When a house needs a lot of attention, the yard can get short shrift. Here are some budget-friendly ways to improve your great outdoors.
Most homeowners focus first on interior upgrades, which means it can take years to find the money to whip a yard into shape. But there are smart, easy-on-the-wallet moves you can make to deliver a big impact. It starts with upkeep.
“You’d be surprised what a boost to curb appeal you get from simply pressure-washing and decluttering,” says TOH landscape contractor Jenn Nawada. So begin by approaching your yard with a visitor’s fresh eye, and tackle the to-do list of simple fixes, like pruning away dead plant material, freshening up outdoor furnishings, and touching up paint, as needed.
Then turn your attention to what’s missing: Are there bare areas in planting beds? Does your yard lack color or focal points to catch the eye? Is it in need of spots for sitting and gathering? There are inexpensive ways to fill those needs and more, while reducing future maintenance, too. Here are a handful of strategies and techniques to put to work in your yard right now.
Start with a Plan
No budget to hire a landscape designer? Here’s the framework these pros use to guide a homeowner’s spending.
- Invest in big hardscape projects first, including walkways, decks, and patios, plus rough-ins for irrigation or gas lines.
- Then add trees and large shrubs to complete the bones of your yard.
- Last, fill in beds with perennials and add annuals in containers and window boxes for seasonal color.
Idea 1: Massed Plantings Make a Statement
Colorful, textured garden beds overflowing with different plants can be hard to get right and fussy to maintain. That’s why landscape pros often plant a single species or cultivar in quantity along a fence, leading to an entryway, or as wide borders.
Massed plantings trick the eye and make beds look bigger while feeling unified, which helps in yards that have a lot of variety in shrubs, trees, and other plantings. Some of Jenn’s favorites for planting in multiples are nursery staples that are also easy to propagate by division, such as catmint, sedum, black-eyed Susan, ferns, and hostas (above)—allowing you to fill a long bed in a couple of seasons.
As singles, they might fade away, but grouped together they command a lot of attention.
“This easy-to-maintain edging is basically free. Using a square shovel, cut a V-shape into the lawn about 3 inches deep, then fill with mulch. It creates a clean edge, keeps grass out, and won’t heave in winter.” —Jenn Nawada, landscape contractor
Idea 2: Tidy Shrubs for Foundations
Few things clutter up the front of a house like overgrown shrubs. “Use windows as a guide, and pick compact plants that won’t exceed that height,” Jenn says. Choose dwarf cultivars to add structure and interest. But be sure to always research any plant’s full height at maturity; “dwarf” merely indicates that it’s smaller than what’s common for the species. Here are four standouts:
Ilex glabra ‘Compacta’
While some inkberries reach 8 feet high, this low-growing, oval-shaped ‘Compacta’ gets half as tall, with glossy evergreen leaves, and can produce berries for wildlife. Grows up to 4 feet high and 6 feet wide in zones 4 to 9.
Adrian Bloom/Gap Photos
Spiraea x bumalda ‘Anthony Waterer’
This spiraea’s foliage puts on a colorful show before dropping in fall. Come spring, pink flower clusters brighten garden beds. Grows up to 3 feet high and 4 feet wide in zones 4 to 8.
Thomas Alamy/Gap Photos
Clethra Alnifolia ‘Sixteen Candles’
Plant this deciduous shrub by an entryway to enjoy the 6-inch-tall, fragrant spikes of white flowers starting in mid-summer. Grows up to 5 feet high and 3 feet wide in zones 4 to 9.
Rhododendron ‘Yaku Prince’
Many rhodies can reach 20 feet tall, but evergreen ‘Yaku Prince’ stays a compact 3 feet high and wide, perfect under a window to preserve the view. In spring its dark-green foliage sets off large pink flowers in zones 4 to 8.
