This is the first post from Winston, the new GRS editorial assistant.

My wife and I have saved thousands of dollars by landscaping our own yard.

Four years ago, we were feeling overwhelmed by our back yard. We’d been in our home for a couple of years, had spent some time and money on the inside, and were ready to move on to backyard projects. 

We spent a couple of seasons moving dirt around, trying different types of landscaping materials. This left us lighter in the pocketbook, but still unsatisfied with way things looked. Finally, we decided to contact a landscape architect. But we were worried that we couldn’t afford such a luxury, and doubted anyone would want to work on a small project like ours.

Professional help
After asking the neighbors for recommendations, we discovered somebody who might be able to help. A long-time landscaper had just sold his business to his son-in-law to focus strictly on home landscape design.  We scheduled an initial no-cost appointment with him, and instantly felt he had the skill and understanding to design a useable backyard we could enjoy. 

He bid $500 for the design, which was over our budget. We talked with him about our $350 limit, and he found ways to reduce costs by providing black-and-white designs instead of color, and by leaving some beds for us to design ourselves. 

After talking with us about some types of elements we liked and disliked (such as colors, textures, structures, and plant types), doing some measurements, and a few follow-up meetings, the designer presented us with the plans. 

We received exactly what we were hoping for and could never have done ourselves: a beautiful landscaping plan that worked with both the house and the yard. Because he knew we planned to do the work ourselves over a period of years, the designer provided suggestions about where to begin, what to hire out, and how to implement the plan.

Laying the foundation
Last summer, we tackled phase one of the plan.

A month after we received our plans, a local nursery had a 40%-off “going out of business” sale.  With the designer’s list in hand, we were able to purchase about a third of our total plant materials at a substantial discount. We were worried because we weren’t anywhere near ready to put them into the ground yet. Fortunately, we live in a mild climate, and the plants survived several months in pots. 

Hiring a landscape architect may have been the best thing we did for this project, but the second best was spending money to rent a track hoe to dig a base for the patio and to tear out a dilapidated 80-year-old concrete pond:

It amazes me that the rental yard in town would hand over the keys to such a destructive and powerful machine after only a five minute tutorial to a novice like myself.  What would have taken months, if not years to accomplish by hand, this mighty machine accomplished in two days. 

A third worthwhile expense was to have the concrete professionals come in to frame and pour the patio.  We did the prep work — digging out the base, hauling out several yards of rock by wheelbarrow — but in a little over three hours, the concrete workers ensured a nice shape, proper drainage, and a beautiful pour for just over $800. 
 
To finish last year’s backyard work, we put in the lawn.  The ground was level and the soil was adequate, so all we had to do was rent a roller ($7), add minimal nutrients, and it was ready to go.  We chose to lay sod because we have children and a dog, and it would have been very difficult to keep them out of seed-sown grass for an extended time.  The small area lent itself to sod, and provided instant green for minimal cash outlay. 

Putting it all together
This year, we implemented phase two of our project. Hauling over 16 yards of compost and 1/4″-minus rock by wheelbarrow isn’t fun for most people, but I found it satisfying to see everything come together. Other things we’ve done include:

  • For the past two years, we’d been saving money for the plants, flowers, and shrubs we wanted. With a couple exceptions, we followed the professional design.
  • To build the three large raised gardening beds, some of the wood came from a deck we’d demolished four years ago.
  • To minimize water waste and the mental anguish of dragging hoses around, I installed six faucets in the various beds and gardening areas.

Before we’re finished, we’ll add the final grape arbor and to build a new fence around the garden. 
 
Three years ago, our landscape architect estimated it would cost $25,000 to $30,000 to pay somebody else to implement his plan. By doing most of the work ourselves, we’ve spent a little over $3,500 on building materials, plants, shrubs, compost, soil, gravel, equipment rental, and the water system.  We haven’t tracked our work hours, but our family of four has enjoyed the time outdoors and being together, even if it meant a lot of sweat equity. 

The thrill of having dinner outside on the patio, enjoying the fruits of our labor, has exceeded our high expectations and has made the work and the expense worthwhile.

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