Do-it-yourself landscaping can save thousands

Do-it-yourself landscaping can save thousands

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.

More about...Home & Garden, Budgeting, Planning

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J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

As Winston notes, doing it yourself can save hundreds or thousands of dollars. I think it’s important to understand your limitations when undertaking such projects, however. As he notes, he was willing to pay for certain tasks (design, pouring concrete) because they were outside his area of expertise. Kris and I have done a lot of work on this house and yard. We’ve done some of this ourselves, but we’ve also opted to pay others to do certain tasks. As I mentioned earlier this summer, we just paid to have work done on our electrical system. I’m okay wiring an… Read more »

Garrett
Garrett
11 years ago

How does installing six faucets minimize water waste? I understand the hose-dragging frustration, but saving water? Even if it does I don’t know that the water savings will equal the embedded energy in 5 extra faucets.

Jules
Jules
11 years ago

I never even thought about having a pro do a consultation and design. I always figured if you consulted a pro it was to have them do all the work too which was obviously out of our budget. We designed our own yard plan and I do like it but I could see how a pro would have a more critical eye for details than we did. I will have to keep this in mind when we purchase a larger place someday.

Jake
Jake
11 years ago

Your yard looks beautiful! What a wonderful mix of uses it lends itself to. Congratulations.

Alison Wiley
Alison Wiley
11 years ago

We, too, landscaped our own back yard, and then our front yard (having gained some experience). They both look lovely, and yes, would have cost many thousands if hired out. Now our college-grad housemate Scott tends and manages our vegetable and berry gardens in exchange for free rent (which helps him repay his student loans faster).

All of the creativity and interaction has been rewarding . . . much juicier than conventional, standard-cost modes of doing things. Less consumption can create more joy for both people and planet.
http://www.diamondcutlife.org/

Frugal Bachelor
Frugal Bachelor
11 years ago

Why not just drive down to your neighborhood Home Depot, load your truck full of wetbacks, and give them a case of Bud Light for their trouble, maybe $5 tip if they do exceptionally good job, which they probably will. Problem solved. IMHO there is something fundamentally un-American about a white man operating any type of heavy machinery.

PJohn
PJohn
11 years ago

Frugal Bachelor – You are kidding, right?

Even if you are kidding, I find your comment offensive and ignorant.

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

Frugal Bachelor, your comment makes my brain hurt. I’m tempted to remove it for you, but I’ll let you make that decision. E-mail me if you decide that comment seems as ill-advised to you as it does to me.

Randy
Randy
11 years ago

Very good article. What’s interesting to me is that landscaping is an incredibly competitive business; and even with all of the money you might pay to contractors to do the work, they still go out of business all the time.

bryan
bryan
11 years ago

while you only posted one picture of part of your yard, i cannot fathom your landscape project costing between 25-30k for a professional to complete

i own a landscaping company and nothing you have mentioned/posted seems out of the ordinary???

care to share some more pictures? looks nice…

Frugal Bachelor
Frugal Bachelor
11 years ago

JD, I stand by my comment. I used to live in PDX (97203 – St. Johns!) and I know there are tons of illegal immigrants in that area who would be incredibly thankful to to get just a few hours of work at America’s minimum wage (roughly ten times that of Mexico and even more over other the countries in Central and South America). Here in Texas, not more than just a couple hours drive from the border, there are many more illegal immigrants than where you live, JD, willing to do quality, back-breaking work for very low wages. Do… Read more »

Curt
Curt
11 years ago

The problem is that its very difficult to get your money back when you sell your house if you spend thousands of dollars in landscaping. It’s one of those things that a home owner has to do – it goes with owning a house. I better way to get out of the work, since you know it isn’t compensated for when purchasing a house, it you buy a house that already has the landscaping done. So – when are you selling?

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

Hm. I think there’s a failure in communication here. Frugal Bachelor, I am very sympathetic to the plight of immigrants — legal or otherwise — and agree that, as you said, “they are the shit, they are bad asses who work very hard, and can earn a buck anywhere they go, they are role models for all of us aspiring to be frugal, to save money, and to get rich slowly.”

Yes. Absolutely.

However, your first comment seemed dismissive of Mexican immigrants (legal or otherwise), not supportive.

Martha
Martha
11 years ago

I worry about the fact that you’ve used wood from an old deck in the garden. Wood for decks and play structures until recently was usually pressure-treated with an arsenic solution and is now regarded as toxic. I hope you’ll get the wood tested. It seriously isn’t anything to take lightly. The EPA halted sales of most wood treated this way in 2004, but it had been used for twenty years beforehand. Here’s the EPA website on pressure-treated wood:
http://www.epa.gov/oppad001/reregistration/cca/cca_qa.htm

Ellie
Ellie
11 years ago

I agree with J.D., Frugal Bachelor, your first comment was offensive, not just because of the racial slur, but because of the insinuation that a “white man” is unable or somehow “above” doing manual labor, especially in their own yard.

Loretta B
Loretta B
11 years ago

A landscape designer who is a member of my local time-bank will be designing a backyard habitat for me this winter when her busuness is slow. I can’t wait! My little bird friends will be soooo spoiled! I am worried about the cost of all the plantings, though – you got very lucky getting so many plants at 40% off.

