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10 Ways to Save in the Garden

Article From HouseLogic.com

By: Laura Fisher Kaiser
Published: August 28, 2009

Smart landscaping strategies can save you money while they add to the curb appeal and value of your home.

Few things are more frustrating than pouring a lot of resources into a landscaping project, only to watch your plants keel over or discover that your personal Shangri-La is unsustainable, perpetually demanding ever more time, muscle, and money. The good news is that by sticking to a few simple rules, you can avoid many of the common pitfalls of gardening. The payoff can be big: According to Money magazine, the typical return on investment for landscaping improvements is 100% to 200%-as much or more than a kitchen or bath remodel. Here are 10 ways to green up your garden while keeping some green in your wallet.

1. Understand your land

Before shelling out money for new plants, look at what has thrived and what has died in your garden over time. If you’re new to the area, ask neighbors with similar growing conditions what has worked for them. Keep in mind that even plants appropriate for your growing zone (http://www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/ushzmap.html) might not work in your personal patch, depending on the soil composition, sunlight patterns (see #4 below), microclimate, pests, and available water. Your local cooperative extension service (http://www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/) can analyze your soil and recommend amendments and suitable plantings.

2. Avoid invasives

No matter how big your hurry to see your garden fill in, be wary of a plant billed as a “fast grower” or “aggressive.” Often that’s code for an invasive species-a non-native plant that makes its way into the landscape and crowds out the locals by stealing their nutrients, light, and water. The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains a list of invasives (http://plants.usda.gov/java/noxiousDriver), which include various ivies, grasses, weeds, vines, self-seeding varieties of bushes and shrubs, even seemingly innocuous herbs like mint. Your county extension service can steer you toward the species best suited to your plot. Tip: If you love growing mint in the garden, contain it in a pot.

3. Ask before you plant

It’s great to receive free cuttings, but before you plant that gift from your neighbor, make sure you know what you’re getting. Is the plant an old cultivar that self-seeds? Perennials such as black-eyed Susan and Echinacea (coneflower) are favored because they self-sow. But for other plants, such as Rose of Sharon, self-seeding turns invasive, and that’s not worth the trouble even if someone pays you to take it. In theory, you can always pull something out later, but it’s better to head off unnecessary hassle and expense by asking questions up front.

4. Be sun savvy

You’d be surprised how often even experienced gardeners put a shade-loving plant in full sun or a sun-loving plant in the shade. Part of what makes this tricky is that daylight is a moving target-not just as seasons change, but as plants mature and cast different shadow patterns. Before plotting plant beds and tree locations, spend some time studying the movement of the sun throughout the year, and continue to keep an eye on the ebb and flow of shadows as plants mature.

5. Establish a simple color palette

Stick to a simple color scheme for flowers and blooming shrubs. That way, when you go to a nursery, you can laser in on plants that match. This strategy is also money-wise. Besides making fewer impulse buys, which can lead to a hodgepodge effect in the yard, a coordinated color scheme increases curb appeal by making your house look more pulled-together. Massing plants in one or two colors connotes a sense of luxury and order.

6. Use trees as natural (free!) AC

A recent federal study (http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/news/2009/01/electricity.shtml) found that shade trees in strategic places on the south and west sides of a house can reduce a homeowner’s seasonal cooling bill by about $25 and lower net carbon emissions from summertime electricity use by 30% over a 100-year period. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (http://www.energy.gov), shading an air conditioning unit can increase its efficiency by as much as 10%. With a deciduous tree you benefit in winter, too, as sunlight streams through the branches to provide thermal gain and natural daylighting for the house.

7. Power down your lawnmower

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (http://www.epa.gov), gas-powered lawn mowers contribute as much as 5% of the nation’s air pollution. Switching to one of the new generation of push-reel mowers-which are lighter, quieter, and kinder to your lawn than power mowers-reduces emissions and cuts down on fuel consumption. It takes about a gallon of gas to mow three-quarters of an acre; at, say, $2 a gallon, you’ll save more than $100 a year. A good push-reel mower (http://www.peoplepoweredmachines.com/reel_mower_landing.htm?gclid=CLWYvbHPyZwCFRHxDAodWDHGJQ) costs $150 to $250, so it will quickly pay for itself.

8. Smarten up your sprinkler system

If you have an in-ground sprinkler system, consider installing an ET (evapotranspiraton) controller. These systems, which use real-time weather data sent by satellite to control when sprinklers turn on and off, can cut water use by as much as 30%. The controller costs between $300 and $400, depending on system size, but many municipal water agencies offer rebates, particularly in the arid Southwest. (For more water-conserving technologies, see “Water-Saving Irrigation Strategies (http://www.houselogic.com/articles/water-saving-irrigation-strategies/)”).

9. Conduct an annual review

Once a year, take a good hard look around your yard and ask, “Is that plant doing its job?” Meaning, is it thriving, behaving itself (growing where you want it to), and enhancing the appearance of your home? Give a pink slip to the stuff that’s hijacking your curb appeal-or, worse, putting your house at risk. For maximum safety, keep foundation plants at least one foot from the house and trees the distance of their mature height. Otherwise roots can burrow into foundations, and overhanging branches can trap moisture against the roof or siding, leading to rot and insect damage.

10. Be patient

When planning landscape improvements, avoid the temptation of instant gratification. Starting small saves money. That means putting in saplings, young shrubs and plants, seeds and bulbs-and waiting. Most shrubs and perennials fill out or spread in a couple of years. In the meantime, you can fill in gaps with annuals for seasonal color.

Laura Fisher Kaiser is a contributing editor to Interior Design magazine and a former editor at This Old House Magazine. She has made almost every one of these mistakes, but prefers to call them experiments.

Reprinted from HouseLogic (houselogic.com) with permission of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®
Copyright 2009.  All rights reserved.

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