So when it comes to free backyard landscaping ideas, I ‘m moved by this reader request:
I love the pics I see in all the gardening magazines I subscribe to. But it doesn’t help me at all, because the hardscaping alone is well above my budget, and I have no gardener working diligently to keep it all looking great. How can I achieve something nearly as pretty on a retiree’s budget and just my own two hands to manage it?
This is indeed the problem we all face – in one way or other -when we want something to look great and do it on a limited budget.
I ‘m a rich man. But not in financial terms.
While sometimes I might wish I were, the reality of being in the nursery and writing business is that I haven ‘t managed to find a pathway to financial riches.
Having said that, I have some things that rich people can only dream of getting and no amount of money is going to bring them a happy family or a loving partner.
Or a wonderful garden filled with their own soul.
Still With Me?
OK – here ‘s how I manage to make my garden look like a magazine garden.
In plain talk, you can’t have a budget landscaping project with no skills or lack of enthusiasm or indeed a willingness to work hard. You have to want to learn new skills and work as hard as you can if you want to succeed.
There are several deceptively simple things I do. And if you do these things, you too can have a great garden without spending a lot of money – we ‘re talking budget gardening here folks.
In order to have a great garden and do it using free backyard landscaping ideas and budget landscaping techniques is that you have to know *how* to garden.
If you don ‘t understand or want to learn a few simple techniques to have a wonderful backyard garden, then nothing else I ‘m going to tell you is going to make much sense.
Learn To Propagate Plants
If you think I’ve purchased every plant that ever went into my garden, you don ‘t know me or my Scottish heritage upbringing.
I’ve learned how to grow all kinds of plants from seeds, cuttings, divisions and roots.
The easy way to get free plants is to propagate them yourself.
Important Gardening Skills
Doing these things right will save you money in the long run because you won’t stress your plants (stressed plants get attacked by insects and disease)
You need to know how to water.
Seriously – in the nursery business there’s a very old saying, “He who holds the hose holds the profits.” If you learn this skill, you’ll be ahead of 90% of other gardeners.
You need to know how to feed your plants and you need to know how to prune your plants.
Once you master those three skills (watering, feeding, propagating), your garden will look 500% better just because of the gardener ‘s touch.
Those are free skills for the learning. But ignore these skills and no amount of free backyard landscaping ideas or advice from me is going to change a darn thing in your yard.
You Get To Scrounge
You read right. You ‘d be amazed what kinds of things you can pick up from salvage yards (like plywood for window boxes). Or go behind the big box lumber stores and look at what they toss away. There ‘s enough stuff there to build any number of window boxes and planter stands.
Yard sales and rummage sales – not to mention flea markets – are full of interesting things that can be repurposed into the garden
How about salvage yards for brick landscaping jobs.
What about contacting local landscapers and asking them when they redo a landscaping job – can you come around and take the old pavers?
What about freecycle.org or your local free Internet want-ad sites such as Craigslist or Kajijii. You won ‘t believe how much free stuff is there and with a bit of patience, you can find darn near anything you need or want.
Put up your own ad in the spring with what you ‘re looking for (haul it away free for you to remove it from your renovation project).
Get creative about finding stuff. Talk to tree trimming services, you ‘re going to find a ready source of wood chips for mulch.
You have to ask the right question
You don’t have to be “creative” and “artsy” here. Just ask the right question. (see below)
Free backyard landscaping ideas aren’t only found in gardening magazines and websites. Go through a craft or building magazine and ask, “How can I use *that* idea in my backyard garden? ”
Go through a house-building magazine – what kinds of walls coverings are the green architects using? What kinds of surface coverings? What construction materials?
The question is – not what are these folks using these materials for but – what can I use this stuff for in my garden? Be wild – you can always recycle it yourself if it doesn’t work out.
Read and Dream
Yeah, I know – you get told this all the time but read magazines, scan websites looking for great pictures. But it ‘s true. The more you read- the more you learn and the more ideas you pick up.
Books are free at the local library. So you don ‘t even have to buy them yourself. The Net is full of garden pictures.
