Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Landscaping on a Budget

Garden at Deer Trail Road after initial planting. Since then, the ground cover has eliminated most of the mulching, and we've moved several plants and divided others. The shrubs have grown up to provide a private and intimate space. While this is our front walk, it is also a private space for entertaining. After the initial expense, the yearly costs have been pretty minimal.

Proper landscaping is important, as it makes a home more attractive and thus more valuable in resale. Over-landscaping a home can be a bad, if not worse, than under-landscaping, as a potential buyer may be turned off by the perceived maintenance of a huge garden or other landscaped area.

Many people think that landscaping a home is an expensive and time-consuming project, requiring thousands of dollars in purchases and the work of professional landscapers. However, if you approach the project correctly, a home can be attractively landscaped on a limited budget.

In most instances, major improvements in a home's appearance can be made for little or no money, by working with what is already available, or by spending very little. And once established, landscaping can be expanded and modified for not very much more.

We tried the "throwing money at it" approach, and we've tried less expensive approaches. Less expensive works better in the long run and is also less maintenance. Here are some tips based on what I have learned.

1. Don't Fight Nature: Trying to grow exotic specimen plants that do not thrive in your region is never a smart move. Planting "high maintenance" plants because you think they will look cool is also a bad idea.

I had a neighbor who planted roses. Rose plants require a lot of work and, like any purebred, can be fussy and prone to problems. No matter what fertilizers, bug powders, sprays, treatments, beddings, mulchings, etc. my neighbor tried, the roses always looked scrawny and bug-eaten. They produced a few attractive blossoms, but for the most part, looked like thorny weeds. For the cost of materials and labor involved, there was not a lot of payback.

And, unfortunately, many people think of landscaping in terms of "flowers" and demand a lot of color from their landscape (and rarely get it). Most colorful plants like that require a lot of work to keep in top form - and a lot of chemicals to make them pretty and bug-free.

A better approach is to use mostly shrubs and other perennials that don't require constant maintenance to look good. Pick things that grow well in your area. And if you pick something that dies easily or requires a lot of fussing, give up on it and move on to something else.

2. Landscape Fabric: Many people think you need to "buy stuff" to make a garden work. Landscape fabric is one example of this trend. Americans like to think that anything can be had with the swipe of a credit card. And thus, landscaping is only a matter of going to Home Depot, selecting products, and paying for them.

Landscape fabric is a bad idea on many levels. Putting plastic in your soil is probably not environmentally sound. And the stated purpose of it - to reduce weeds - rarely works for long. When you install landscape fabric and top it with mulch, the weeds just learn to grow in the mulch, usually rooting through the landscape fabric. When you pull the weed, the landscape fabric comes up with it. Rarely does this stuff really suppress weeds for more than a year at a time.

Newspaper or butcher paper works just as well, and is bio-degradable. Use several layers if you want to keep weeds down. We prefer to use brown butcher paper that comes as packing. It's free, and it works, and it allows water to seep through. And 5 years later, you don't have strands of plastic to deal with in your soil.

Mulching should be a temporary solution to a garden, not a permanent landscape feature. Mulch around plants to keep weeds down - until the plant can grow enough to choke out the weeds. A garden should be mostly plants with small amounts of mulch or rocks between them, not acres of mulch with the occasional plant breaking up the scene.

3. Plant Sparsely: Many folks follow the lead of the home improvement shows and some landscapers and go out and buy tons of plants and then bunch them all together in an area for an eye-popping "instant landscaping" look. What they don't realize is that within a season or two, all of those plants will grow together into one large mass, and half of them will have to be transplanted.

Read the labels on plants you buy and see how large they will get, and plant accordingly. Putting a shrub that will get 10 feet in diameter within 2 feet of another will surely cause a conflict later on, and cause you to re-plant the same plant several times.

4. Less is More: Remember that every time you create a landscaped area, you are creating a weeding maintenance item. It is tempting to have a garden here, a garden there, and plants all around. But do you really need to have showcase plantings on the side of your house that houses nothing more than the water meter and your garbage cans? In other words, who is going to look at this? The meter man will appreciate the landscaping, until it grows over the meter, of course.

If you are doing extensive plantings in an area of your house you never or rarely visit, ask yourself why. Such an area might better be left lawn or hardscaped.

Also, avoid deep plant beds. It is tempting to build a planting bed that extends 15 feet from the house, for a full, rich look. But to weed and maintain such a bed is a nightmare, as you have to stand on one plant to work on another. It is far easier to have beds that can be worked on from outside (from a walkway or path).

If you find your beds becoming masses of overgrown weeds that you never seem to have time to get at, perhaps you have over-planted. You are better off having less plantings that are well-maintained, than to have over-ambitious plantings that look like crap.

5. Pruning: One big mistake many folks make is to plant shrubs by the house and then forget about them entirely. When plants take over a house, they make the house look small and disorderly. Shrubs that are growing over windows, and sometimes even the roofline are a bad idea. Get in the habit of "cutting back" shrubs and plants regularly so that they grow to an acceptable size, relative to the house.

