fire-pit itself. Kits are available at hardware stores for around $200, but making your own is free!
Do some planning ahead of time to find the circumference or square footage of the seating area and make sure your fire pit is the right size, accordingly. You want people to be able to sit close to the fire, but also have enough room to push back if needed.
Rocks and Stones
In many cases, the landscaping design elements with the most impact are also the simplest and the least expensive. Simply adding a few stones or small boulders can have a remarkable impact on the look of the landscape, and these beautiful rocks can often be found at little to no cost.
Choose minimalist garden design with an arrangement of rocks and decorative mulch. Boxwoods and other compact shrubs are excellent, low-maintenance, and affordable species to plant in these areas.
In addition to these boulders and rocks, decorative stones like pea gravel, river rock, volcanic rock, and decomposed granite offer unique ways to fill in areas or create visually appealing designs.
Rocks can be used with other mediums, especially xeriscape plants in hot, arid climates. Small rocks can also help lead water to or from an area, whether it's to a rain garden, or other plants, or simply to direct away from the house.
Think about form and function before you go buying materials based on their look. Natural materials can add beauty to the space, but they can also do some of the work for you when it comes to mulching, watering, and fertilizing your garden.
Come up with a plan, and always keep your micro-climate in mind, as this will be your best guide to achieving a gorgeous space that blends in with its natural environment.
There's a wealth of landscaping ideas out there, and narrowing it down can be hard. Trust your instincts and stick to a plan. You can't go wrong with any of these inexpensive but stunning landscaping ideas.