How to design a great garden for less

How to design a great garden for less

Low maintenance garden

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As a landscaper and garden designer I often get asked to design amazing gardens only for the customer to discover that what they are after is way out of their price range.

Because of this we have developed some useful garden design principles which can help you design an amazing garden for less than or the same as an average garden.

There are plenty of guides which focus on fine designs but realistically these gardens are beyond the budget of most of us. This guide is for you if you want to know how to design a garden which looks great and that you can actually afford. 

Using real prices and examples we take you through our pragmatic approach to garden design. 

Low maintenance garden, 15 ideas

The most underrated garden design tool in the world

To design an amazing garden you need to be able to visualise it. You need to see how the parts will fit together, the colours will work and also be able to experiment. You can do this on paper but this is time consuming and most of us have the artistic skills of a sweet potato. We found the solution. 

This tool took our garden design to the next level overnight and we have never looked back.it’s probably the most impressive in-browser software I know of. 

And it’s free for non-commercial use. 

The tool is SketchUp. It’s a 3D design tool used for architecture, landscaping and 3D modelling. 

There are free tutorials on youtube that take you from beginner to advanced. 

Garden Design Principles

I will take you through our budget garden design principles with an example including real prices to show you how to design a top end garden for less than a mediocre one. 

Principle 1: Don’t avoid creativity

This sounds like an odd thing to say but we see it all the time. 

“We want a garden that we can use but we probably can’t afford something fancy so we will just pave some of it and artificial grass the rest…”. 

This is the erroneous idea that if you do something nice it will cost more money than something plain. We see customers spending a substantial amount of money on a drab garden because they already made up their minds that anything nicer would be too expensive. 

However this is usually a mistaken idea as you will see.

Check out this example

Materials: Concrete paving, artificial grass

Cost: £6250

The design above which is basic concrete paving and artificial grass may sound cheap however they are very expensive surfaces, even the budget versions. The price of these surfaces is high because they are very labour intensive. 

By intermingling various elements and creatively planning the garden you can save money and end up with something much nicer. The next 5 principles will show you how to design a garden which looks much better and costs less than the example above.

Materials chart

When it comes to garden materials there is a hierarchy of cost which it really pays to be aware of. This costs based on both the labour and materials.

Across the top there are the common things people want an area for. If it’s marked with a slash that means that type of item is ideal for that purpose. 

CostItemGarden furnitureBBQSChildren/PetsDecorativeSpace fillerPlants/lifeStorage/shedsFoot traffic
£££Paving///////
£££Decking/////
££Artificial grass///
££Raised beds//
£Gravel/////
£Truf///
£Ground level beds//

Use this table to consider what you want the space for and if you could exchange some parts of the more pricey items for less expensive ones which achieve the same thing. 

If you want to see how much your garden would really cost, check out out landscaping cost calculator.

For example, paving is a very expensive space filler, gravel could be much more cost effective.

Principle 2: Minimise the expensive stuff

Because some materials are so much more expensive it’s a good idea to use as little of the expensive materials as possible to achieve the effect you want. 

Instead of just thinking “lets just pave the whole width of the garden…” consider what you actually want to use the garden for. Can you break it down into a few different uses? How much patio do you need? If it’s for small family gatherings, chances are a 3x3m area may be all you need and will save you a whole lot compared to to 7 x 3 area above.  

Could you alter the patio and exchange some parts of it for cheaper materials? 

Lets incorporate some gravel into the areas and reduce the patio to 3x3m. 

Materials: Indian sandstone paving, Plum slate gravel, artificial grass

Cost: £5600

Ok, we have reduced the amount of paving and knocked a whole lot off the cost. We can now use better quality materials because we are being smart with the usage of space.

Lets see how we can replace that expensive artificial grass with something nicer. 

Principle 3: Experiment, experiment, experiment

Using Sketchup, the 3D garden design tool mentioned above, I had a play around to see what lower cost materials I could replace the artificial grass with. Here is what I came up with in a few minutes. 

Materials: Wooden sleepers beds, white marble pebbles, slate gravel, granite edging blocks, Indian sandstone paving. 

Cost: £5850 

Now it’s starting to look like a professionally designed garden, and it’s actually £400 less than the original drab garden design. 

You can experiment with all sorts of designs, materials and surfaces with very little effort. See what expensive materials you can replace with cheaper ones and how much you can squeeze out of your budget. 

We recommend coming up with 3 totally different designs then comparing and choosing the best bits. 

So, it’s much better and cheaper than the original plan, but it’s still expensive. The final two principles will help you to bring the cost down even more. 

Principle 4: Make it modular

Creating a garden design with independent features and areas allows it to be built in modules. Looking at the last design, it would be easy enough to build this in parts. 

Each stage is useful on its own and looks good enough to pass for a complete garden, 

Let’s break down my design into 3 phases to see how it would look and how much it would cost

Phase 1: 

Materials: Keep the original turf, slate gravel, Indian sandstone paving

Cost: £2050

We have a patio where we can put some furniture to enjoy the sun. We could also put some plant pots in the gravel area to brighten the garden up. 

Phase 2: 

Materials: Wooden sleeper beds, soil, slate gravel

Cost: £1620

With more gravel and some planters there is now some structure and life in the garden. Its much nicer to sit out with nature closer to eye level.

Phase 3: 

Materials: Marble pebbles, granite block edging, slate gravel, artificial grass

Cost: £2430

The finishing touches make it a great place to enjoy the summer and the low maintenance materials mean there is no garden work. This is a garden that will impress friends for years to come. 

Each phase of the design is good enough on its own to be usable and to look complete. As well as spreading the cost a modular design gives you a chance to improve on the design as you get more ideas. 

Using a visual design tool will make sure you have thought everything through and all the components will work together and apart. 

Principle 5: Think outside the box

What problem are you looking to solve with the garden design and Is there another way you can get the effect you want? 

Let me give you an example. Say you are sick of cutting the grass and want to make the whole lawn artificial. This is a solution which will work but it will cost a lot. 

For a 30m2 lawn this would cost around £3000. 

Could you get the same effect for much less by hiring a gardener who would also do other garden work? If a gardener charges £30 a fortnight for 10 months of the year that comes to £600 per year. This means for the £3000 you would spend on an artificial lawn you could have a gardener for around 5 years! 

You would be supporting a local business, supporting nature and would probably end up with a nicer garden with all the extra plants you could have them take care of. 

A helpful exercise

It’s easy to get focused on one particular solution to a problem when there may be other, better solutions out there. A good practice is to write down what the problem is that you are looking to solve, then write down at least 3 possible ways you could get there. 

E.g. I want to have a nice lawn but don’t have time to look after it

Potential solutions and costs over 3 years

  1. Pay someone to look after it. Cost – £1800
  2. Artificial lawn. Cost – £3000
  3. Growth slowing chemicals and robot lawnmower. Cost £1000

Conclusion 

To get a great garden for the same price as a mediocre garden takes planning, creativity and the right tools. We want to encourage you to get smart with your garden designs. A few hours of planning can save you thousands or give you a far better outcome. 

We live with our gardens for years, if not decades so a little effort now can result in far more enjoyment for years to come. 

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