During a recent morning walk, I noticed a lot of my neighbors spreading mulch, pulling weeds and planting flowers in their front yards. It made me smile and also made me a bit jealous -- with two young children keeping us busy, my husband and I haven't gotten around to sprucing up our yard or even budgeting for the cost it would take to make it happen.
So I went home and started doing some research. What should we do this year and how much will it cost? What's the return on our investment? I was pleasantly surprised to discover that landscaping and gardening would actually save us money. I love being outside anyway, and now I have good reason. Here's what I learned:
Proper landscaping reduces household bills.
On a recent trip to a warehouse club, my husband and I spotted some gorgeous redbud trees for $45 apiece. We considered buying them, but instead walked away. I hope they're still there, because according to the Arbor Day Foundation, trees not only drop the temperature by about 20 to 40 degrees in the summer, but they also cut the amount of energy used for heating a household by 20 to 50 percent. To put that in perspective, the Energy Department estimates that only three well-placed trees save the average household about $100 to $250 per year in energy costs. For $135, we can improve the look of our lawn and save as much as $115 annually.
You also can reduce your water bill by incorporating native plants into your landscaping plans. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, native plants save money (and time) by reducing the need for fertilizers, pesticides and water. We have a hard time keeping our grass green, so we definitely utilized this tip. The EPA estimates lawn irrigation in urban areas uses 30 percent of the water consumption on the East Coast and as much as 60 percent on the West Coast. Native plants have adapted to their region's climate and require little watering or care, making them a smart choice over grass.
Also, remember that trees and plants grow! A small or medium-sized tree or plant is a better investment than spending hundreds of dollars (or more) on a large one. We purchased starter-sized Mexican heathers last spring (which are native to our region) that were on clearance. A lot of the leaves were dead and they were very small, but by summer's end we were pulling them out and cutting them back because they took over. We are so glad we didn't spend more just to get instant results.
Mulch offers many benefits.
I always love the immediate impact mulch makes when it's freshly applied. It makes plants pop because it provides such a nice contrast and smells like spring. Apparently mulch is the unsung hero of the garden. According to the Agriculture Department, mulch protects land from soil erosion and reduces compaction from heavy rains. It also will help reduce your water bill by eliminating the need to frequently water, and provides an even soil temperature to protect your plants.
If you're spending a lot of money on weed killer, fertilizer and bug spray, mulch will help you out there, too. It prevents weed growth, and organic mulch will decompose and provide nutrients to encourage plant growth. And some types of mulch, such as cedar, cypress, redwood and eucalyptus, naturally deter insects.
When buying mulch, consider how much coverage you'll need. You might be able to save with bulk purchases online.
Consider eating what your garden produces.
Last year, the National Gardening Association released a survey that shows one in three U.S. households are growing food, which is the highest participation in a decade. The top reasons for doing so are to have better-tasting food (58 percent), to reduce food bills (54 percent) and to grow better-quality food (51 percent).
For one reason or another, we haven't yet started growing food at my house. My husband loves all things spicy, so we've considered growing some peppers, and probably tomatoes, lettuce and herbs. In addition to having the convenience of produce in our own backyard, we think it would be a good way to teach our girls about how sun and water make things grow, as well as to give them some responsibility (and, maybe even get them interested in eating more vegetables). In 2009, the NGA estimated that an average 600-square-foot garden requires about a $70 investment and produces nearly 300 pounds of fresh produce worth $600 during the growing season. Simply put, that's a whopping $530 return and a whole lot of fresh food.
Review your grocery list to see what produce you spend the most on each season, and try to grow it in your garden. For example, at our house we tend to spend a lot on basil, which is expensive, so we'll be looking to plant some of that. And while buying peppers isn't really expensive, we buy them all the time. Growing them will save us many trips to the store.
These tips will save my family about $700 this year. I hope you enjoy similar savings, as well as the warmer weather. Now go out there and discover your green thumb!
Lori McDaniel is the senior content manager at Offers.com. She's a wife and mother of two who can't seem to shake her taste for the finer things in life, which means she always is on the hunt for a great deal.