As I begin writing this article on Sunday, October 19, 2008 I am reflecting on the fact that we are living in a declining economy. The media keeps warning of economic meltdown. Most of us are worried about our salary, investments, and the fact that prices for just about everything are on the way up. Of course we are all hopeful that our favorite candidates will get elected and they will have the knowledge and fortitude to fix this. Meanwhile, folks are not spending money beyond their basic needs.
Landscaping is considered a luxury as opposed to necessity. Therefore my industry is among the first to feel the pinch of recession. That being said, I thought it may help some of you if I gave my opinion concerning cost versus value when it comes to landscaping. Regardless of the economy there are still folks buying new housing which means they will have bare ground to cover. There are also folks buying older homes that may have maintenance issues. In addition, there are a whole bunch of folks who are seeking to live a more natural, sustainable existence.
1. Plant trees. There are very few investments that pay off as much as planting a tree. Even small, inexpensive trees will grow to create shade that will lead to saving on energy, help offset global warming, give oxygen in exchange for carbon dioxide, provide fuel, food, habitat, reduce erosion, not to mention beauty, plus a whole range of unexpected benefits that are largely taken for granted. In fact, smaller trees generally establish faster and become mature trees quicker than the larger, more expensive trees we can buy. I know this doesn’t sound right, but trust me…………..
I have often stated that planting trees is one of the most ecologically sound things a person can do in their lifetime. Even the poorest among us can harvest an acorn and plant it somewhere. Trees are a legacy you will leave to future generations. I recommend that if you can’t afford to landscape right now, go ahead and plant some trees this fall and winter. All of mankind will profit. No kidding!!!…………..
2. Stretch that budget. Buying smaller plants will allow you to accomplish more for less. Although planting larger specimens will have greater visual impact during the initial planting, smaller plants do eventually grow plus they transplant easier which means less digging which equates to less labor on installation. The purchase price of a five gallon shrub is often fifteen or twenty dollars more than the same shrub in one gallon size. Do the math.
3. Research before you buy. Like any other business, the nursery trade is well aware of “impulse buying.” Certainly you will find some interesting plants you weren’t expecting to see but a smart buyer will resist that urge to buy something because it looks pretty today. Find out how much extra care that plant may require. How long will it live in your climate conditions? Pretty is not always practical. The best choices are local natives, annuals that will self sow, well adapted flowering perennials, and trees or shrubs that are known to do well in your area. Look in older neighborhoods or abandoned properties for good choices. Stay away from tropical plants unless you live in the tropics. Or, if you just have to have exotic plants for whatever reason, don’t buy too many
Although buying smaller specimens is a good way to get more for less, stay away from cheap. Maybe the reason that plant went on sale was nobody wanted to buy it, or maybe it was neglected, sick, or root bound. Another good example of cheap is Bermuda grass. Yes, seed for Bermuda is inexpensive. A little will go a long way and you can get a stand in nothing flat. Yes, it grows fast, but have you considered all the mowing, watering, and fertilizer that fast growing grass will require in the years ahead?
4. Reduce lawn areas. With the exception of buffalo, blue grama, sedges, and other shorter native grasses, lawn grasses in general consume more time and money than any other type of landscaping. Regardless of initial cost, anything that isn’t lawn will eventually pay for itself. Just look in your garage or storage building to see how much you have already invested in power equipment and other lawn care products.
5. Think edible. Whether it is fruit and nut trees or a vegetable garden, edible landscaping pays all sorts of dividends when it comes to economics. Consider the rising cost of food plus all the alarming reports of disease outbreaks that are traced back to food producers. The best way to provide healthy, fresh food is to grow your own.
While many folks in our fast paced society don’t think they have the time, growing food at home takes no more effort than caring for a bed of petunias. Just throw in some of your favorite veggies with (or instead of) the petunias. You don’t necessarily have to care for a full blown vegetable garden or have room for a small orchard. Just a few containers on the porch will get you started. Trees can pull double duty for shade and Spring flowers while providing seasonal food to supplement your budget.
As you learn more about edible landscaping you will find quite a number of ornamental plants that produce edible berries, flowers, leaves, spices, or that have medicinal value. For instance, I like to use rosemary as an ornamental shrub in my landscape designs. Rosemary is native to Mediterranean desert areas. As such it requires little or no supplemental water once established. It is evergreen, has blue flowers, and can be pruned into any shape. In addition to all this, if you just happen to need rosemary for cooking, you have a lifetime supply. It’s hard to beat that kind of usefulness for a very small investment.
6. Naturalize. Consider letting part of your landscape go back to Nature. Texas Parks and Wildlife has a “Wildscape” certification program that can protect you from archaic “weed laws” and other ordinances if you live in a city. Texas has ten distinctly different vegetation zones. Each of these support local wildlife. Habitat gardening is fun, educational, and easy on the budget. A few packets of well chosen seed, perhaps a tree or some shrubs and a little elbow grease is all you need.
Throughout my lifetime there were always a few yards around town that would sport a stand of Texas bluebonnets every spring. In recent years I’ve noticed more and more homeowners taking this a step further to include native grasses and different wildflowers. These “pocket prairies” afford color and interest all year long as opposed to one big show in spring. Contrary to what some may think, I have never heard a complaint that these habitats attract rats, skunks, poisonous snakes, or other undesirables. In fact, we are likely to find more varmints on the properties of those who horde junk or don’t pick up after themselves. Of course, we should always be aware of the possibilities. Nature is about balance. You cannot have butterflies if you kill all the caterpillars.
7. Hire a consultant. By this I mean a person who has genuine expertise. You may find that your local science teacher or Parks and Wildlife biologist knows quite a bit more about local flora and fauna than your nursery owner, the guy who mows your lawn, or friendly Master Gardener. If you seek free advice just make sure the person giving it has some experience and is not trying to sell you something.
Any good landscape design/consult person will charge a fee. They should offset this by visiting your property in person and make recommendations that will save time and money while fulfilling the goals you have set. Beware of any such person who landscapes your property in a few short minutes. Any good consultant will put some time and thought into your project before going to the drawing board. In fact, you should be offered a set of options rather than one choice.
By the time this gets printed, the elections will be history and hopefully you and I will be getting back to business at hand. If you are in the market or have need for landscaping I sincerely hope that these suggestions will help. It never hurts to be frugal or to do some research regardless of what prediction the experts make about our future economy. Landscaping is a long term investment. Give it some thought.