6. Free Plants: Many plants, such as ornamental grasses (which you can't kill if you tried) will get larger over time, to the point where they can be divided and replanted as new plants. For ornamental grasses (which need to be cut back every Fall or Spring) a simple spade will divide the plant, once it has been cut back. Transplant to a new area, perhaps to replace something that died. Hostas can also be divided this way and thrive.

Other types of plants that spread nicely are day lilies, ground covers, and the like. Obviously, you can't divide a tree or shrub, but you'd be surprised sometimes what will thrive. I took a shoot off a red-twig dogwood and stuck in the ground and within 2 years it was a sizable shrub.

7. Avoid Junking It Up: It is tempting, again, to think of landscaping as a bunch of junk to buy at a big-box store, and many folks follow this pattern, buying landscaping stones, timbers, and small statuettes, fountains, lawn lights, and the like. The little burro towing the cart of plastic flowers might be nice, but it isn't landscaping. Try to avoid using too much of this sort of thing, as it costs you a lot of money and really doesn't add much.

8. Chemicals: Again, the more you plant, the more you have to maintain. And it is heartbreaking when your newly planted area starts poking up with weeds or gets eaten alive by bugs. Spraying chemicals is one option, but this is costly and should be limited, if possible. Also, chemicals like Roundup herbicide will kill off the plants you are trying to grow, in addition to the weeds (ask me how I know this). So you spray a plant bed to kill off thistles, and kill a tree as well. The next year, the thistles come back, but the tree is still dead.

A better approach is to use ground cover that chokes out weeds. Plants that grow together into a tight network that allows no other light to permeate down to the ground, and also form a tight root network. Such plants are relatively maintenance-fee, largely bug-proof, and look attractive and provide a more natural look.

9. Limit Mulch: Many landscapes are nothing more than acres of mulching, which, as noted above, become weeding nightmares in short order. Use ground cover and limit the area and size of plantings to keep mulching to a minimum. If your landscaping is showing mostly mulch, something is not right. You've created a maintenance and weeding nightmare instead of enjoyable landscaping. Most modern Home Improvement shows tout the vast swaths of mulch approach to landscaping.

Mulching around trees bears special mention. Many home shows tout the idea of creating perfect circles of mulch around tree bases, arguing that this is "good for the tree". While this might help a young tree establish itself, mature trees are drawing nutrients from an area far outside a 5' diameter circle. If you and any number of trees at all, creating these little mulching circles becomes a maintenance nightmare in short order.

There is nothing wrong with having grass grow right up to the base of a tree, and it is far easier to maintain and trim, too. In addition, it provides a nice, bucolic look and provides a nice place to sit. Who doesn't want to sit under the shade of a tree on a sunny day, leaning against the bark? On the other hand, who in their right mind would sit in a pile of bark mulch?

10. Go with what works: Again, fighting nature rarely is easy. If your plants are eating by deer or bugs, why bother? Find something hardier and move on. If a plant is not suited to your soil, lighting, water levels, or temperature, why fight it? Find something that works for your environment and move on. Trying to Fight nature, like in the Great American Lawn, is really futile and time-consuming, not to mention a colossal waste of money.

11. Transplanting: Sometimes something doesn't work out, or you find that a plant isn't doing well in a particular location. Or perhaps you've planted two plants too close together, and now that they are mature, they are starting to grow together. Whatever the reason, chances are, there are plants in your garden that could do with transplanting now and then. These can end up being "free" plants for a new garden section, or to replace something that died or didn't work out elsewhere.

12. Take Your Time: It is tempting to go to the "big box" store, load up your car or truck with bags of soil, mulch, landscape fabric, and tons of plants, to create an ambitious landscape, only to let most of it sit in the yard, unplanted, to slowly die in the sun. Or to create an area of plantings so large that they are not easily maintainable and end up looking like crap - which leads to more spending to buy sprays and chemicals to kill weeds, etc.

Since plants will grow and get larger, and can be transplanted and divided in many instances, why not start small and work your way to larger things? Over time, a garden can grow in size to where you are comfortable with it - it terms of cost and maintenance. Starting out "big" gives that "wow" effect the home improvement shows love to do, but can be very expensive and you might end up with something you don't really like or want.

13. Put plants where YOU can enjoy them: I see this all the time, where people put landscaping in areas where passersby might enjoy them, or, as noted above, the meter man might appreciate. What is the point in that?

Putting a flower bed at the end of your driveway seems odd to me. Who enjoys this? You might glance at it on your way by the house or as you turn in your yard. But you really don't get a chance to sit and savor the enjoyment of a lovely planted garden, unless you like sitting out by the road.

Put your garden near your deck (within view of it) or your porch or other area where you can see it and enjoy it. A well-planted garden can be a restful place to sit and relax at the end of the day with a glass of wine. Plantings "out by the road" on the other hand, look orphaned and are never really enjoyed.

14. Pathways: A garden path is a thing to enjoy, but creating too much can be just another maintenance nightmare. Poorly laid out paths that are not properly founded, end up just growing over with weeds. Limit the number of paths and you limit maintenance. Our main garden path is also our front walkway. We put a patio area in front of the house, which makes a nice secluded place to sit and enjoy the garden. Since it is also the main entrance, it gets traffic, which keeps weeds down. Paths that go to nowhere are rarely traveling and end up being weed patches.