Carole Drake/Gap Photos
Idea 3: Consider a Pea-Stone Patio for a Budget-Friendly Classic
A patio makes enjoying the backyard easier. “A spot to entertain doesn’t have to be elaborate; even some chairs on a patch of pea stone can work,” Jenn says.
Don’t overlook the benefits of 3⁄8-inch stone: It’s easier to work with than heavy pieces of bluestone, less fussy than brick, makes a pleasing sound underfoot, and drains well. Best of all? Buying enough to cover a 12-by-12-foot patio costs about $35 from a stone yard.
How to Install a Pea-Stone Patio
A pea-stone patio is a weekend project, but it does require more than cutting open a bag of rocks.
- First, mark out the patio’s perimeter.
- Then dig down about 4 inches, removing the turf or soil.
- Add a 2½-inch layer of stone pack, and tamp it down well.
- Roll out landscape fabric to foil weeds.
- Install metal edging, landscape timbers, or bricks to help keep the stone in place.
- Spread a 2-inch layer of pea stone.
Idea 4: Freshen Up Container Plantings
Colorful container gardens are an easy way to dress up an entry or outdoor living area. But putting together distinctive pairings can be a challenge. Jenn simplifies the task with varieties available at most garden centers, mixing brightly colored flowers and interesting foliage plants for fresh combinations, like those at left.
To keep from having to fill very deep containers with soil—which also makes them heavy and difficult to move—she fills the bottom half or two-thirds with polystyrene-foam packing peanuts (which won’t degrade), then adds landscape fabric and potting mix.
Idea 5: Create DIY Focal Points
Once, installing a garden centerpiece required hiring a pro, but kits now make it easier—and more affordable—to do the work yourself. Here are three ways to dress up your yard in a hurry.
Tumbled, tinted cast-concrete blocks stack to form a 44-inch-square fire pit in three or four rows, topped with a cap held in place with masonry adhesive. A black metal insert protects the blocks from scorch marks.
Weston Stone Fire Pit Kit in Bella, $700; Belgrade
(shown left) A pump, tubing, and a buried basin keep water flowing over the 45-inch-high urn’s rippled surface for soothing sounds. Easy to install and maintain, it’s also safe around kids.
Medium Stacked Slate Urn Landscape Fountain Kit, $1,200; Aquascape
(shown right) Covered with vines or left bare as an architectural accent, this 7-foot cedar arbor is a graceful way to mark an entrance or accent a walkway. With precut, predrilled pieces, it comes together in just a couple of hours.
Rosewood Arbor, $290; Vita
Idea 6: Install Outdoor Night Lights
When it comes to landscape lighting, many homeowners think of curb appeal first. But Jenn suggests starting in the backyard. “Lighting adds subtle drama, so illuminate an area that means the most to you, such as an outdoor living area,” she says. (It’s likely to inspire you to then add lighting out front, too.)
Home centers stock low-voltage beginner kits, starting at around $100, to handle basic garden and pathway lighting. To make your yard look its best, you’ll also want a sprinkling of well, bullet, down, and flood lights to play up trees, shrubs, walls, and garden beds.
If you already have a 20-amp circuit outside, you may not need an electrician. Paired with a heat source, like a fire pit, lighting can extend outdoor entertaining well after the sun goes down.
“Everything must go!” needn’t be the battle cry for a renovation. By streamlining storage, freeing up prep stations, and creating a cohesive aesthetic, favorite focal points get a chance to truly shine.
This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.
Buy an older house and you’ll likely find some junk along with the gems. Previous renovations had left this kitchen, located in a 1943 Colonial Revival in Washington, D.C., packed with nondescript Thermofoil cabinets and myriad column and pilaster flourishes that detracted from assets like the lofty ceiling and tall, arch-top windows.
Shown: Removing some upper cabinets gave the striking copper range hood and new custom patterned wall tile center stage. A larger island added storage, prep space, and seating.
“Since starting from scratch wasn’t in the budget, our goal was to minimize the fussiness and bring in a sense of balance and proportion while increasing storage, seating, and prep space,” says Nadia Subaran of Aidan Design.
