10 Landscaping Tricks and Tips to Lower Costs, Have a Beautiful Yard

Newspaper (image) can smother your grass. Apply mulch to weigh it down.
David Beaulieu

No article on landscaping tricks and tips will be exhaustive, not only because of the enormous scope of the topic, but also due to its anecdotal nature. One could easily assemble hundreds of pearls of wisdom on the topic simply by striking up conversations with local gardeners. In terms of the scope of this article, I will be giving you a taste of a number of sub-topics but will begin by focusing on converting everyday items into useful supplies to help lower costs in yard maintenance.

Recycling Everyday Items for Use in Your Landscaping

The first four entries in this Top 10 list of landscaping tricks and tips involve the creative use of items you probably have lying around the house—especially after coming home from grocery shopping. Re-think the utility of the following items and put them to use in your yard maintenance efforts and lower your landscaping costs:

  • Twist ties and the Velcro straps that bind bunches of lettuce
  • Plastic spoons and knives
  • Newspapers
  • Vinegar

The trick in using these items:

The binding items in #1 come in handy in maintaining your landscaping. Different types can serve different purposes. The twist ties sometimes wrapped around bunches of lettuce are longer than the ones that secure bread bags. The shorter twist ties are perfect for training vines on chain-link fencing. The longer type is better suited to securing vines to the posts of garden arbors. Lettuce is also often bound with Velcro-like ties; I sometimes use these to tie up perennial flowers that need support, such as Maltese cross. If the perennial's width is too great for one to do the job, I'll use additional ties, each supported with a stake if necessary.

Plastic spoons and knives can serve as temporary plant labels. Inscribe the plant name in pencil, as (somewhat counter-intuitively) it tends to hold up better against the elements than ink (even most magic-marker inscriptions tend to fade fast). For larger plant labels, see my tutorial on recycling plastic pots into plant markers. Because the latter are more attractive than spoons and knives, you may wish to keep them as permanent markers. These are just two of the many ideas for making plant labels out of recycled items lying around your property.

Newspapers can be applied as a smothering agent over a lawn area that you wish to convert into a flower bed. I explain in my tutorial on how to kill grass. This trick lowers costs, as you do not have to go out and buy herbicide for the project; and it's more conducive to green living to boot.

Turning from killing grass to killing broad-leaved weeds, have you ever thought of vinegar as a weed killer? You should. Even boiling water will kill some weeds. Next time you have finished boiling something on the stove, don't throw the water away; (carefully) exploit its weed-killing capacity.

Landscaping Tips to Lower Costs More Substantially:

You may object that implementing most of the above suggestions will save you but a bit of money. Fair enough (although every little bit counts). But the next three tricks on my list will lower your landscaping costs substantially:

  • Do the bulk of your watering early in the day to avoid evaporation
  • Vary your route across the lawn to reduce the impact of foot traffic
  • Buy plants "on the cheap"

Why these tips lower the cost of landscaping:

Chances are good that one of your biggest landscaping costs is watering, especially if you have a gigantic lawn and a strong desire for perpetually green grass. So any tips that help you save water will also help you lower costs. One way to save water is to ensure that as little of it is wasted as possible. Since a lot of water can be wasted through evaporation, it makes sense to water early in the day, before the sun ascends very high in the sky. If you are a sleepy head like me and do not rise that early, consider investing in a lawn irrigation system and programming it to water early in the day. If you have a big lawn, this type of system will eventually pay for itself.

The reasoning behind that tip may be fairly obvious. But what about my tip on varying your route across the lawn? This thought is definitely more off-beat; if money isn't an issue, building a walkway to save the wear and tear on your grass is preferable. But my tip is still worth considering if you are landscaping on a budget and desperately trying to lower costs.

Let's say the route in question is between your driveway and your outdoor storage shed. What I'm suggesting is that you make a conscious effort not to traverse the same poor, over-trodden blades of grass every time you make the trip. In this way, you'll save the grass and lower costs for landscaping, because you can forgo that walkway construction. When you have sufficient funds, however, you might want to consider going ahead and building the walkway, since, if done properly, it could increase the real-estate value of your property. As a compromise solution, make your own stepping stones and build a walkway that costs hardly anything.

If you buy a lot of plants for your landscape, then buying "on the cheap" can lower costs significantly. It's partly a matter of timing. Cheap plants (mainly annuals) can be had at some garden centers after July 4th (U.S.). You may have to nurse them back to health, but they are a bargain-hunter's delight. Meanwhile, some nurseries may wish to clear out space for new inventory in late fall and put trees and/or shrubs on sale at that time.

Tips for Suppressing Unwanted Plants

Weeds are obviously unwanted plants, but they do not occupy this category all by themselves. Others that merit the "unwanted" description include invasive plants and plants that are just too darn aggressive for their own good. The next two entries on my list are tips on suppressing unwanted plants:

  • Use straw mulch rather than hay mulch
  • Restrict an aggressive plant with a homemade barrier

Why these tips make sense:

Landscape mulch is an important component in weed-control efforts. But to get the most bang for your buck, carefully consider which type of mulch best addresses your needs. Bark mulch is the most popular for front-yard landscaping. In more of a private garden setting, I like straw or hay and prefer straw. Here's why.

For beginners, those terms may seem interchangeable, but they are not. If you are thinking, "We're just talking about dried grass either way, right?" then you'd better re-think that notion. "Hay" is harvested when the grass has gone to seed, because that seed contains nutritional value for the farm animals for whom it is harvested as feed. "Straw" consists of the stalks left over after a harvest and is given to the farm animals for bedding. Hay is, consequently, full of seeds (unless it has decomposed); straw is not. So if you use hay indiscriminately, you may be introducing unwanted plants rather than suppressing them with an effective mulch.

The homemade barrier for an aggressive plant to which I alluded above may surprise you: it's the pot that the plant came in when you bought it! That is, if you buy a plant that you suspect has aggressive growth habits, try planting it in the ground while still contained in the pot—except use an Exacto knife or similar sharp object to remove the bottom of the pot, allowing for better drainage. The effect is rather like installing a bamboo barrier. But this trick is probably feasible only for small plants.

Landscape Design Tips: Just Enough to Get You Going

Designing a garden is a complex topic and clearly beyond the scope of this article. But there are a few basic tricks of the trade that are easy for beginners to understand and implement immediately to achieve a beautiful yard. For example, installing a physical boundary for your property sets it off (frames or defines it) and can make all the difference in the world. That boundary can be a hedge, stone wall, wooden fence, etc.

Knowing a few basic ideas from color theory can be very helpful to beginners. For example, did you know that red flowers can make a yard look larger?

But if I could supply just one landscape design tip to complete my list of 10 suggestions, it would be this:

  • Vary form and texture while still maintaining unity

That is, for optimal effect, establish unity in your design by repeating the same plant type, rather than creating a mish-mash. Small plants in particular are most effective when grown in masses. Consider how much less effective a small planting of tulips would be than the mass planting shown in this picture of red tulips.

But to keep this unified look from becoming boring, balance it out with a judicious injection of pizazz. You can achieve this by varying the plant forms and textures you employ in your landscaping.