How to save money on your garden design

Whatever the size or scale of your garden redesign project, garden designer and horticulturist Matt James shares his advice on where to spend and where to save

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Planning a new garden from scratch? When you’re planning a home renovation or perhaps transforming the exterior of your home, the garden often becomes a list of weekend jobs that will, or will not, be completed at some point in the future. However, what shouldn't be under-estimated is how a well-designed, stylish garden can increase the value and desirability of your home.

Creating the perfect garden design is an expensive job, which requires hard landscaping, accessories and regular, year-round maintenance, but there are several surefire ways to add value to your garden even if you are on a budget.

Be realistic about the cost of redesigning a garden

Some garden designers will recommend spending 5 to 15 per cent of the house value on the garden/landscape, which, in turn, will add a similar, if not larger amount, to the value of your home. Others talk about allocating at least £100 per square metre of garden, although some will double this figure.

A totally new garden does cost more than you think, even if you keep some existing features. It’s very hard to complete even a small garden with a relatively simple design for less than £6,000 to £7,000 once design fees, materials, plants and employing contractors (which normally amount to at least half the budget) are factored in.

Most new garden designs cost in excess of £10,000, and that’s for a small garden. A suburban garden will probably be in the region of £17,000 to £25,000. This might seem a lot, but consider what you might spend on a quality kitchen or bathroom and how much this adds to the value of your home and quality of life.

Work out how much you can afford to spend and seek advice on how to maximise your budget for the best results. Unfortunately, setting a simple rate for metres squared or percentage of house value isn’t the most reliable way to work out a budget, as there are so many options and it will largely depend on your chosen design, the state of the plot when you begin, and the elements you wish to include.

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Work out what to include and rule out

A small garden full of hard landscaping, garden lighting and a bespoke water feature might well cost more than a typical suburban garden that can accommodate a large lawn and more planting, which significantly helps to keep down costs. Think about each element you want to include, such as water features, fencing, shades, garden furniture, an outdoor kitchen or outdoor dining area, decking, sheds and summerhouses, and large plants, and research how much each one will cost.

Contemporary, minimalist designs, particularly those with complex and clinical hardscape, are expensive, as are design details that have no tolerance for change. With a tight budget, opt for a more traditional look, or materials like woven hazel or flint, where some imperfection is part of its charm.

Consider the plot carefully

A garden that is sloped, has insufficient drainage, or structural elements that need to be removed, such as walls, garden rooms or old paving, will cost more to redesign as the initial outlay for the preparatory works will be higher than when dealing with a plain, flat area.

A subtle change in level can help make a smaller garden feel larger, but significant excavations are expensive. There’s the soil to remove, not to mention retaining walls, and perhaps the professional fees of a structural engineer to factor into the mix. This explains why sloping gardens generally cost more, and can be very expensive, especially if you plan to terrace the whole site.

Cut back on site clearance costs

Demolition and site clearance can cost a lot, especially if access is tricky and work needs to be done by hand. A small garden that needs a lot of clearance, and that has poor access, might easily cost £1,500 to £2,000 to do. If the overall budget is £10,000, that only leaves £8,000 for everything else, so, wherever possible, reuse or recycle – an old concrete pad could be crushed and used for new footings.

Stage the works to make it more affordable

Remember, a large overall sum for a redesign doesn’t need to be spent all at once. Implementing a design proposal can be phased as and when money is available. So, in year one, construct the hard landscape, for example, such as the patio, walls and paths. Build ponds, pergolas and water features (unless they’re built-in) in year two and plant in year three.

Employ a garden designer – for a day

An experienced garden designer can save you time and money in the long term. Professional garden designers can help from planning the entire garden and managing contractors, to guidance on where best to proportion your budget.

At the very least, consider a day’s consultancy to give you some ideas to work with. The initial cost might seem unnecessary, but it will save money in the long term, and the new ideas will be invaluable. Search online, checking out client testimonials, or visit the Society of Garden Designers and the British Association of Landscape Industries.

Go for straight lines in your garden design

Complex curved walls, fences and patterns in paving cost a lot, as they are tricky to create. Garden building materials are usually designed for simple spaces, so adapting them for different angles and curves will result in some wastage.

Simple straight runs are far easier to build and usually look better, especially in urban and suburban gardens where unity between the garden and your home’s architecture is important.

decking area next to a modern home with brise soleil

(Image: © Ronseal)

Choose a simple design for a sloping garden

Gardens on a slope can be expensive to redesign, and sometimes there’s little above ground to show for the time and money you’ve invested. Go for a design that minimises the need for extensive groundworks, foundations and drainage. One or two level plateaus built into the slope, for somewhere to site a dining table or a couple of sun loungers, could be enough ‘useable’ space.

Solutions such as decking are also useful, needing just a few foundations for the sub-frame, unlike paved areas, which are either built on top of, or into, a slope.

Choose garden landscaping materials carefully

There’s always a more affordable hardscape option. Dry stacked stone or rendered blockwork costs less than ‘faced’ brickwork, while Western red cedar decking is cheaper than other decking timber, and works just as well.

