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Skimp or Splurge?

Winter’s the time to plan your landscape for spring. Here’s how to make the most of your garden budget.

By Lisa Truesdale

Whether you’re starting a landscape from scratch, overhauling an existing one, or simply adding a few new features, winter is the perfect time to start planning ahead. Setting a budget is a crucial first step, but how do you know where to allocate your dollars?

We asked local landscape designers, architects and contractors to help us devise a list of landscape features and whether you should “skimp” or “splurge” in those particular areas.

Our professionals include Kristian Benson of Bouquet Landscaping; Sandy Brown of Sandy Brown Planning & Landscape Architecture; Larry Elmore of Wild by Design Habitats; Steve Kurcab of Rock Creek Landscape; Bill Melvin of Ecoscape Environmental Design; Martin Mosko of Marpa Landscape Design Studio; and Chris Porzuczek of Raindance Landscapes.

They also gave us handy tips for keeping green lifestyle practices in mind. Here’s their advice:


Feature Plants – Skimp or Splurge? – Skimp on size;  Splurge on quality

Why: Our experts agree that the health and appearance of a plant are the most important things to look for, and the highest-priced plants aren’t necessarily the highest quality, so shop around. Melvin and Elmore suggest choosing smaller plants for extra savings, like a 4-inch pot instead of a gallon container. “You may lose a few seasons of growth,” Melvin says, “but with some patience, it’ll make up for itself in time.”

Brown adds, “Make sure you select plants suited to our USDA Hardiness Zone and climate, or you’ll spend extra time and money replacing plants that don’t make it.”

Green Tip: “In our increasingly water-challenged environment,” Mosko says, “it’s both wise and economical to choose drought-tolerant ground covers and flowers.”


Feature – Trees and Bushes – Skimp or Splurge? Skimp on size; Splurge on quality)

Why: It’s unanimous—choose trees and bushes grown locally or regionally, because “they’ll be best-adapted to our harsh climate, poor soils and drought challenges,” Benson says. Elmore suggests tree buyers think of it this way: “Trees are the anchors of your yard. They will be here long after you’ve moved on.”

It’s not necessary to purchase the largest, most expensive tree at the nursery, however. “Smaller-caliper trees tend to acclimate more easily and catch up with larger-caliper trees,” Brown says. “If they’re planted properly, staked, irrigated adequately and pruned correctly, tree investments will pay off handsomely for years to come.”

Green Tip: Proper tree placement is crucial, Elmore advises. Deciduous trees placed on the east, south and west sides of the home provide shade during summer, saving air-conditioning costs, but let in sunlight during winter, saving heating costs. Evergreens on the north side protect against wind and snow. ”

skimp_mulchFeature – Mulch and Soil Amendments – Skimp or Splurge? Splurge )

Why: Adding the proper soil amendments from the beginning benefits your garden for the long-term, the experts concur. Says Melvin: “The right mix can break up heavy soils, create proper fertility for plants to establish, and allow for better nutrient uptake and soil retention, thus decreasing water needs over time.”

But the formulas are highly inconsistent, as there are few standards or regulations, so you might need to splurge to make sure you’re getting a quality product that doesn’t contain detrimental fillers like salt. “It’s the best chance to give your landscape a chance to thrive,” Porzuczek says. As for ground-cover mulch, splurge if the site is exposed to the elements. “You don’t want your mulch to end up in your neighbor’s yard on a windy day, which it might do if it’s the cheaper, lighter kind.”

Green Tip: Buy local. Choose mulch that isn’t dyed or packed in eco-unfriendly plastic, and wasn’t trucked all over the country.”


Feature Decks and Patios – Skimp or Splurge? Splurge

Why: “Creating a special outdoor living space is paramount for any homeowner looking to be a part of their landscape and spend time outdoors,” Melvin says. “With more than 300 days of sunshine a year in Colorado, why wouldn’t we splurge on an outdoor living room?”

For decking, composite or plastic materials cost more than wood but save money in the long run because little maintenance is needed. For patios, concrete that’s properly reinforced is much less likely to crack and will last longer. And because we live in an area where high-quality stone is available, it’s often similar in price to poured concrete—and it’s prettier.