OK, that was all the good news about free backyard landscaping ideas – the stuff you can do.
My reality is that I can ‘t create a great looking garden overnight.
I do what I can – learn what I need, afford what I can and move on.
The hardscape goes in as I can afford it and the plants follow along.
And when I have enough plants (if you ever have enough plants), then I ‘m propagating more and upgrading the hardscape.
It ‘s a creative process in my garden that never stops, never ceases to amuse me or indeed, inspire me to do better. And in my mind, that’s the important thing about gardening for me.
Sharing Your Ideas
An ongoing sharing adventure we have to figure out ways to lower the costs of creating a fun garden!
Readers have been submitting their frugal gardening suggestions and I posted them here – please add yours to the comment section.
Two thrifty ideas
by Jan Phipps (Illinois, USA)
1. Free manure = free fertilizer. Find a livestock farmer or horse stables and offer to clean out their stalls if you get to keep the manure. If possible, look for Llama breeders. Llama’s back up to the same spot to poop creating a convenient mound of llama beans (they poop pellets) making it very easy to scoop into containers or the back of a pickup.
2. Befriend a gardener with an established perennial garden. Some perennials need to be divided every 3 – 5 years and most gardeners can’t stand to throw away extra plants so are always on the look out for an appreciative fellow gardener.
Doug says – thanks Jan – never knew that about Llama poop. Man, the things you learn on the Web. LOL.
Help others divide for free transplants
by Beth H (northern Michigan)
Look for larger, well established gardens in your area. Perhaps the owner would like some help in the spring or fall with dividing, and would be happy to give you free divisions in exchange.
At this point, I have ‘too much’ for the space I garden. So each spring and fall I just put random things out by the road, unidentified with a sign that says ‘free perennials’. I don’t pot them or take any particular care – it’s just easier than composting them. If someone wanted to help divide, and had a little knowledge, I’d be happy to let them have nice divisions, identified, and with nice rootballs and soil…
Doug says – nice to be in your neighborhood and this is a really good idea – a great way to make new friends and get new plants.
Share plants with your neighbours
by Debbie (Nanaimo)
I have great neighbours. We have shared boxwoods, California redwood saplings, red western cedar saplings, flowers, tree sprouts that come up in the yard, vegetables, dahlia bulbs, seeds of everything, plants we are separating, tips to propagate, etc, etc,. It is great to walk the neighbourhood and see your plants doing well in your neighbours yards!!
When they tore down a house on the street behind me, I asked for the old chimney bricks and they gave them to me.
When they built a new school, I asked for the tree chippings and they drove their truck over and dumped a double load on my driveway for me.
The recycling place always has garden items for next to nothing.
We have a seed exchange every spring and you can either trade your seeds or buy seed packets for $.25. Last year I had 180 packages of seeds to trade – didn’t have to buy any seeds for the garden!
Free aids to propagation
by Cheryl (London, Ont.)
The “clam shell” clear plastic containers that hold salad leaves in the supermarket are no longer recyclable in our area. Reuse is better than recycling anyway–use the containers as small greenhouses for cuttings or seeded flats. They increase humidity which helps cuttings get started, especially when you place them on your (carefully protected) heating pad (instead of an expensive professional heat mat) turned on low. Success with cuttings and many seeds is more likely with bottom heat, about 10 degrees warmer than your household air temperature.
Join a Garden Club
Most communities have a Garden Club with very knowledgable people who know local conditions, have tons of good advice, sometimes will drop by to do a “walk through” and make suggestions for your garden. Great contacts for ‘give-aways” – just remembering, giving is a 2-way activity. And many have door prizes at their meetings – I have won blueberry plants, lavendar, daylilies, wild flower seeds – all coming just at the right time. Larger communities also have groups that specialize in one kind of plant, so you can find Dahlia Clubs, Water Gardening groups, etc. Check with your local Parks, Recreation & Culture department for contacts.
Raised Garden Beds
by Stephen Peck (Denham Springs, La)
When you got lousy soil then plant on top by using raised beds from landscape timbers. Add mulch to the bottom of bed and then mix in good soil, manure and a multi fertilizer to start with.
