Money-savvy yard makeover

Garden redesign: How to give your outdoor area a fab makeover without spending a ton

rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.comSeptember 19, 2012 

Dahlias drab? Perennials patchy? If your garden’s looking bare or flat, it probably needs a makeover – and fall is the best time to do it on the cheap. Plants can be divided or moved without stress, salvaged for free, bought for cheap or swapped with friends and ready to look beautiful in spring. South Sound garden experts tell how to redesign your yard and still stay within budget.


Good design begins with good observation, and the first part of any makeover is to look, really look, at your garden.

“I tell people to walk into their yard as if they were a first-time visitor,” says garden designer Sue Goetz of The Creative Gardener. “What’s the first thing you see?”

Part of what you see might be stuff that needs creative hiding, like garbage bins. Or your yard might need a good clean.

For instant, low-budget good looks Goetz recommends starting with a good tidy-up and laying down a load of compost. “Plants will bust out and look great,” she says. “And tidied edges and pretty paths are inexpensive and go a long way, more than purchased plants.” The compost also will feed your soil and keep your plants looking good next year, as well as unifying the look of your beds.

Another not-so-expensive design element is color: Consider repainting your front door, and adding a pot in a matching color. Or spend a bit more on a large colorful pot and put it where you get a good view of it, or in a bare patch for permanent color.

“It’s all about refreshing your thinking,” Goetz says.


To double the plants you already have, fill in bare ground and maintain visual continuity you can divide perennials, herbs, natives and grasses, and replant them around your garden.

“Fall is the time for (re)planting, because the plants can grow roots in winter and get their strength,” says Irene Reid, a Tacoma master gardener who regularly divides her own plants for replanting and swapping. “Dividing is quite easy.”

How to divide? First trim the plant down to around 12 inches high to make it easier to handle and tidier to look at. Dig it up, keeping as much of the roots and soil as you can, and either break it or chop it into two, three or even four pieces depending on size.

“Don’t be afraid to ax them,” Reid says cheerfully.

Replant each division in similar soil/sun conditions with a little compost mulch or fertilizer that’s higher in phosphorus and potassium than nitrogen, says Reid, and water them in.

For plants that don’t divide you can also take cuttings, stick them in root powder and sand and wait until they’ve grown a bit to replant. It’s a longer process. The Washington State University Extension website has a comprehensive guide to propagating (

Remember that it might take your divisions a year or two to really fill out.

“Here’s an old English garden saying,” says Reid. “The first year, they sleep; the second year, they creep; the third year, they leap. And the fourth year: dig deep, meaning, divide them again.”

Which plants: spring- or summer-flowering perennials (hint – if they’re still flowering, leave them), grasses, non-woody perennial herbs like oregano and mint, perennial natives, irises, lilies, rhubarb, cane fruit like raspberries, and some creeping groundcovers.

When: October-November, after rains but before heavy frosts.


Sometimes you don’t have to get any more plants to get a new look – just move the ones you have to other locations for a more dramatic effect (or a happier plant). It’s not as hard as it seems, and now is the time to do it.

“This is a good time to rearrange plants because we’re heading into natural rainfall, and plants are going dormant,” says Goetz.

Filling in blank spaces in your yard can sometimes be as easy as moving a plant a few feet and letting it flourish, says Goetz, instead of constantly pruning it back where it currently is. The biggest question is, can you manage the plant? If it’s too large and you have to hire something to dig it or move it, it might not be worth it. Large shrubs, such as hydrangea and rhododendrons, can be pruned right back to make the plant easier to move.

Which plants: Most shrubs and smaller plants can be moved, with the exception of daphnes and Japanese maples, says Goetz.

When: Now through end of October.


If you can’t fill out your garden from your existing plants, look around for cheap or free ways to get more.

“You can get lots of perennials at stores that don’t want to overwinter them,” says Reid. “You can divide them and get two plants for the cost of one.” Nurseries and home-improvement stores, all have sales during fall.

One sale to watch for is the annual native plant sale at the Tacoma Nature Center. This year’s is 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Oct. 6 and offers everything from grasses to trees at significantly reduced prices. Get there early to have the best choice. (253-591-6439, The Washington Native Plant Society South Sound Chapter is holding a native plant sale on the same date from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. at the Coach House, Capital Museum, Olympia (

Keep a look out for plants at yard sales, and if you need to buy roses or fruit trees, buy them in late fall as bare-root stock, without the soil – they’re much cheaper and easier to transport.

One free idea is to hold a dividing party with your neighbors, swapping your plants for theirs and sharing the work.

“It’s much more fun to work with others in the garden,” Reid adds.

Alternatively, set up a local swap-list online or consider holding a formal plant swap at your church, school or community center. Reid donates every year to the spring plant exchange at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in North Tacoma. (253-627-8371,

More free plants can be gotten through salvage. The Native Plant Salvage Alliance is a South Sound group of over 1,000 volunteers who go through development sites about to be bulldozed and save any native plant they can, potting it onsite and replanting in the same conditions at home.

“Salvaging is obviously a good source for free plants, but it’s also beneficial for the environment, providing habitat for nesting and eating,” says Anna Thurston, who heads up the NPSA and offers individual landscape consulting through her company Advance Botanical Resources. “You might even be providing habitat for endangered species, like butterflies. Our region used to be mostly prairie – we should try and replicate that.”

Another side-benefit, points out Thurston, is that native plants are adapted to our porous soils, long wet winters and harsh dry summers, needing only organic matter for mulch – which will save you money later on in water and fertilizer costs.

Salvaging plants requires knowing which sites are available and having the necessary permits: Contact the NPSA for details (253-227-4923, Thurston also will represent the NPSA at the Puyallup Fair in the Northwest Outdoor Alliance building at the southwest corner of the fairgrounds.

Which plants: Mostly ferns, but other native perennials no taller than your shoulder can be salvaged. Avoid evergreens, as they have leaves that dry out and roots that don’t easily grow back. Keep soil around roots intact. Keep moist for first two seasons.

When: October-April, during rainy season. 253-597-8568

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