15. Bargain Plants: Sometimes the big-box stores sell out older plants for pennies on the dollar. The 20-something kids they hire to water them, forget, and they start to look dreary and dried out (the plants, not the kids. Although...). Most consumers, trained by the TeeVee to want the "instant garden" look, will pass by such plants in favor of something that looks colorful in the pot.

In many cases, such plants can be easily brought back to life with simple watering and care. If the plant has a lot of dead blossoms on it, but a lot of live buds, expect it to bloom again in short order. Sick looking trees may take longer to grow, initially, but once over the shock of transplanting, they may take off. And at half price, they are quite a bargain.

But save those receipts, plant tags, and pots! Because even at half-price or less, most big-box stores still honor their money-back guarantees on plants for 6-12 months or more.

16. Hardscaping: No, I am not talking about spending thousands of dollars on patio rocks from the store. Yes a good walkway is a great thing to have. But free hardscaping is another alternative to mulching, to break up a garden look. If you live in an area with rocky soil, chances are, you'll have all the free rocks you want. Many people dig these up and throw them away as a nuisance item. But stacked or placed attractively, rocks can break up a garden, line a path, make a path, or even substitute for mulch. In the latter form, be sure to put newspaper or butcher paper underneath, and pile them on thick enough to discourage weed growth. Otherwise, you'll have to either spray like mad, or pull weeds through the rocks, or pull up the rocks every few years to eliminate the weeds.

Larger rocks can make an attractive statement, but usually require a friend with a backhoe to move them. A rock should look organically placed, however, as if it were growing out of the ground, surrounded by plants. A rock that is just dropped somewhere looks as if it fell off a truck.

17. Trees: Many folks are afraid of trees. Men who live to mow their lawns hate them, as they break up the "perfect lawn" and also make it harder to mow. Others argue that trees "destroy the view" (!!!) and saw them down. All approaches are flat-out wrong.

The best views are often those partially obscured. When you can see all of one thing at once, there is no mystery to it and no charm. A view of the lake framed by trees, is charming. A view of the lake, across a denuded plateau, makes one feel like an ant on the kitchen table - exposed and naked.

Probably one reason people spend an average of five minutes looking at the Grand Canyon (according to folklore) is this feeling of exposure and seeing everything at once. We once visited dead horse point (another canyon overlook) and spent hours there, with our RV parked under the trees, and the awning out. The partially obstructed view, through the trees, was more enjoyable than the naked exposed view of the canyon.

Similarly, completely obscuring a view is not enjoyable either. Many people plant a "wall of evergreens" to block a view of a road or other area, or to provide privacy. While such a wall of green is an effective privacy shield, it ends up looking cold and uninviting from both sides of the screen, and also clearly contrived and planted.

It is also human nature to want to be able to see what is going on (probably something from our ancestry eons ago). When a view is totally blocked, it creates anxiety on the viewer, as they have to wonder what is on the other side.

A better approach, I think is to have more randomly planted trees, that provide tantalizing partial views, which show your house attractively and also allow you to "see out" partially, while still providing partial privacy.

Trees also provide shade and shelter as well. Our lake deck lies in the shade of an ancient cottonwood tree that grows nearly out of the lake itself. Many a person (usually men) have commented that the view would be improved if the tree were cut down or trimmed back extensively. But the improved view would be only of our neighbor's dock. The tree, as it is, grows around the deck, giving the viewer the perception of being in a tree house. Cutting down the tree would make the viewer feel only exposed and vulnerable, and also make them hot in the direct sunlight. In other words, most people, in an attempt to "improve" such a setting, would in fact ruin it.

Planting trees fairly close to your house also provides a natural form of air conditioning. Deciduous tress, which drop their leaves in the winter, will provide plenty of summer shade, reducing your cooling bills, while letting in the winter light, reducing your heating bills.

Again, for many folks, the first thing they want to do, is chop down such trees, arguing that they interfere with the "view" or that they will drop a limb on the house, or whatever. Some people, it seems, just hate trees (usually the boorish lite beer set). When their utility bills nearly double after such denuding of a property, they cannot figure out why.

Last year, I planted a maple right in front of our deck. Incredulous neighbors said "but that will block the view!" Of course, it will block part of the view, but only for a few years. Eventually, it will provide a leafy canopy for someone sitting on the deck, who will still see the lake beneath and through the tree. Before, the exposed deck was an uninviting place, exposed to the elements, the harsh sun, and with little or no privacy.

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I could go on, but the point is you can have a beautifully landscaped home, for not a lot of money. It all depends more on the choices that you make and less on spending money at a big-box store.

With a little of your time, and some clever thinking, you can have attractive landscaping, on a budget, which does not end up being a complete time bandit in your life. And if you create such landscaping, put it in a place where you can enjoy it. Because at the end of a hard day of weeding, it is nice to sit in your garden and enjoy the view...