Use the same plants every year
The way I have always had a cheap and beautiful garden is buying perrinials when they go on sale at the end of the season and planting them the next year.
Bringing in the soft or tender perennials AND the annuals. They may get smaller. They may stop growing. Half of them may die.
But you can plant all of them in the garden and they will grow bigger fsater than if you bought new.
And reading. Those are my 2 peices of advice.
Bring in the plants and read anything you can about the plants you have
by Jocelyn Weatherbe (Toronto)
If you have a bad view, such as an ugly building past your fence, don’t try to cover or screen it out completely. If it’s big then that can be an impossible or at the very least an expensive project.
Instead use something more interesting in your yard to distract the eye and keep it from seeing the bad view. Statuary, water feature, rose covered arbour, etc.
Or you can frame the view and turn it into art.
Almost dead flowers, trees & bushes
by Faith (NJ)
Go to any box garden store and you will find plants that no one will bring home. Almost ead. Bring them home anyway and baby them back to health. Most can be a bright addition to your garden at a fraction of the regular price.
by Anita (Whitesboro, TX)
Part of landscaping includes not only water, pruning, propagating, but also composting. Part of that garden shall also include a compost pile strategically placed in a part of your beautiful yard. I spent not a dime on mine. I found some wood planks and made a border, then used sticks, leaves and such for the first layer and went from there: grass clippings, cuttings from vegies. I’ve got horses, so I have all the poop in the world. If you know someone with horses, ask for their poop!
Also, I found a bunch of my landscaping stuff at yard sales, specifically for the vegy garden. It takes a bit more time, but you can do it on a dime and it can look like you spent thousands!
Frugal Gardening Tips for Recycling
These frugal gardening tips were suggested by readers and I’ve moved them all here to make it easier for you to comment and add your own advice in the comments section below. There are other pages (linked at bottom) that have separate tips on them – I hope you find them useful.
by Carrie (Seattle)
Doug, You are awesome and I love your no-nonsense style. It gives me confidence to work with people that tell it like it is.
I thought I was going to need to buy flowers to fill in landscaping in my yard, but while weeding and clearing I kept finding little flowering plants that had started themselves in crowded areas. I carefully removed them, and replanted in strategic spots.
I had bunch of ornamental grasses getting spread out everywhere looking messy. I was going to get rid of them, but decided some containers against the back or the house would be great, since I need to keep the perimeter of my stucco home clear.
The rest I put in plastic bags to hold the soil and roots and put out for my neighbors to buy or trade for a plant from their yard. Thanks!
Using old rain gutters
I learnt the other day that old guttering along a fence is a great way to grow lettuce, etc. The person who was using this method had a great display of lettuce and herbs. I’m definitely going to give it a go.
As I live in Brisbane the weather is soooo unpredictable, it’s now our wet season and after the last hot spell all my juvenile watermelon and butternut pumpkin cooked in the heat, even though they were being fed and watered OK. Very frustrating, but I do find that vegetable gardening in Brisbane can be very frustrating indeed, hence the need to be very innovative with shade/sun and watering.
Mulch for Recycling
Mulch can be good 2 ways – to keep moisture in your flower or vegetable patch and to smother things you don’t want.
For smothering, recycle newspaper (several layers) and cover with grass clippings. The clippings will anchor the newspaper and degrade to upgrade soil, all while not looking too ugly.
I mulch flower and vegetable beds with lawn clippings as well. You can do this easily (and find a place for your clippings) as long as you a)don’t chem your lawn, and b) do read up on what else is needed to feed the plants.
I consider this recycling at it’s finest..
Frugal Gardening Tips: How to Save on Perennials and Auctions
Readers have been submitting frugal gardening ideas, see the links at the bottom, and have shared them with you to hopefully make your garden a bit more affordable.
I hope you find them useful and pass some of them along to your gardening friends.