“It’s true that the outdoor living space is generally the most expensive part of the landscape project,” Porzuczek says, “but it also retains its value the best.”

Green Tip: If you choose composite decking, make sure it’s a brand that contains recycled plastic. Avoid plastic decking that contains potentially harmful polyvinyl chloride (PVC). If you go with wood, make sure the Forest Stewardship Council has certified it.”


skimp_pathyFeature – Pathways –  Skimp or Splurge? Skimp 

Why: Pathways simply need to be functional, “to get you from here to there,” Melvin says. Pea gravel, crusher fines, mulch and concrete pavers are all fairly cheap materials that make suitable pathways, and it’s easy to upgrade them in the future if you wish.

But always splurge on pathways in the front yard, Porzuczek advises. “Simply stated: curb appeal!”

Green Tip: Pea gravel and crusher fines help minimize soil erosion and keep water in the ground where it belongs, saving both precious water and money. Crusher fines are often recycled leftovers from local quarries.


skimp_lightFeature – Lighting Skimp or Splurge?- Splurge on quality; Skimp on quantity)

Why: You don’t need a lot of lights in your landscape, and city/county ordinances generally prohibit overdoing lighting. But lights for security and safety, to highlight prominent landscape elements, or to illuminate your outdoor living space should be high-quality LED or photocell systems that will last.

A professional can help you determine where you need lighting and what kind you need, Elmore says. “If you’re lighting a path, there are numerous low-cost LED options that are solar and don’t require a timer. But if you’re going to light up a yard for ambience and parties, you’ll want to invest in a higher-powered system.”

Green Tip: An automatic on/off feature is a must so lights never waste energy.


Feature – Irrigation Skimp or Splurge? Splurge

Why: You get what you pay for, Benson says. “Unless he was your best man or she is your sister, when it comes to irrigation, generally speaking, don’t hire the person with the lowest quote. Instead, look for solid referrals.”

Features like an underground drip system, soil sensors and a quality timer cost a little more up front, but save a lot in the long run by not wasting water. Says Porzuczek: “The newest generation of smart controllers tell us how often we need to water, based on humidity, wind, soil moisture and so on.”

Although a self-draining system would eliminate the need for annual blowouts, Kurcab doesn’t usually recommend it. “It drains all of the water in the piping system every watering cycle, which increases water costs over the course of the season.”

Green Tip: If you don’t have a soil sensor, be sure to turn off your system during periods of regular rainfall to save water and money. And always, always buy native plants, Elmore stresses. They will do better over time on less water because they’re acclimated to our climate.”

Feature – Landscape Designer/Contractor – Skimp or Splurge? Splurge

Why: An experienced landscape designer is crucial for helping you determine what you really need—and don’t—in your landscape. Professionals know others in the industry and can often purchase supplies at a discount. They also know the best cost-cutting measures and how to avoid costly mistakes. Ask friends and business associates for referrals, and meet with all prospects in person before deciding.

Green Tip: Using a local landscape company saves both fossil fuels and money, as they don’t have to transport trucks and equipment long distances or charge for travel time. For a list of area home and gar-den professionals, visit www.homeandgardenmag.com
and click on the “H&G Pros” tab.


Feature – Fountains and Other  Water Features Skimp or Splurge? – Skimp (definitely!)

Why ; The trickling of water can calm the senses and drown out traffic noise. “But you don’t need a large, grandiose waterfall or long, flowing creek to make an impact on your landscape,” Melvin says. “Even a small boulder with water cascading into a small pool, or a prepackaged tabletop fountain, can create a sense of peace on your patio or in your garden.”

Large water features are almost always a bad investment, our pros agree. They don’t retain any resale value, they can require costly maintenance, they’re hard to clean and they often waste water. “If you absolutely must have a water feature,” Porzuczek says, “then a small, prepackaged, self-contained fountain will provide the soothing effect of water without the hassle or cost.”

Smaller is also preferable if your goal is to attract birds, Elmore adds. “They prefer smaller, shallower basins to drink from and bathe in anyway.”

Green Tip: Keep up with maintenance and immediately fix any leaks or other issues so you’re not wasting water.”

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