Gone are the days when a nice green lawn, a few flowering trees, some evergreen shrubs, some flowers come spring and summer, and some sort of patio or deck, represented a site with great curb appeal. Today, with so much interest in spending time outdoors, the sky’s literally the limit for how much you can include in even a tiny site and spend. An outdoor kitchen? Check. A shaded terrace with Italian-style pergola draped in wisteria? Check. A water feature? Check. Both a vegetable garden and colorful English-style cutting garden? Check, check.
How much a landscape project costs should reflect what you can afford realistically and what problems need to be solved for your yard. For example, do you need to address erosion or drainage? You also need to factor in the type of neighborhood you live in so you don’t overimprove your yard, if you want to maximize equity in your home. Consider most what you’d enjoy having on the site. If you aren’t into cooking outdoors, don’t bother with an elaborate built-in kitchen that rivals one you have indoors and maybe make do just with a barbecue for an occasional cookout. Similarly, if you dislike spending money to keep your grass green and weed-free, there’s no point in planting a gorgeous Kentucky blue-grass lawn that requires regular seeding, watering, and mowing. Consider instead a low-growing groundcover like creeping thyme or vinca minor or even adding more gravel for a rustic country look. But if you really love the sound of water, go ahead, and install anything from a small pot fountain to a waterfall, to a pond, or to a swimming pool.
Now, it’s time to start planning:
Develop a budget. Decide on the amount of money you’d like to spend in total for materials, labor, and annual maintenance. In the ideal garden world, it’s 10% to 15% of the value of your house or about $35,000 to $52,000 for a $350,000 home. Remember, that there is no reason you can’t spend this money in phases—say, over four years, so you work first on the front, or back and then each side yard. You’ll feel the financial hit less.
Determine the most important problems in your yard. For example, if you have drainage or erosion challenges, your landscaping plans must correct these or you will lose money on your project. If you have a privacy problem (your neighbors look directly onto the patio where you entertain), a privacy screen should be part of your objective in redesigning the site.
Decide what you want to install or redo. Look at your site carefully and at different times of the year and day and night. Scan garden and home Web sites such as Houzz.com, Pinterest.com, Sunsetmagazine.com, and HGTV.com. Study garden books in your library or favorite bookstore. Clip, print, and xerox favorite designs—that bluestone patio, wildflower meadow, rose garden–to show the professional with whom you work. Make a wish list of all you would like to include. Don’t hold back; there’s always time for cutting your choices when bids come in.
Decide whom to hire. Even do-it-yourselfers will hire professionals for large hardscape elements or can benefit from overall advice. After securing recommendations from friends and area nurseries, interview a few possible choices in your yard so they can see it firsthand. Even paying a landscape designer or architect for a consultation can help you tap into a team of experts to install and oversee maintenance. The main difference between a landscape designer and architect is primarily the architect’s schooling and licensing after passing a state board. Sometimes you actually will save money having a professional look at your site and make specific suggestions.
Key questions to pose:
- Will you provide referrals;
- Are you licensed, bonded, and carry insurance;
- May I see your portfolio and visit any finished sites in person;
- How do you charge—by the project or hour—and does that fee include a drawing with detailed list of plantings and hardscape materials;
- What are some ideas you have besides my wish list;
- Do you see any site problems we need to solve and how would you recommend addressing them;
- Do you spot any potential challenges or problems at my site such as poor drainage and lack of privacy;
- Do you think my total budget is feasible for what I want done?
- Do you guarantee workmanship, including plants, and for how long;
- What maintenance is required for all the plantings and hardscape, and how much time might I need to take care of all weekly or monthly or seasonally?
- Will I also need a better or new irrigation system and what type should I install?
- How long should the design and installation process take?
- How many subcontractors will be working, what will be their daily hours, and will they clean up daily.
Besides hard dollars and cents, part of your hiring decision should also hinge on that intangible of chemistry. You’ll work together for months, and this person will be around for years to come in most cases.
Get a master plan drawn. This is key for the overall concept, particularly if you’re working in phases. Many designers won’t just list their suggested plantings, but draw a site plan with specific plants and other features they recommend such as new walls, walks, irrigation system. Getting plan is like going on a driving vacation with a good set of maps. Driving without a map is not efficient, you get lost, you waste gas (i.e., money!) and it takes longer to get where you are going. In spite of the up front cost, landscape plans can make your overall budget smaller, improve communication with contractors, and can help you figure out how to best phase in your project over months to years.
Get construction bids. It is advisable to get at least two to three bids on construction because bids can vary widely and you will need these comparisons to decide on the scope of work. Once the numbers come back, you’ll know if you need to cut back. Two examples. You might decide to install a pea-gravel terrace instead of a bluestone patio, since the costs vary so much. For a 10’ by 12’ patio, pea gravel might cost $2000 for labor and materials while the bluestone will be at least six times that, or $12,000. Such estimates will vary somewhat by the area of the country where you live since materials and labor can be quite different. Or, think about planting smaller trees and waiting for them to grow—if you’re patient. A 6’ tall box tree with 1’ canopy will cost between $100 and $150 retail while a much taller 8’ to 12’ tall box tree with 3’ spread will retail for about $450, and an even bigger 20’ high tree with 8’ to 10’ spread will be about $5,000. Planting vegetables or any flowers yourself also will cut your labor costs, and can be a lot of fun.
Get your job installed and revisit possibilities. Investing in hardscape, the functional part of your yard, is the most important and lasting element, so be sure to plan this carefully. You will always, over time, add plants or accessorize your garden to fit your changing tastes and needs. You may find there’s not enough seasonal bloom during all four seasons so will add different plants, or that there’s so much noise from neighbors that you want to introduce a fountain to block it out.
Make more tweaks over time. Gardens also rarely look great overnight. Be patient even if you’re not the patient type. Remember the adage: the first year they sleep; the second year they creep; the third year they leap. Give your plants time to fill in and adapt to your site; they’re living, breathing creatures. The best gardens mature and evolve slowly, and as you learn more you’ll want to make changes, probably yearly. Too many tomatoes in Barbara’s yard led to lots of gazpacho, spaghetti sauce, and Caprese salads–yum, but it also convinced her to remove one bed of tomatoes and add more peppers, eggplant, lettuce, and more herbs next spring. Michael has found through the years that he needed more night lighting since he likes to entertain outdoors. He’s also come to understand his site’s microclimates and as a result refined his plant selection to thrive better. The pots flanking a fountain originally contained dwarf citrus trees until the garden became too shaded and they didn’t fare well. He switched to sago palms, usually very slow growing, which fared so well in the shade that they grew too big, overwhelming the small patio space. He recently replaced those with fragrant camellias. Experts continue to learn, too!
Maintain it lovingly. Ask your professional gardener in advance about maintenance since if you don’t enjoy tending your garden, you’ll need to hire someone, which will add up in costs. Or, install a garden that requires less upkeep, though every yard demands some chores on a regular basis. “Nothing is totally maintenance-free unless you pave it and paint it green,” Michael says. But then you’ll eventually have to repaint since even paint fades over time!
Winter is the best time to budget and plan, so get going! Some garden pros even will discount services before the rush-rush of spring.
(Photography by Michael Glassman)