For seating areas, a solid surface is essential, but elsewhere gravel, or even bark, will do. Both are easy to lay on landscape fabric to keep the weeds down, and you can break up a large area of gravel with oak sleepers or ground cover planting.

'If you live in a red-brick property, for a harmonious look try dark greys or warm earthy tones, and steer away from buff or yellow. If you live in a limestone property, warm, similar-toned paving and chippings will ultimately look best,' says Paul Harvey-Brookes, RHS judge and award-winning garden designer.

'When planning paving, you can reduce the cost by infilling with gravel, and replacing natural stone with cast pavers can look equally as good and save money.

'Paving can range from £25 to more than £100 per m², so it pays to research different materials that offer a similar look to meet your budget. You can often find similar materials at a fraction of the price and consider visiting building merchants or reclamation yards, too.'

Don't be afraid to cover and clad

An expanse of concrete or an unattractive boundary wall doesn’t always require removal and replacement; you could cover or clad it instead. For vertical surfaces, close-knit trellis, woven hazel hurdles, thinly spaced cedar strips attached to wooden battens behind, coloured concrete render. Don't miss our guide to the best fencing, too.

Removing lots of heavy flooring is expensive, not to mention back-breaking work. If it’s thick and the surface is sound, it could be the perfect sub-base for attractive exterior tiles, as long as adding them won’t raise the height so much that the damp-proof course of the house is compromised.

Terrace sloping spaces for more usable space. This bespoke border from South Hams Fencing and Landscaping works perfectly in a country setting as a retaining wall to split levels, £175 per metre

Use reclaimed garden materials

Recycled materials often look better than new, particularly around traditional buildings, and it’s possible to pick up a bargain. Reclamation yards can be pricey, especially those in cities, so take a day trip out to a country yard, as most will deliver.

Check Ebay, Gumtree and Freecycle as well as supermarket classifieds. You might not spot exactly what you originally wanted, but with a little imagination it’s possible to create truly unique features from your finds.

Do the garden labouring yourself

Labour costs can be more than 60 per cent of a garden redesign, so spend time considering what you can do yourself. Planting, laying a new lawn, erecting kit-form pergolas and arches, timber raised beds, simple plumbing – even a deck – are well within the scope of the DIY enthusiast.

You should know your limits though. Paving, brickwork, extensive garden lighting and features such as dry-stone walls will need specialists. Choose local tradespeople to keep expenditure to a minimum.

Fill your garden with flowers

This is the easiest piece of advice for anyone looking to save money in their garden: choose the right plants. Flowers are inexpensive, decorative and are often the first thing that guests are drawn to. They’re especially effective in a small space, on a terrace or patio, or in a courtyard without a lawn.

You can create an impressive floral arrangement by using pots and planters if you don’t have space for beds. This will be easy to maintain and if you get bored, it is easy to move around and change. If you have a lot of space for beds, try to add plants that flower at different times in the year, so that there is always something interesting going on.

Contemporary garden with straight paths and lawns

This contemporary garden in north London has straight pathways and lawns

(Image: © Marcus Harpur)

Structural planting is important

Create impact with trees, larger shrubs and hedges, especially those used for privacy, screening and security. Specimen plants give a garden an instant sense of substance and proportion, which is difficult to achieve otherwise.

Using trees to create a ceiling for your garden, in the same way a pergola or gazebo would, is always going to be the cheaper option. The same can be said for borders, instead of paying a contractor to build a fence, invest in hedges, climbing plants and grasses to define the border and increase privacy and security.

Plant shrubs for year-round interest

Remember to use a mixture of good- value shrubs, including those that will flower, fruit or have interesting autumn foliage, such as Sarcococca confusa or Viburnum. Use these with a mixture of spring, summer and autumn flowering herbaceous perennials. These come back year after year without the need to buy again, so they are long lasting and relatively low maintenance, as well as representing great value for money.

Put in perennials

Work out the total number of square metres of your planting beds and allow five shrubs or perennials for each metre. Shop around at garden centres and nurseries and expect to pay between £4 and £8 for a two-litre pot. Join a local gardening club and pick up knowledge and cuttings or small plants for sale at a discounted rate, saving more to make your budget go further.

Choose smart garden lighting 

Garden lighting adds another dimension to any garden, as well as potentially extending the time you can spend outdoors. Use lighting to illuminate trees, beds, water features and sculptures and it will feel like a completely different space at night. Waterproof festoon lights are a flexible, temporary and cheap solution to lighting your garden, and they will create a comfortable and casual atmosphere.

garden lighting in a contemporary settig

Create atmosphere and enjoy your garden 24/7 with accent lighting. Image John Cullen

(Image: © John Cullen)

Cheaper spotlights are useful where fittings will be hidden by foliage, so you will save money if you decide to conceal your garden lighting. If you plan on spending a little more money, go for attractive fittings that will double as decorative features.

Always consult a qualified electrician for anything other than simple clip-together systems. Cable runs and the associated pipework need to be factored in very early on, even if you actually plan to install the system itself later, when further funds are available.

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Main image: Tony Timmington

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