So your grand plans for building the backyard landscape of your dreams are bumping into a stoney wall of reality? Don’t worry. This happens almost all the time with almost all landscaping projects, and it’s usually caused by one of several limiting factors.
Landscaping cost is the usual suspect, but not always. Getting the size of your landscape dreams to fit with the size of your budget is always a delicate balancing act. But there are other conditions that may potentially affect the overall cost of landscaping, prescribe the location of key features such as a pool, or impose limitations on the total size of your project The most common conditions are:
- Topography – steep slopes, soil drainage, soil stability – all present different physical/structural challenges that may affect the cost of landscaping and must be addressed before you can focus on the aesthetic portion of your landscape dreams
- Lot size – most jurisdictions limit the “buildable” area on an individual lot once the footprint of your home is factored in
- Physical barriers – location of the house in relation to property boundaries, septic fields, buried utilities, conservation areas – the layout of your landscape may be influenced by any of these
- Resource Protection Areas (RPAs) – Wetlands or forested areas adjacent to a property may be designated by your county as watershed protection areas. A proposed landscaping project must account for how installations on the property may impact drainage and run off into resource protection areas. Pools especially can be subject to regulation. Gaining a permit may incur additional time and up front costs for hiring a civil engineer or environmental engineer to review your plans and to satisfy other requirements.
There is always a way forward. It may not be the exact way you were thinking at the outset, but there is always an alternative route to get close to the same place. This is where a landscape architect can be an invaluable resource and advisor, saving you time and money by guiding you through these complexities.
Managing Landscaping Costs: What to Do When You Can’t Do It All
Once you’ve spoken to a landscape architect, you should have a clear picture of the conditions that must be met and a realistic price tag attached to your wish list. At that point, some people may find that they have to rethink their budget or rethink the scope of their landscape plan.
Since it is usually the cost of landscaping that puts limits on our desires, let’s look into that first. There are two possible approaches depending on the type of limitation that is holding you back:
- Create a master plan to be implemented in phases thus spreading the cost over several years,
- Take the selective plan approach. Sharpen up your wish list by selecting the one or two “must haves” you really want, then build your design around those key features. Selectively add back in other features that will work together with those centerpieces up to the point that your budget or other limitations such as lot size will allow.
The Selective Plan Approach
Before you decide what “features” you want, take time to unpack your wish list. Really think about and discuss why you want those things — how you think having them will improve your home life on a daily basis and your property value/appeal over time. Prioritize.
If your buildable area is limited because of lot size or other county code restrictions, you may have to face the fact that there is simply not enough room on your property to comfortably fit all the features you want. A limited budget would put you in a similar position. In either case, taking a selective approach can be extremely helpful. It takes time to get there, but you can actually achieve a much better project when you carefully consider and prioritize the core components of your project. Only invest in those features that really matter to you. Don’t allocate budget dollars to extras that you don’t see yourself using and enjoying regularly.
The Phased Master Plan Approach
If budget is the only limitation, understand that you don’t have to do everything all at one time. Taking a phased approach to a master landscaping plan can give you the ability to divide the project installation and costs into manageable parcels. Prioritize what you want to include in the landscape, then let your landscape architect help you figure out a timeline that spells out where the various components should be located on the site and the order in which they should be installed.
Usually, it’s best to start with the big items–those features that you are eager to begin using right away. For example, if there is a pool, begin with that. Whether you go forward with the pool now or later, you want your master plan to specify where it will be located on the property so you won’t have to undo or potentially damage previously installed work if you come back to do the pool at a later point.
In the first phase of the master plan your landscape construction firm would do the grading, drainage system, and hardscaping. In phase two, they would dig the planting beds and install shrubs and large trees. Phase three is where they would plant flower beds, ground covers, and perennials and attend to the smaller details. Taking the phased approach does not mean you will be stuck living in a construction site for a prolonged period of time. In between phases, your property will not look like a construction site. It will look unfinished, like there is more to come–which there will be.
Understanding Landscaping Cost Estimates
It can come as a bit of a shock when a homeowner finds out what things really cost. This can be particularly challenging if you are trying to evaluate landscaping cost estimates from several companies because you may be presented with widely differing quotes for what appear to be the same project.
If you are trying to evaluate pricing from more than one company, these considerations should lead the discussion:
- What is the quality level of finish materials?
- What is the detail level of construction specifications?
- What quality and size of plant materials is your estimate based on?
- Does the site preparation include a custom engineered drainage plan?
- Are there places where alternative materials (e.g. pavers vs. bluestone) might be used to contain cost without compromising the aesthetic
A well established company tends to provide a more accurate and comprehensive estimate. But it is still up to you to ask questions about all of these things so that you can be certain that your idea of what you will be getting is exactly what your landscape designer has planned for you. Don’t assume. Ask. You want to know that the estimate you are reviewing does not omit important steps like grading, drainage, soil preparation, and high quality materials that ensure the success and longevity of your landscaping.
Working with a creative, experienced landscape architect is essential to gaining a realistic idea of landscaping costs, identifying relevant site conditions, and exploring the available options. The initial meetings with your landscape architect are meant to be exploratory. It’s your time to dream and list everything you want so your architect can fully understand what is important to you. Then, if necessary, you’ll be prepared to pare down your ideas to the essentials and transfer as many of those “must haves” as possible into a realistic plan that fulfills a version of your dream that might even be better than the original!
If you’ve been thinking about investing in a landscape design project, our eBook: Expert Guide to Planning the Landscape Design of Your Dreams, is full of valuable information to help you get started.