To better serve the family of four, who like to cook and bake together, she added a second oven and sink, as well as modular refrigeration (separating the fridge and freezer) and a larger island with stools. To open up the space, Subaran refined the cabinetry layout, taking away some uppers to show off the existing copper vent hood. The use of color reflects the wife’s love of Swedish mid-century and Mexican Otomi textiles: simple white cabinets, white walls, with accents in bright red, green, and blue.
“We looked critically at what changes would make the most impact in terms of function, focal points, and flow,” says Subaran. The result: a spirited space that’s improved in every way.
“The homeowners are parents to two active teenage girls, and their house is hangout central, so ample seating was essential,” Subaran says. A pantry cabinet, now located between the fridge and the dining area’s under-the-window drawer storage, is convenient to cooks as well as anyone seated at the table.
Shown left: In a house with multiple cooks, two sinks makes good sense. The island sink is intended for food prep, while the one under the window, flanked by dishwashers, does cleanup duty.
Faucets: California Faucets; Cabinets: Brookhaven by Wood-Mode; Custom tile: Clay Imports; Countertops: Caesarstone; Appliances: Thermador; Ice maker: Scotsman; Sinks: Franke; Hardware: Push Pull Decorative Hardware; Island stools: West Elm
Shown right: The white oak floor with a dark walnut stain was saved from the former kitchen, as were the red chairs. “Uninterrupted wood floors lend warmth and continuity to open-plan spaces,” Subaran says. This one just needed patching in a few spots and refinishing.
Another keeper from the former kitchen is a 94-by-40-inch embroidered Mexican Otomi wall hanging that the homeowner had commissioned. A new bank of lower cabinets by the back door shows off the cherished textile, which was a major inspiration for the kitchen’s color scheme.
“The bones of a kitchen—cabinets and countertops—should have longevity, so err on the side of simplicity. You may love something trendy today but not feel the same in five or ten years.”
“For a family who likes to cook, modular refrigeration—separating the refrigerator and freezer—can provide needed additional storage and help keep the scale balanced in a kitchen design.” —Nadia Suborn, co-owner, Aidan Design
Simplifying the cabinet layout without losing storage, adding a multipurpose island, and updating the appliances improved function and flow in the 364-square-foot space.
- Extended the interior wall by 15 inches, creating breathing room for double wall ovens and a freezer column; reduced the trim on nearby support columns.
- Swapped a small square island for one 9 feet long with a prep sink and seating.
- Removed three upper cabinets that had been crowding the sink window and range hood, adding elbowroom alongside both.
- Relocated the pantry cabinet from the corner next to the oven to alongside the fridge column, for more convenient access, and doubled its capacity.
- Replaced a seldom-used desk under a window flanked by pilasters with wide drawers for platters and place settings; put in simpler window trim.
Smart Spending Tips for Kitchens
Wondering where to put your hard-earned cash when it comes to renovating a cook space? Consider this strategic investing advice from designer Subaran.
AMP UP PANTRY STORAGE. “Customizing a pantry interior to your needs is money well spent. I find pantry closets can be a waste of space; I prefer tall pantry cabinets with rollout shelves and racks at various heights. Adding rollouts on casters, like the ones used for trash bins, works great for bulk items, like dog food, for example.”
USE WHAT YOU HAVE. “These homeowners wanted to keep their red dining chairs and loved the copper vent hood. Pieces in good shape, including appliances no more than five years old, can be worked into a new design. I suggest putting the savings toward decorative lighting and backsplash tile, which can add a lot of character.”
GO FOR STYLES WITH STAYING POWER. “A kitchen renovation should last 20 years, so think timeless, not trendy, especially for cabinetry, which is expensive to change. Shaker-style doors are a classic. The patterns in countertop stone are a personal preference that can be limiting; a light marble look has more universal appeal.”
