The Most Bang for Your Buck
How can you save money on your landscape project and get the most bang for your buck? It depends. That’s the answer. How much money you are able to save on a major landscape project is dependent on how skilled, responsible, vigilant, and expensive your crews will be after installation. With the perfect crew, you can save a lot of money.
Plant in Phases
One way to save money is to phase your project through three or more funding cycles over a period of several years. With each phase of installation, you can show results and procure more financial backing to fund the next stage, until the entire comprehensive plan is complete. Of course, using this cost-efficient method requires you to have a really good comprehensive landscape plan, including advice on how best to break the project into do-able segments.
Phasing can schedule installation of each section or location of the site in separate funding bursts. It might be better to do the entire soil preparation and mulching of all the plant beds in one phase with plant installation happening as more money comes available. A third way of phasing is to install trees first and small shrubs and perennials later.
Phasing a project can be tricky. Passion for a beautification project can decline with time. Your on-site field inspection engineer might not be dedicated enough to watch an installation over multiple years. If you decide to take the phasing route, be sure the project manager can pump up the energy during each funding phase with fresh enthusiasm. I’ve seen many phased projects fade out after the first burst of excitement after initial planting takes place.
Save by Relocating Existing Plants
For home landscapes, there can be an abundance of good plant material, although haphazardly installed. Builder landscapes often have large shrubs located under low windows and evergreens, bunched too closely together. You can spend a fairly warm, wet, fall weekend “rearranging the furniture”. Dig up plants that are of manageable size and re-mass them in better locations. Plants that block windows are perfect background shrubs for a perennial border in the back yard. Tightly-spaced shrubs can be re-spaced to fill two beds rather than one. While you’re still muddy, you can dig up daylilies, iris, and other perennials into hundreds of new divisions to be distributed in repeating groups all through the edges of your shrub beds. After your relocation event/weekend marathon, you can concentrate your remaining funds on new, truly special plants for areas left bare.
Relocation projects can be back-breaking and exhausting, but if you have the muscle power, they can be quite effective.
I get asked quite a lot if it is a good idea to dig up plants in the wild to install at home, since they’re free. Nobody wants to hear my answer. Gathering seeds sometimes works, but digging up wild volunteers is almost always disappointing. Wild-gathered small trees might take fifteen years to bloom the way a small, purchased cultivar would bloom. The form and habit of a tree in a woodland tends to stay spindly and loose and open years after being transplanted.
The survival rate of wild seedlings is pitiful. Never, ever collect plants from a nature preserve or public park. It is illegal, and the plants sense the wrong and promptly die, no matter how you pamper them. Your success rate is boosted when plants are gathered in a plant rescue, removed before falling to a bulldozer. These plants are much more appreciative of the attempt to save them and more vigorous in their efforts to please their rescuers. It is true. Don’t question it.
Purchase Smaller Plants
Plants are sold most often by container size, and the pricing is relative to how big the container is. This is true no matter how lowly or refined the species being sold. A short-lived Bradford Pear cost the same as an exquisite ‘Cloud Nine’ Dogwood. Extremes of plant quality or suitability don’t seem to affect container or caliper pricing at all. The fee you pay for container plant material is primarily for the babysitting required to nurture small plugs and seedlings to a size with a sellable visual impact to the consumer. For an organization with a great, professional landscape crew willing to maintain smaller plant sizes until they are well-established on the site, this is good news. You can save a considerable amount of plant material costs by reducing the container size. Rather than five-inch caliper trees, you can use 2 ½ -inch caliper specimens. Rather than installing seven-gallon containers, you can put in one-gallon sizes.
Bare root seedling costs are amazing, well under a dollar or two, including installation labor! They must be installed when the soil is not frozen during the dormant season, so the window of opportunity is quite small for planting. Because of their small, tender size, animals love to nibble on them, so you need to provide protection for them after putting them in the ground.
If you go with reduced plant sizes, you need patience. You may need to wait an additional season or two to get the look you want. Using smaller plants involves good maintenance, too. Competing weeds try to fill in the voids of an open plant bed. One way to prevent this from happening is to fill all empty spots with annuals until the woody plant material can grow to shade out fresh weeds.
For public landscapes, it is unrealistic to expect careful monitoring of undersized, baby plant material over multiple years after installation. Weighing the pros and cons, it is best to go with larger plant material initially for them, without phasing. The labor costs you save easily offset the plant material expenses.
Go Cheap on the Contractor
One other option that many people choose for saving money is to hire an unqualified low bidder to do the soil and bed preparation, plant installation, and establishment maintenance. On paper, this can show substantial savings, but you will be buying a lot of trouble. Set decent quality standards in your contract specifications and enforce them. If you want to save money on landscaping, it will cost you! Consider your options, decide your level of commitment, and then choose the best for your project.