4 ways to save on landscaping

@Money June 8, 2012: 6:44 AM ET
plant garden, landscape

(Money magazine) -- There's no better place to build sweat equity than outdoors.

A high-end landscape contractor will charge at least $5,000 to remodel a typical compact suburban front yard. Yet if you can handle a shovel, hose, and wheelbarrow, you have the physical skills to replace overgrown or mundane greenery with fresh plants, boosting curb appeal and possibly property value.

The tricky part is getting the design right; it's not as simple as putting a few plants in the ground. Here's how to achieve that upscale look on your own.

1. Broaden the beds

A single-file row of plants along the foundation and the property lines looks generic at best.

Widen the beds to four to six feet so there's room for more flora -- and to make the plants really pop, use mulch that's the color of soil, says Newport, R.I., landscape architect Kate Field.

That means the fine, dark, compost-like material that costs about 25% more than basic wood chips, or about $120 to $150 (delivered), and that lasts only one year.

2. Focus on foliage

Replace oversize or drab plants with new shrubs and perennials arranged two or three deep, with smaller plants placed in front of larger ones (check the mature size listed on the label).

"Don't get hung up on picking the best flowers," says Portland, Ore., garden designer Darcy Daniels. That's because blooms are short-lived; it's the foliage that you'll see most of the time.

Look for plants with red, purple, or multicolored leaves, as well as a variety of textures, from fine light-green needles to broad dark-green fronds.

Alternate shapes too, with, say, a conical spruce near a chunky hydrangea. You'll pay $20 to $100 per plant, depending on type and size.

3. Accent the architecture

Create a focal point using a dwarf tree or a large shrub. Don't just plunk it in the middle of the yard. Instead, place it in line with a structural element of the property, such as a corner of the house, garage, or lot.

Japanese maples ($100 to $400) and crepe myrtles ($30 to $50) are two good choices that look attractive in all seasons, says Severna Park, Md., nursery owner Gary Blondell.

4. Trim with technique

When it comes to caring for your plants, ditch the electric clippers, which carve bushes into perfect geometric shapes.

"That look is passé," says Field. Unless you're trimming a hedge, always cut the branches to slightly varied lengths one by one using a hand tool, such as Felco's Classic Pruner ($52 at amazon.com). You'll get a more natural, flattering look.

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