Shown above: The cooktop was shifted away from the corner to allow the existing copper hood to shine. The custom tile was created from a photo of a Swedish kitchen the wife had held on to for years.
Get the Look
Good design can be had at all price levels these days. Here are some cost-conscious finds inspired by the kitchen
1. Pull-down faucet / KRAUS
This single-handle gooseneck combines traditional-meets-modern styling with a wallet-friendly chrome finish. The easy-to-grasp pull-down spout makes rinsing a breeze.
2. Updated Windsor chair / WAYFAIR
Vibrant red paint gives these simple spindle-back seats real presence in a mostly-white dining area. The nice price encourages buying in multiples.
$200 for two; Wayfair
3. Bold green paint / BENJAMIN MOORE
This kitchen’s island got a custom factory-applied color. For a similarly smooth, furniture-like finish, try the Advance line of water-based alkyd paint in Neon Green.
About $60 per gallon; Neon Green by Benjamin Moore
4. Copper vent hood / ZLINE
Turn a practical necessity into a sculptural focal point with a range hood that has a seven-layer copper finish over stainless steel—plus four fan speeds, 400 cfm airflow, and LED lights.
$750; Home Depot
Tackle a little early spring maintenance now to get your yard ready for the growth spurt to come.
March is notoriously unpredictable. Shrubs can be crusty with snow on the first of the month, and then, a couple of weeks later, temperatures can warm up enough for flower and leaf buds to show signs of life.
It’s Clean-Up Season
Still, some early spring cleanup tasks are sure things this time of year. So go ahead and remove the burlap from trees and shrubs as the weather warms. Prune away winter-killed branches to make room for new growth.
Cut back spent perennials and pull up old annuals if you didn't get around to it last fall. Then look around. "March is a good time to take stock of your yard and see if it's time to thin out crowded beds and do some transplanting to fill in bare spots," says This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook.
Spring Yard Cleanup Checklist
Here, a spring yard clean-up checklist to tackle now to give your green patch a clean start.
Trees and Shrubs
1. Prune away dead and damaged branches.
Where tree or shrub branches have been damaged by cold, snow, and wind, prune back to live stems; use a handsaw for any larger than ½ inch in diameter. Shaping hedges with hand pruners, rather than electric shears, prevents a thick outer layer of growth that prohibits sunlight and air from reaching the shrub's center. At right, Roger neatens up a yew by pruning wayward shoots back to an intersecting branch. Prune summer-flowering shrubs, such as Rose of Sharon, before buds swell, but wait to prune spring bloomers, like forsythia, until after they flower.
Trim overgrown evergreens back to a branch whose direction you want to encourage.
TOH Pro Lawn Care Tip: Roger Cook, TOH Landscape Contractor says, "Now's the time to get some basic spring yard maintenance done. Then, as temperatures warm up, you'll be in better shape for seeding and planting, and for enjoying the outdoors."
Perennials and Grasses
2. Cut back and divide perennials as needed.
Prune flowering perennials to a height of 4–5 inches and ornamental grasses to 2–3 inches to allow new growth to shoot up. Where soil has thawed, dig up perennials, such as daylilies and hostas, to thin crowded beds; divide them, leaving at least three stems per clump, and transplant them to fill in sparse areas. Cut back winter-damaged rose canes to 1 inch below the blackened area. On climbers, keep younger green canes and remove older woody ones; neaten them up by bending the canes horizontally and tipping the buds downward. Use jute twine or gentle Velcro fasteners to hold the canes in place.
A pair of sharp bypass pruners makes a clean cut on both dead and living foliage.
Beds and Borders
3. Clean Up Around Plants.
Next on the spring yard clean up checklist, rake out fallen leaves and dead foliage (which can smother plants and foster disease), pull up spent annuals, and toss in a wheelbarrow with other organic yard waste. Once the threat of frost has passed, Roger also removes existing mulch to set the stage for a new layer once spring planting is done.
