When a house needs a lot of attention, the yard can get short shrift. Here are some budget-friendly ways to improve your great outdoors.
Most homeowners focus first on interior upgrades, which means it can take years to find the money to whip a yard into shape. But there are smart, easy-on-the-wallet moves you can make to deliver a big impact. It starts with upkeep.
“You’d be surprised what a boost to curb appeal you get from simply pressure-washing and decluttering,” says TOH landscape contractor Jenn Nawada. So begin by approaching your yard with a visitor’s fresh eye, and tackle the to-do list of simple fixes, like pruning away dead plant material, freshening up outdoor furnishings, and touching up paint, as needed.
Then turn your attention to what’s missing: Are there bare areas in planting beds? Does your yard lack color or focal points to catch the eye? Is it in need of spots for sitting and gathering? There are inexpensive ways to fill those needs and more, while reducing future maintenance, too. Here are a handful of strategies and techniques to put to work in your yard right now.
Start with a Plan
No budget to hire a landscape designer? Here’s the framework these pros use to guide a homeowner’s spending.
- Invest in big hardscape projects first, including walkways, decks, and patios, plus rough-ins for irrigation or gas lines.
- Then add trees and large shrubs to complete the bones of your yard.
- Last, fill in beds with perennials and add annuals in containers and window boxes for seasonal color.
Idea 1: Massed Plantings Make a Statement
Colorful, textured garden beds overflowing with different plants can be hard to get right and fussy to maintain. That’s why landscape pros often plant a single species or cultivar in quantity along a fence, leading to an entryway, or as wide borders.
Massed plantings trick the eye and make beds look bigger while feeling unified, which helps in yards that have a lot of variety in shrubs, trees, and other plantings. Some of Jenn’s favorites for planting in multiples are nursery staples that are also easy to propagate by division, such as catmint, sedum, black-eyed Susan, ferns, and hostas (above)—allowing you to fill a long bed in a couple of seasons.
As singles, they might fade away, but grouped together they command a lot of attention.
“This easy-to-maintain edging is basically free. Using a square shovel, cut a V-shape into the lawn about 3 inches deep, then fill with mulch. It creates a clean edge, keeps grass out, and won’t heave in winter.” —Jenn Nawada, landscape contractor
Idea 2: Tidy Shrubs for Foundations
Few things clutter up the front of a house like overgrown shrubs. “Use windows as a guide, and pick compact plants that won’t exceed that height,” Jenn says. Choose dwarf cultivars to add structure and interest. But be sure to always research any plant’s full height at maturity; “dwarf” merely indicates that it’s smaller than what’s common for the species. Here are four standouts:
Ilex glabra ‘Compacta’
While some inkberries reach 8 feet high, this low-growing, oval-shaped ‘Compacta’ gets half as tall, with glossy evergreen leaves, and can produce berries for wildlife. Grows up to 4 feet high and 6 feet wide in zones 4 to 9.
Adrian Bloom/Gap Photos
Spiraea x bumalda ‘Anthony Waterer’
This spiraea’s foliage puts on a colorful show before dropping in fall. Come spring, pink flower clusters brighten garden beds. Grows up to 3 feet high and 4 feet wide in zones 4 to 8.
Thomas Alamy/Gap Photos
Clethra Alnifolia ‘Sixteen Candles’
Plant this deciduous shrub by an entryway to enjoy the 6-inch-tall, fragrant spikes of white flowers starting in mid-summer. Grows up to 5 feet high and 3 feet wide in zones 4 to 9.
Rhododendron ‘Yaku Prince’
Many rhodies can reach 20 feet tall, but evergreen ‘Yaku Prince’ stays a compact 3 feet high and wide, perfect under a window to preserve the view. In spring its dark-green foliage sets off large pink flowers in zones 4 to 8.
Carole Drake/Gap Photos
Idea 3: Consider a Pea-Stone Patio for a Budget-Friendly Classic
A patio makes enjoying the backyard easier. “A spot to entertain doesn’t have to be elaborate; even some chairs on a patch of pea stone can work,” Jenn says.
Don’t overlook the benefits of 3⁄8-inch stone: It’s easier to work with than heavy pieces of bluestone, less fussy than brick, makes a pleasing sound underfoot, and drains well. Best of all? Buying enough to cover a 12-by-12-foot patio costs about $35 from a stone yard.
How to Install a Pea-Stone Patio
A pea-stone patio is a weekend project, but it does require more than cutting open a bag of rocks.
- First, mark out the patio’s perimeter.
- Then dig down about 4 inches, removing the turf or soil.
- Add a 2½-inch layer of stone pack, and tamp it down well.
- Roll out landscape fabric to foil weeds.
- Install metal edging, landscape timbers, or bricks to help keep the stone in place.
- Spread a 2-inch layer of pea stone.
Idea 4: Freshen Up Container Plantings
Colorful container gardens are an easy way to dress up an entry or outdoor living area. But putting together distinctive pairings can be a challenge. Jenn simplifies the task with varieties available at most garden centers, mixing brightly colored flowers and interesting foliage plants for fresh combinations, like those at left.
To keep from having to fill very deep containers with soil—which also makes them heavy and difficult to move—she fills the bottom half or two-thirds with polystyrene-foam packing peanuts (which won’t degrade), then adds landscape fabric and potting mix.
Idea 5: Create DIY Focal Points
Once, installing a garden centerpiece required hiring a pro, but kits now make it easier—and more affordable—to do the work yourself. Here are three ways to dress up your yard in a hurry.
Tumbled, tinted cast-concrete blocks stack to form a 44-inch-square fire pit in three or four rows, topped with a cap held in place with masonry adhesive. A black metal insert protects the blocks from scorch marks.
Weston Stone Fire Pit Kit in Bella, $700; Belgrade
(shown left) A pump, tubing, and a buried basin keep water flowing over the 45-inch-high urn’s rippled surface for soothing sounds. Easy to install and maintain, it’s also safe around kids.
Medium Stacked Slate Urn Landscape Fountain Kit, $1,200; Aquascape
(shown right) Covered with vines or left bare as an architectural accent, this 7-foot cedar arbor is a graceful way to mark an entrance or accent a walkway. With precut, predrilled pieces, it comes together in just a couple of hours.
Rosewood Arbor, $290; Vita
Idea 6: Install Outdoor Night Lights
When it comes to landscape lighting, many homeowners think of curb appeal first. But Jenn suggests starting in the backyard. “Lighting adds subtle drama, so illuminate an area that means the most to you, such as an outdoor living area,” she says. (It’s likely to inspire you to then add lighting out front, too.)
Home centers stock low-voltage beginner kits, starting at around $100, to handle basic garden and pathway lighting. To make your yard look its best, you’ll also want a sprinkling of well, bullet, down, and flood lights to play up trees, shrubs, walls, and garden beds.
If you already have a 20-amp circuit outside, you may not need an electrician. Paired with a heat source, like a fire pit, lighting can extend outdoor entertaining well after the sun goes down.