Funny about Money
Funny about Money
11 years ago

Interesting post. Maybe the most daunting thing M’hijito and I have faced in renovating the Investment House is its huge, feral yard. It really does leave you wondering where to start. Your idea of having a pro give you a design at the outset and then moving forward, on your own and a step at a time, as you can afford it–good thinking!! Here in AZ, we hire Mexican immigrants when we can, although a…well, let’s use the word: racist program to push them out of the country is in full swing. I’ve found them to be hard workers, sometimes… Read more »

abc
abc
11 years ago

I was expecting a much better lawn than yours with $3,500.

New To Frugal
New To Frugal
11 years ago

Wow. The sheer amount of white privilege and entitlement whoring in some of the comments above is mind-boggling. I can understand hiring professional help when something is not your area of expertise, but to “take advantage” of undocumented workers because they’re willing to work for pennies on the dollar is unethical at best. I’m disgusted by the idea that an American man’s day job is more exhausting or grueling than that of an undocumented worker’s. Myself and my husband work in jobs that are high-stress and require long hours, yet we still manage to do our own landscaping, home remodeling,… Read more »

Susy
Susy
11 years ago

Looks great. I’ve been condsidering hiring someone to design a plan for my back yard. Renting a big piece of machinery, I think I could get my DH onboard with that idea!!!

MoneyBlogga
MoneyBlogga
11 years ago

My “yard”, all 2.5 acres of it, is so daunting a task I don’t know where to begin. It would cost me thousands to hire a landscaper, with all the expertise that entails, BUT the job would get finished about 20 years sooner. I am going to say that some of the quotes I’ve received are ridiculously high.

Kendra
Kendra
11 years ago

MoneyBlogga, I’d love your predicament, though I understand how a lot of space can be overwhelming.

With that much space, have you thought about wildscaping some or all of it? You basically recreate a wooded area, or a prairie area, or a riparian zone, whatever is appropriate for your situation. The wild things will love it, you’ll be using native plants (so less water use and babysitting) and you’ll have a visually pretty place to live.

Or, you could open a mini-truck farm, but that’s not less work, that’s more.

Have fun!

HollyP
HollyP
11 years ago

For those who have smaller projects, there are other options too. For my first house, I found a local nursery which would send a landscape designer to your home to do a short consulation free, no obligation if the project was fairly small. (In my case, a row of shrubs adn a flower garden in front of my house.) Great design, and I was able to do all the work myself. Also, the Better Homes & Gardens website offers many free plans, and you don’t have to subscribe to the magazine. I was able to tailor one of their plans… Read more »

Miranda
Miranda
11 years ago

Thanks for your post! We bought a house last year and are putting in a yard. We hired an architect to help us design the yard, so that we could get an idea of where to put everything. We hired someone to put in the posts for our fence, and then we bought the materials to do the panels ourselves. We, too, are doing things in stages, saving up for each phase of our yard. Hiring the designer was a great move! Ours only cost $200, though. At any rate, having the designer help us figure everything out has given… Read more »

Jeff C.
Jeff C.
11 years ago

Great Tips… A few things that I would add… When buying a home, as tempting as it is to work on the inside first, I would suggest landscaping the outside first. Assuming the purchase of one-gallon plants (to save money), it takes about three years (in Georgia red clay) for a landscape to take shape. We made the mistake of fixing up the inside of our home first and then when it came time to sell, our recent landscape updates did not have the impact we would have liked, although the new owner is benefiting now. Second of all, some… Read more »

Another Personal Finance Blog
Another Personal Finance Blog
11 years ago

I find most yard work enjoyable, well, maybe rewarding is the word, and it can also be good for you. Saving money is also, of course, a plus.

No Debt Plan
No Debt Plan
11 years ago

I am just now getting to this post and wow – must say I am really, really impressed.

Makes me wish we had greener thumbs!

Flowering twig
Flowering twig
11 years ago

I’m thinking of getting a landscaping program for my computer and doing the design work myself. Has anyone found a CAD program that’s useful for this?

Joseph@Shaunbagwellmasonry
5 years ago

Great job! It is important that you do your research or consult a professional at a nursery or lawn and garden center when choosing plants. It is necessary that you select plants suitable to the sunlight and soil conditions your yard offers. You cannot expect a beautiful flower to remain healthy in a shady spot in your yard if it requires full sun. Matching the soil conditions of your lot to the plants you select is a main key to beautiful landscaping.

Pat
Pat
5 years ago

My brother does all my landscaping because he enjoys it. I am lucky if I get to weed the flag flower bed. He doesn’t trust me cause he knows what he has planted. LOL. We get our mulch free from the city. It is pretty good and we have never had a problem with it especially after all the storms we have had lately. You have to load it yourself and unload it yourself but it is worth it to us. I get a lot of free plants, gravel, stones, and even mulch on freecycle. My best freecycle find for… Read more »

Natasha S
Natasha S
5 years ago

We saved thousands going this same route where we hired a landscape architect to create a design. Ours was more like $700 for a 1/4 acre with a lot if detail. We have installed the plan ourselves. The front yard alone would have cost at least $6000 but we were able to create beds, borders, and put in the plantings for only $800 and this took three days of work. So happy we went this route.

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