Push heaved plants back into flower beds and borders, tamping them down around the base with your foot, or use a shovel to replant them. Now is a good time to spread a pelletized fertilizer tailored to existing plantings on the soil's surface so that spring rains can carry it to the roots.
Add a 5-10-10 fertilizer around bulbs as soon as they flower to maximize bloom time and feed next season's growth. Use pins to fasten drip irrigation lines that have come loose and a square-head shovel to give beds a clean edge and keep turf grass from growing into them.
4. Compost Yard Waste.
Dump collected leaves, cuttings, spent foliage, and last season's mulch into your compost pile, or make a simple corral by joining sections of wire fence (available at home centers) into a 3-by-3-by-3-foot cube like the one above.
Shred leaves and chip branches larger than ½ inch in diameter to accelerate decomposition, or add a bagged compost starter to the pile. Keep the pile as moist as a wrung-out sponge, and aerate it with a pitchfork every two weeks. Just don't add any early spring weeds that have gone to seed—they might not cook completely and could sprout instead.
5. Prep Damaged Lawn Areas for Spring Seeding.
In colder climates grass starts growing in April, but early spring is a good time to test the soil's pH so that you can assemble the right amendments. Remove turf damaged by salt, plows, or disease to prepare for the seeding that should follow in a few weeks.
Work in a ½-inch layer of compost to keep the new seed moist, increasing the germination rate. Begin seeding once forsythia starts blooming in your area. In warmer climates, March is a good time to add the first dose of fertilizer and crabgrass treatment.
Remove dead turf with a square metal rake, then flip it over to spread compost.
Paths and Patios
6. Neaten Up Hardscape Surfaces.
Rake escaped gravel back into aggregate walkways and patios, and order more gravel to spread in large depressions, which often form near the driveway's apron.
Refill joints between flagstones by sweeping in new sand or stone dust; water with a hose to set it, then repeat. If the freeze-thaw cycle has heaved pavers out of place, remove them and replenish the base material as needed before setting pavers back in.
Use a pressure washer with a low-pressure tip to remove slippery algae spots or leaf stains from patios and walkways.
Fences and Trellises
7. Patch or replace and paint worn wood.
Remove badly rotted or damaged pickets, boards, or lattice, then scrub wood structures clean with a mix of 2 gallons water, 2 quarts bleach, and 1 cup liquid soap; let dry. Patch rotted sections with wood epoxy; install new wood as needed.
Check wobbly fence posts to see if they need replacing (find the how-to at thisoldhouse.com. Scrape off old paint, then sand wood all over with 60 grit to prep for a new finish coat. Once temperatures go above 50° F, brush on a new coat of paint or stain.
Icicles may be pretty but they can tear off gutters, loosen shingles, and cause water to back up into your house. Learn these fast fixes for ice dam removal, long term repair, and prevention tips.
Icicles hanging along the eaves of your house may look beautiful, but they spell trouble. That's because the same conditions that allow icicles to form—snow-covered roofs and freezing weather—also lead to ice dams: thick ridges of solid ice that build up along the eaves.
Why are Ice Dams Bad?
Dams can tear off gutters, loosen shingles, and cause water to back up and pour into your house. When that happens, the results aren't pretty: peeling paint, warped floors, stained and sagging ceilings. Not to mention soggy insulation in the attic, which loses R-value and becomes a magnet for mold and mildew.
If you’re wondering how to fix an ice dam on your roof, here’s how you can prevent them altogether or remove them if they've already formed.
How to Prevent Ice Dams
Use Heated Cables
Attached with clips along the roof’s edge in a zigzag pattern, heated cables help prevent ice dams that lift shingles and cause leaks. This solution allows you to equalize your roof’s temperature by heating it from the outside instead of blowing in cold air from the inside (as we mention next in “Fast Fixes”). Just be sure to install the cables before bad weather hits.
