Whether you are hoping to sell your home, or it's summer and you just want an excuse to be outdoors and dig in the dirt, sprucing up your landscaping can be a wise investment. Research has found that sophisticated landscaping with large plants can increase a home's value by as much as 12.7%.
But what are your options if you are trying to make every dollar stretch as far as possible? There are ways to make your yard look more inviting on a budget.
1. Mulch -- for free
Mulch can freshen up a flowerbed and save you time and money (less weeding and watering). Save by snagging free mulch. Some communities offer curbside pickup of lawn waste, which is then turned into mulch that's yours for the asking. "If you simply bring a utility bill (to prove you live within city limits) to the distribution center, you can get free mulch by the truckload," explains Cherie Lowe, blogger and author of "Slaying the Debt Dragon: How One Family Conquered Their Money Monster and Found an Inspired Happily Ever After." Check with your local government to see if there is a program available in your area.
While you are at it, consider composting your food waste. Not only will you send fewer food scraps to the landfill, your plants will love you for it.
2. Prune, trim, pull
Simple pruning, trimming, and weeding can make your yard appear tidy and more attractive. "The best, easiest and most inexpensive way to spruce up a yard is to trim/prune shrubbery, add new mulch or extra rock, and plant some seasonal flowerpots," says Shawn Edwards, managing partner of A+ Lawn & Landscape in Des Moines, Iowa. "An instant and easy makeover!"
If you feel like you are in a constant battle with weeds, consider this inexpensive solution: homemade weed killer. Lowe says she makes her own weed killer from one gallon of white vinegar, 1-2 cups of salt (table or Epsom salts), and a small squeeze of dish detergent. It "can eliminate weeds like nobody's business," she says. "Mix it together in a spray bottle or a bigger weed sprayer and apply," she advises. "It takes 1 -- 2 days for it activate, killing off unwanted weeds, and costs a fraction of the price."
Some gardeners swear by an even cheaper weed killer: boiling water. Simply pour it directly on weeds, avoiding plants you don't want to damage. Since it doesn't cost anything, it is certainly worth a try.
3. Free can be good
One way to make your money go further is to check Craigslist for free or low-cost plants. Garden clubs may also hold plant sales or swaps. Or ask a neighbor for a cutting from one you admire. Better yet, let them know that if they are thinning out their plants, you are happy to help them do that -- and take what's no longer needed.
When Mary Leonard worked at a garden center, she bought plants at a fraction of their cost at the end of the season. In a story on Stretcher.com, she shared how a generous customer gave her hundreds of dollars in free plants and then revealed that she got many of hers for free by offering to dig them up from homes that were going to be demolished.
4. Love your lawn
A freshly cut lawn always looks and smells great. And it can look even more elegant if it's "striped" using an attachment added to a lawnmower. "It always gives your yard that great look whether you have a big or small yard," says Mark Savoree, owner of Savoree Properties. "They are very cost-efficient, as the striper kits normally run $100 to $300."
If you live in an area of the country where grass doesn't grow abundantly, or watering restrictions make it impractical to maintain a lush lawn, native grasses can be a practical alternative. "In drought areas like California, replacing a turf grass with a native or climate-compatible grass can substantially reduce costs," says Cassy Aoyagi, president of FormLA Landscaping in Los Angeles.
5. Buy smart
Before you plant, get your soil tested to help you understand which types of plants or grasses will grow best on your property, suggests Jeff Oddo, president of City Wide Maintenance. "This will leave you with lush lawns, shrubs, and flowers -- instead of an unsightly exterior and money wasted on dead and dying landscaping," he says. Inexpensive testing may be available through your cooperative extension service (see the final tip).
He also urges homeowners to know their climate and "pay attention to placement and understand how much sun/shade your plant needs to ensure it looks its best all season long."
6. Plant local
"Substantial cost savings are possible with native foliage, as they will be naturally climate-appropriate and many are perennial, saving annual planting costs," says Aoyagi. "Also, natives will thrive without costly chemical fertilizers and pesticides." These plants can also invite wildlife, such as birds and butterflies, making your surroundings even more attractive. Wild Ones, a not-for-profit environmental education and advocacy organization, offers information on starting native plant projects.
7. Lighten it up
Try outdoor lighting. "Outdoor lighting can be done for as little as $50," says Steve Bollinger, owner of Landscaping by Andr in Scottsdale, Ariz. "You can add night-time visibility, security, decorative, and do it yourself for anywhere from $50 to $500, depending on the size of your space," he says.
"LED solar lights can add a warm hue (and safety) to your environment, and they are great for areas used for entertaining since they don't attract bugs," says Danyelle Kukuk, vice president of category and product management at Batteries Plus Bulbs. For spot and flood lights, she recommends LED bulbs: "These will save 86% energy, last over 20 years, and retain light levels so the yard will shine bright even when autumn comes back around," she says.
8. Ask the experts
Have questions about choosing plants or helping the ones you already have thrive? Expert help may be available for free through your local cooperative extension program, or through volunteer programs and services offered by " master gardeners," individuals who are trained in horticulture and then volunteer in their communities. In my community, for example, master gardeners are available to answer questions at no charge at local libraries on a specific Saturday each month. Not long ago, I picked the brain of one stationed at a local home improvement store to dispense advice. (She wasn't there to sell something; in fact, her advice included the phone number of someone she knew who was giving away some plants.)