Sell your extra perennials
by Karen (BC interior)
Years ago I wanted to start some interesting geraniums (annuals) but the price at 25 cents a seed seemed hard to justify. I quieted my conscience by buying about 5 kinds, growing almost all the seeds and selling the extras. After that first year I overwintered at least one or two of each color and took as many slips as I could and again sold any extras.
I’ve gotten lazier with the annual geraniums the last few years because I now have a lot of perennials. Each year I buy a few kinds but usually only one of each. I plant it in a spot with good soil, leave it a year or two until it’s a nice clump and then divide it. That also gives me a chance to see what it’s like. Then I plant it where I want it in my yard. After being in this house for 10 years, I have a wide variety of perennials (also thanks to gardening friends who’ve given me some)and plenty to give away and sell.
I’ve also used selling perennial plants as a fundraiser. The cost is almost nothing for the people donating, you make some money and help a lot of other gardeners.
When selling plants I figure in the cost of anything I purchased – pots, seeds or soil but still try to sell them fairly cheap. That way I make money and a lot of gardening friends.
Auctions and Other Frugal Gardening Tips
by Anita (Mechanicsburg, PA)
I’ve bought a lot of old wheel barrels, garden pots, window boxes, and even a fountain that sits in the yard/garden and such for dirt cheap just going to a local auction!
It doesn’t cost anything to go, except your time to sit through it until they get to what you’re wanting. (And some auctions let you do silent bids so you don’t even have to be there to get the goods!)
It sure beats sitting at home wanting the stuff for your garden and not being able to afford it! Most auctions even have pictures online of what they’re selling way before the events so you can see what is being auctioned that day.
I check out the local gardening stores/nurseries for marked down items in off season. I have many bulbs (recent is 50 bulbs in a bag of daffodils for 1.00!) So I can’t plant them now, and perhaps some of them may not bloom, but chances are a lot of them will grow just fine! Also, I have house plants that didn’t sell after winter holidays that I paid pennies for. Currently poinsettias are free!
And if you’re lucky, you’ll have someone not too far from you that has a greenhouse that sells perennials cheaper than you can find in the stores! Found a sweet retired couple on my way to the farmers market one day selling them out of their yard!
I also, like Doug mentioned, use freecycle. Many free flowers and plants from people dividing and not wanting to replant or not having enough space to replant.
Frugal Gardening from Rocks, Groundcovers to Tools
Buy only what you are able and willing to care for
Henry in Milwaukee, US
More than half of the plants avid garden lovers buy, (especially when spring comes around,) die soon after, because, in the hectic daily hustle bustle, we forgot to water them. Don’t spend your pretty penny on those pretty pots and plants in your (expensive) neighborhood nursery, if you know (from past experience or otherwise) already that you are not cut out to look after them for more than the first week of exuberance. Because,year after year, the story always ends the same way: a big waste of money and an even bigger heartbreak.
by Anna (Canada)
Stones are a real boost to your beds as they add a touch of interest, look like they are meant to be there as if naturally erupting from the environment and do good things for heat distribution and cooling too. It’s always fun to get something for nothing, so I go to land fills, excavations and pick up free rock that have texture, color or good form.
Start Groundcover Before You Need It
If you know you will need ground cover in a year or so, buy a flat now and split it up into a number of flats or pots. I planted a whole hillside with Campanula poscharskyana plants I grew from 1 flat a year earlier.
“Useless” Garden Tools
by Robin J. Steinweg (Wisconsin)
I picked up an old, old garden rake, a hoe, and an unidentified tool with a long handle for twenty-five cents each at a yard sale. I pushed the handles into the soil of my flower garden, tied the tops together with twine to form a tripod, and had a quirky trellis for some flowering vines. As a bonus, the birds love to perch on it and sing.
Look for clearance flowers, One year, I purchased 10 pots of Mums for 50 cents a piece, all because they were done blooming. The following year they came up and I was able to divide them giving me more flowers.
Frugal Gardening Tip on Soils, Mulching and More
Soil Costs Solved
by London (Weatherford, TX)
Often times the big home supply stores move things with a fork lift…a fork lift has forks!!!…those forks tend to rip and tear bags of mulch and soil so they throw em out or stack em in a corner to send back to the supplier…if you find the right person to ask,
They will often times sell these broken bags by the pallet full for next to nothing!
Seriously for pennies on the dollar…and if you make “friends” with that right person…they will save them for you and let you know what kind of great deals they have hidden away…also these same stores buy their plants in great bulk and then stack em so high and close that they don’t all get the required water and sunlight needed…
These plants CAN BE SALVAGED! I know cuz I’ve done it…buy em at a discount and revive em in your garden or flower beds!
by Leslea Schofield (Burlington, NC)
My Hints to Doug’s Blog: Buy mulch in bulk from a shrubbery/nursery… Share with a neighbor to cut down on the overall cost and delivery fee. We bought 24 cubic yards at Christmas and have been applying it to trenched beds which will lessen my lawn space. (I live in NC and we have had a VERY mild winter thus allowing me to get out of doors) I have incorporated my existing trees and flower beds into joined beds to create defined areas and basically I am naturalizing more of my lawn to decrease mowing.
I always put down landscape fabric before mulching to decrease weeds and the maintenance that comes with them. Also, it keeps my beds looking sharpper and more defined. I use white cider vinegar= cheap in a sprayer to maintain any rogue weeds/grass that sprount on the border of my mulched beds…It will kill grass so be careful on your sprayer’s trajectory. It is safe to pets and wildlife.
Propagation and Recycling Planters
by Jamie (Southern Mississippi)
Learning to propagate has been a huge $$$ saver for me! I keep multiplying several of my favorites to build my vision in my yard… hostas, day lilies, monkey grass, verbena, lantana, loropetalum, dwarf gardenia, crepe mrytles…. oh the list goes on…. I like things that multiply and I can divide. I offer to share with my gardening friends… and in turn many gardening friends will share back!
I try to design most of my beds with perennials that will take the heat of the deep south (I am zone 8) and of course my bushes mixed for background.
We built a brick patio area using leftover bricks from building our house…. then a few years later when we could afford some lumber added a pergola to frame the patio out. A free cutting of wisteria from my mother in law… had a base for my favorite garden spot!
I also added some steps on a hilly area using leftover bricks. I reuse and recycle as much as I can. I make my own hanging planters using recycled baskets from previous years! Just add my own plants which is tons cheaper than buying a pre made hanging plant.
Another great source is clearance section at my local Lowes or Walmart. My Lowes in particular will clearance great. I check regularly if in town. Last year I got $18 knock out rose bushes for just $2 each! Yes they looked pitiful… it was nearing the end of the season. But I need some good fillers for a new bed… and took a chance! With some pruning and love and care they are thriving and for $6 I have a great focal point in my bed!
I need to take some pictures. My yard is in my head… and each year I work more and more towards what I hope it will one day be. Starting out can be overwhelming. But you must start somewhere. I focus on 1 area at a time… ESP. When the heat cranks up… that way it is easier to keep new things watered and ensure they live… once established most are pretty low maintenance
Free rocks and materials..and free plants, too
by Julie (Ontario, Canada)
Most new home contruction sites have a variety of materials just for the asking! I have asked at least 5 home builders for permission to scavenge through the materials they will just dump at the end of the day, and most are happy to allow me to take away whatever I wan(th eless THEY have to haul away, the better!). I have taken rocks, boulders, 2×4’s, plywood, copper pipes, windows & doors (yes, you read this correctly! Hubby made me a garden shed with all free materials from construction sites!), curbs (which make great garden borders), bricks, pavers, etc.
Also, many old farm homes in our area are set for demolition so that big condos and neighbourhoods can be built, and the gardens are usually still ripe with a good variety of flowers and plants. Housing developers raze them anyway, so one quick call to the property owner for permission usually nets me a weekend of digging free shrubs, flowers, and bulbs and transplanting them into my garden.
by Nicole (Pana, Illinois, USA)
I start with small projects so that I don’t overwhelm myself with the work (I am away from home 11 hrs a day.) My choice of flowers is perennials that are drought and heat resistance since that is usually the type of weather we have in Illinois during the summer.
While working on one spot, observe the conditions in another spot. Is it shady most of the day? or does it get morning sun? easy to get to?
Pots and containers – paint works magic and can be found at craft stores pretty cheap with a coupon.
Be creative – just because it is not called a flower pot doesn’t mean it can’t have a flower living in it.
Clay pots do not hold water and will tend to dry the soil out quickly, so if you cannot water every night, do not use clay pots. The clay pots can be used to hold tools or seed packets, or forks for the picnic table.
Start a plant swap with the neighborhood, family or friends.
I hope this series of inexpensive ways to add to your gardening adventure has been a worthwhile one and it’s given you some new ideas.
See links at the bottom of the page for even more
Seeds Rather than Plants for Super Frugal Gardening
(West Chester, PA)
I guess this is a no-brainer but I buy and trade seeds rather than purchasing plants. It may take an extra year for a perennial to produce flowers, but it is worth is to me.
Also, I really study plants that I might want and pick out one a year.
I save up for it and check out which garden center has the lowest price on a good quality plant. A garden center near me puts all the perennials on sale for half price when they are done blooming. I check the plants very carefully and occasionally find a good bargain here.
Again, you will have to wait until the next year to see it bloom, but tuck it into your garden and have some patience.
It takes a little while to build your garden this way but I think the planning and doing are a large part of gardening pleasure.
Topping off those Flower Stakes
I needed to mark where I moved some Perennials this past fall so I used thin bamboo stakes. As these were tall I left them in the garden and used those foam Christmas ornaments ( $1.00 at the dollar store) with the jewels & glitter & the large plastic balls & put them down over the stakes.
The stakes are different heights so I still have a colorful garden in Ohio even with 2 feet of snow. They’ve been there for 5 months; so far none have faded or dissolved. I also use those colorful glass water feeding globes (again the dollar store) over a trimmed stake in the summer so I don’t put a stake in my eye when deadheading & weeding.
Frugal Plant Shopping with Canadian Tire Money
I save all the Canadian tire money during the year and at the end of summer when plants go for .49C or so I purchase what I can. They may not bloom that year but they do the following one. Sometimes I loose one or two.
The money part only works for Canadians but the low price sure happens every where.
Free mulch from public spaces
The maintenance man at our county courthouse has a big lawn to maintain and at this time of the year there are plenty of trees dropping their leaves. He has to vacuum up the fallen leaves and do something with them…he used to haul them up into the nearby woods (this is a rural area of NW PA) and dump them.
Now he hauls them to my front yard, the leaves already shredded by the vacuum device, and dumps them there. I get mulch and soil ammendment that doesn’t blow away like whole leaves would. I haul said material to my back yard where they’ll sit for a season or two in an out-of-the-way spot and become the nicest rotted soil ammendment I’ve ever found.
When I dig into the piles next spring, I’ll find HUGE earthworms in the lower levels. And it’s all FREE.
Doug says super idea – and in communities where folks bag their leaves and leave them on the curb, this is just gold waiting to be picked up. And yeah, I know that some municipalities frown on this but …
My frugal gardening idea is “free plants”
When you see a garden that you like and can manage to see the gardener as well, ask him or her for cuttings and for plants that need periodic division like shasta daisies, daylillies, bearded iris etc. ask if you could have some when they do that task and perhaps volunteer to help.
Also in the Spring, many “weeds”are just the progeny of vigorous reseeder/reproducers such as coneflowers, some daisies, alysium,dahlias–askif you can take some of the weeds. Most gardeners are happy to share
Doug says that’s the key – most gardeners are indeed happy to share extra plants and you’ll find them in your own neighborhood.
by Beth H
Once you learn to propagate plants you have, look for plant exchanges in your area – often run by local garden clubs. It’s a way to trade the extras you’ve propagated for something you don’t have.
Doug says that this is a great idea – and I know there are quite a few of these run by local horticultural societies in our area as well. Great idea
Add Your Frugal Gardening Tip In The Comments Below