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3 Simple Ways to Update Your Backyard for Cheap

pea gravel patio in backyard

If all that time at home during the pandemic had you looking out at your lawn daydreaming about your perfect backyard design, you’re not alone! We’ve seen a huge spike in people wanting to do backyard makeovers and create their perfect outdoor living spaces. But what do you do if you’re working on a tighter budget?

There are many factors that can affect your landscaping budget. Material and labor costs vary depending on your area and they can be more inconsistent than ever given the supply shortages still affecting many industries. That’s why we love sharing projects for every price point whether you’ve saved up a little nest egg for a revamp with an expert or you’re a passionate DIY-er looking for a weekend project.

If you’re hoping to dig into your softscape or install new hardscape features, we’ve got options for you! These are some of our favorite backyard landscaping ideas on a budget.

#1 // Switch Up Your Ground Cover

A rolling grass lawn and meticulously-mulched trees might be the suburban standard in some parts of the country, but we see opportunities to get creative with your landscaping—and save money along the way.

Grass Alternatives

Standard lawn turf requires a lot of upkeep between its high water needs and constant mowing. We’re big fans of switching out lawn grass for other ground cover options.

Clover, hard fescue, and many other low-growing ground cover plants make great grass alternatives for a wide range of climates across the country. They require less water and less frequent mowing, which means both a more eco-friendly lawn and less work for you. Read our full article on grass alternatives to find your groundcover match!

Affordable Mulch

Another easy project is to add or upgrade your mulch—and you can actually do this one for free! Mulch can be any organic or inorganic material spread across the soil around plants to form a protective layer. It helps with water retention, protects delicate plants, and helps discourage dreaded weed growth. While inorganic options like stone or rubber mulch are very durable, we prefer organic options that break down over time and add nutrients into the soil.

Instead of buying big bags of wood chips (the most common type of mulch), you can look a little closer to home and mulch your plants without having to spend a dime. Grass clippings and shredded leaves make excellent zero-waste organic mulch. If you’re mulching with your raked leaves, make sure to shred them so they don’t stifle the soil or blow away. You can do that by running them over with your lawnmower a few times—voila, perfect mulch.

Pine needles can also make a good mulch for plants that like acidic soil, such as roses, tomato plants, and chrysanthemums. And if you make your own compost from household food scraps, that’s an ideal nutrient-rich mulch for your garden plants. For the how-to on applying your new mulch, check out our Mulch 101 guide.

mulch walkway with brick lining
Photo Credit: Better Homes & Gardens

#2 // Pick the Right Plants

It can be easy to get swept away in looking at nursery plants and put more and more ornamentals in your cart until your total has soared way past what you planned to spend. Those impulse purchase plants also frequently aren’t the ones that are best suited to your area. There are several strategies you can use to choose plants that will make the highest impact for the lowest cost.

Plant for Your Environment

One of the easiest ways to select cost effective plants is to choose ones that will be successful in your environment. People will spend years stubbornly trying to grow succulents in their shady yard or planting and replanting ferns when they hardly get rain. Instead of trying to save a plant that wants an environment you can’t provide, research your climate and the plants that thrive there.

One of the easiest ways to select plants for your environment is to grow native plants. Plants that are already specialized to your climate and soil are going to be easy to grow without needing much attention. You can find more information and advice in our full guide on using native plants in your landscaping.

Plant Perennials

Instead of planting annuals, choose perennial plants that will come back year after year. If you find affordable perennials you love, you won’t just save money now. You’ll be saving every year after that when you can watch new growth come back to an established perennial plant instead of going out and buying new annuals every spring.

Plan Ahead

When you’re softscaping, it pays to think about what your plants will look like years down the road. Instead of buying large plants that are already the size you envision looking great in your landscape design, consider buying a smaller plant that will grow that big over time. You’ll save money by purchasing a smaller plant, you’ll just need some patience for it to reach the size you want! 

Similarly, planting saplings is a wonderful way to watch an affordable plant mature into a beautiful tree over the years. Whether you’re looking for fruit, shade, or a place to hang a rope swing, there’s a tree that’s right for you and your space.

#3 // Build Up Your Hardscape

Upgrading your hardscaping can make a huge difference to the visual impact and functional living space in your yard. Unlike softscaping (all the plants in your landscaping), hardscaping includes most hard surfaces, ranging from patios to retaining walls to ornamental fountains. Some hardscape projects can quickly run up a major price tag between luxury materials and expert installation, but there are plenty of hardscaping ideas perfect for a budget-conscious landscaper—check out our full guide to hardscaping for even more backyard hardscape ideas.

Add a Walkway

Adding a path to your front yard or backyard is a relatively simple project that can be a great quality of life upgrade as well as a beautiful hardscaping feature. It also reduces lawn area, meaning less for you to water and mow. Paths can be as expansive or compact as you wish, making them a suitable small backyard idea on a budget.

Instead of making the investment of paving a walkway, consider materials that are more wallet (and DIY) friendly. Stepping stones or concrete pavers can be bought affordably and installed on your own in a single day for smaller paths. Mulch, gravel, and decomposed granite also make for convenient and affordable path options. These materials can spread easily, but installing a simple edging along the sides of the path will help keep them contained.

Install a Budget-Friendly Patio

Patios sound like a big investment, and they can be! If you’re looking into laying luxury stone or getting an expert to pour concrete, you’ll have to expect a higher bill. But as with paths, there are simple options you can DIY at a low price.

The same stepping stones or pavers you might use for a path can easily be repurposed for a patio space. One of our favorite options for easy impact is a decomposed granite patio that adds a defined living space to your yard with a simple install. If you’re willing to spend a little more, pea gravel also makes for a beautiful look that doesn’t require expert installation. You could be snacking and lounging in a new patio seating area by the end of the weekend.

pea gravel patio with table and chairs
Photo Credit: Pine & Propect Home

Add Levels to a Sloped Yard

If you want to add dimension and more usable space to a sloped lawn, retaining walls are a popular landscaping option. They provide soil retention and can make a perfect area for planting, all while helping to define areas of your outdoor living space. Retaining walls can involve masonry or careful stone laying, but there’s a simpler alternative that works just as well!

Boulder retaining walls are a fantastic way to add striking natural stone structure to your landscaping. You should dig into the ground a little bit when placing them to provide an anchored base, but their own weight provides most of the structural support in a boulder wall. If you’re ready to do literal heavy lifting, this project can be DIY-ed, but make sure to consult an expert if you’re building a wall more than a few feet tall.
This is just a sample of the many options you have in budget-friendly landscaping. What affordable upgrades have made the biggest impact on your yard?

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