For more information on this and other electronic snow and ice melters, see Plug-in Snow Busters.
Keep reading for fast fixes you can do yourself after a dam has already formed.
How to Get Rid of Ice Dams Fast
Blow in Cold Air
Hacking away at ice dams with a hammer, chisel, or shovel is bad for your roofing—and dangerous for you. And throwing salt on them will do more to harm to your plantings than to the ice. Short of praying for warm weather, here are stop-gap measures we recommend.
Take a box fan into the attic and aim it at the underside of the roof where water is actively leaking in. This targeted dose of cold air will freeze the water in its tracks. “You’ll stop the leak in a matter of minutes,” says TOH general contractor Tom Silva.
For more advice from Tom, see How to Prevent Ice Dams.
Pull off snow with a long-handled aluminum roof rake while you stand safely on the ground. A rake with wheels, like the one shown here, will instantly change the exterior temperature of your roof without damaging shingles.
You can also diminish the damage after the dam has formed with...panty hose! Fill the leg of discarded pair of panty hose with a calcium chloride ice melter. Lay the hose onto the roof so it crosses the ice dam and overhangs the gutter.
If necessary, use a long-handled garden rake or hoe to push it into position. The calcium chloride will eventually melt through the snow and ice and create a channel for water to flow down into the gutters or off the roof.
Next up, a list of long-term fixes that will help you get rid of your ice dams for good.
Permanent Fixes for Ice Dams
Getting rid of ice dams for good is simple, in principle: Just keep the entire roof the same temperature as the eaves. You do that by increasing ventilation, adding insulation, and sealing off every possible air leak that might warm the underside of the roof.
By taking care of common trouble spots, listed here in order of priority, you should enjoy dam-free winters and use less energy to boot:
- Ventilate Eaves And Ridge. A ridge vent paired with continuous soffit vents circulates cold air under the entire roof. Both ridge and soffit vents should have the same size openings and provide at least 1 square foot of opening for every 300 square feet of attic floor. Place baffles at the eaves to maintain a clear path for the airflow from the soffit vents.
- Cap the Hatch. An unsealed attic hatch or whole-house fan is a massive opening for heat to escape. Cover them with weatherstripped caps made from foil-faced foam board held together with aluminum tape.
- Exhaust to the Outside. Make sure that the ducts connected to the kitchen, bathroom, and dryer vents all lead outdoors through either the roof or walls, but never through the soffit.
- Add Insulation. More insulation on the attic floor keeps the heat where it belongs. To find how much insulation your attic needs, check with your local building department.
- Install Sealed Can Lights. Old-style recessed lights give off great plumes of heat and can’t be insulated without creating a fire hazard. Replace them with sealed “IC” fixtures, which can be covered with insulation.
- Flash Around Chimneys. Bridge the gap between chimney and house framing with L-shaped steel flashing held in place with unbroken beads of a fire-stop sealant. Using canned spray foam or insulation isn’t fire safe.
- Seal and Insulate Ducts. Spread fiber-reinforced mastic on the joints of HVAC ducts and exhaust ducts. Cover them entirely with R-5 or R-6 foil-faced fiberglass.
- Caulk Penetrations. Seal around electrical cables and vent pipes with a fire-stop sealant. Also, look for any spots where light shines up from below or the insulation is stained black by the dirt from passing air.
Understanding the Lifecycle of an Ice Dam
Understanding how ice dams form in the first place will also help you better prevent or fix them. Here is the lifecycle off an ice dam:
Here's a breakdown of the conditions that lead to the formation of ice dams: First, heat collects in the attic and warms the roof, except at the eaves.
Next, snow melts on the warm roof and then freezes on the cold eaves.
Finally, ice accumulates along the eaves, forming a dam. Meltwater from the warm roof backs up behind it, flows under the shingles, and into the house.
Looking for more help with repairs around your home? A home warranty may help. Check out the This Old Houses Reviews Team’s in-depth reviews on: