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Design a Budget-Friendly Garden with Upcycled Materials

By: Stephanie Petersen
Looking for budget-friendly garden ideas? See how one couple upcycled and used other smart tips to create a beautiful, cozy and inexpensive backyard garden.

Gardening on a budget

Once the “gardening bug” bites, it’s easy to spend a good chunk of your paycheck at the local garden center and home improvement store. Not everyone’s budget allows them to have a lavish landscape with expensive materials and fancy plants, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful and unique. There are plenty of budget-friendly garden ideas, such as upcycling, that will help turn your backyard into a beautiful and inviting place. Take a look at Sarah and Jason Boten’s zone 5 garden in Urbandale, Iowa. There’s a quick video view above and a more complete garden tour in the story that follows.

Budget-friendly garden ideas

This small backyard retreat is filled with an eclectic mix of upcycled elements and has evolved through many phases over the past 13 years, with playsets, kiddie pools and space for their children to run. Now that they’re older, Sarah and Jason have transformed their backyard into the outdoor entertaining area that you see here with a collection of rustic mismatched furniture, funky treasures and mixed-material pathways. As more things are put to new use, you’ll find inspiring elements anywhere you look.

Budget-friendly garden tip

Regularly monitor local ads and join social media groups to find used furniture and other popular items that sell quickly.

Upcycled-garden-decor-window-ladder: You can upcycle almost any old household item into a useful and unique garden ornament or structure.

Create a one-of-a-kind garden with upcycled materials

Sarah and Jason have been both creative and savvy. Sarah often sees something she likes, such as an antique door or metal bucket, and tries to figure out how to fit it into their garden. Along the fence, near the seating area, you can see an old window frame with windowbox planters attached, a collection of rusty cogs, a ladder plant stand and a broken down bicycle. It’s more interesting to look at those things than a span of privacy fence. Look for objects to add in your garden at flea markets, tag sales and auctions. Sarah has salvaged broken and discarded items from her aunt’s farm and given them new life in her yard. She even turned a large window with some missing panes of glass into a table top.

Quick plant stand

An old ladder holds small pots of flowers and knickknacks. Fold it up and place it out of the way when not in use so it doesn’t blow over on a windy day

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Upcycled doors and old window for planter: Upcycled materials add charm to this backyard retreat.

Upcycle a door

Over the years, Sarah has acquired several old doors. There’s a shaded creek that runs behind the backyard, but the privacy fence hid it and prevented easy access. By removing a couple of panels from the fence, next to where the bicycle leans, and replacing them with doors, they have an opening to the area. With the addition of a little bench on the other side, it’s a quiet spot to sit and listen to the water. Doors have all kinds of uses in the garden: Hinge a few together to create a freestanding screen, attach a windowbox, or even build a small toolshed!

Upcycled wash bins and vintage stove for garden art and planting: Easy-to-grow wax begonias (Begonia semperflorens) fill up these old wash tubs. For just a few dollars, you can pick up a couple packs of plants at the garden center and have flowers from spring through frost.

Upcycle appliances in your garden

You may take a look at the garden and wonder if it’s inside or outdoors, with all of the appliances and furniture. Yes, that is an old stove in the corner! What started as a fun, whimsical accent inspired the upcycled theme for the rest of this garden. Looking around the garden now, you’ll find washtubs, a bathtub, a kitchen sink and a metal bed frame.

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budget-friendly-garden-bathtub-planter: Pull the plug on the drain and leave holes for fixtures open for drainage, but cover them with fine mesh to prevent clogging.

Versatile upcycled containers

Containers are a great way to upcycle. Climbing pole beans grow on a simple bamboo trellis in the antique tub in in this budget-friendly backyard garden. A packet of seeds is just a buck or two and they grow quickly to create a screen, while also providing some interest at eye level. Plus you get to harvest enough beans for dinner. Continue to pick the pole beans as they ripen but before they get too large and mature and the plants will produce until a hard freeze.

Mix in vegetables

Add more color at the base of the trellis by growing a mix of plants. Vegetables, such as radishes, lettuces and carrots, can fill in early in the season. This is also a great spot for an herb garden. Once the veggies are harvested, add some extra color later in the season with pansies (Viola x wittrockiana), garden mums (Chrysanthemum hybrids) and ornamental millet (Pennisetum glaucum). Shop end-of-season sales for extra splashes of color like these.

What to fill it with

This tub is filled with a mix of soil, potting mix and compost. You don’t have to empty and replace all of it every year. Removing the top 6 inches or so and refreshing it with new mix and a dose of slow-release fertilizer is enough for most plants. Want to keep the weight down? Line the bottom of the tub with empty upside-down nursery pots before you add the planting mix.

Cast-iron container tips

Speaking of weight, site a cast-iron planter carefully so you don’t have to move it more than once. And consider putting gravel or concrete pavers beneath the feet to prevent them from sinking into the soil over time. Don’t want to fill it with soil? Plug up the holes and float a few water lilies (Nymphaea spp. and hybrids) or put in a fountain kit.

Budget-friendly-upcycled-garden-purple-coneflower: You can save money by getting perennial plant divisions from friends like the purple coneflowers above.

More inexpensive garden strategies

Many of the things in their garden were free, including plants. This mass of purple coneflowers started as a small clump from a friend, but reseeded and spread into this colorful display that blooms, with deadheading, from summer through fall. In fact, it’s grown enough to be divided and planted in other parts of the garden. In a small garden like this, plant maintenance and chores are manageable.

Check with local municipalities or tree trimming companies for wood mulch, which may be free if you haul it away. Bricks and rock can be found at demolition sites. Just be sure to get permission before taking anything.


A place to relax

The Boten family uses the seating area above almost every day when the weather is nice. A well-designed garden like this can be an extension of your house when you have comfortable furniture in a relaxed, private setting. Mature trees overhead provide plenty of shade for most of the day. It’s a great place to sit and chat over coffee with friends or spend free time reading a book. If you don’t have trees, build a pergola of reclaimed wood, hang a shade sail or even put patio umbrellas to use. The warmth from a little fire enables you to enjoy the garden during chillier times of the year, too.

budget-friendly-outdoor-movie-night:Turn your backyard into a theater and save money by staying home and watching a DVD on a projector.

Budget-friendly backyard movie night

And of course this is a great place to gather with a group of friends. Here you can see how they watch movies outside. Why be cooped up indoors, when you can enjoy the nice weather and watch a movie? With a projector, laptop and a flat bedsheet attached to the garage, the backyard is transformed into an outdoor theater. If you don’t own one, check with your library or office to see if they have one you can borrow or rent.

budget-friendly-garden-seating-areaR:  Add extra privacy with a panel of lattice attached to the top of a privacy fence.

Outdoor decorating on a budget

The backyard has a slight slope, which leads to the cozy patio above. Finding bargain plants and discarded junk and turning it into funky garden art is a great practice if you want to save money. But have you considered looking for free hardscaping and paving materials? The Botens had a friend who was replacing and expanding a patio, and he wanted to get rid of all the pavers for a new look. He gave them away! Jason just had to haul them, and then he prepped the area and built the patio.

Not only does it save money, but it prevents those things from being added to the landfill. It’s important to be flexible and openminded if you are trying to landscape your yard on a budget. If the pavers you have don’t quite fill the space, mix other materials in to complete it or surround the patio with a perimeter of flowers, rock mulch or a ground cover..

Mix & match furniture

In the photo above, this patio is set up for a dinner with friends with a portable table and set of charming mismatched chairs, but it can be used for a variety of things. Some days, a relaxing lounger set beckons. A small bistro set is lightweight and portable, too, if you want a quick set-up for a spontaneous light lunch and conversation with a friend.

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budget-friendly-table-setting-garden: Make a budget-friendly table runner by folding over and pressing a piece of fabric. It’s easy to swap out different swatches to change the look each season.

Grow your own cut flowers

Decorating the garden doesn’t end in the flower beds. Expensive centerpieces for parties won’t last long — instead, cut flowers from your own yard, like the garden mums (Chrysanthemum hybrids) in inexpensive canning jars above. Add some miniature gourds and candles, and you have a colorful and charming collection to complete the look on top of a simple table runner.

Add string lights to your garden for a warm glow:  Hang string lights on a fence with clips or tiny hooks. A timer makes turning on the lights hassle free — especially if your outlets are in difficult-to-reach places.

Inexpensive garden lighting ideas

In the garden, lighting sets a mood. To add to the festive environment, the Botens use these inexpensive string lights draped along the fence and over the arbor. This helps to set this part of the garden off from the rest and invite and guide visitors to feel welcome to enter. Take a closer look and you can see the string lights are hung on the privacy fence in a vertical pattern clustered together to create one large panel of light. This offers extra illumination to the patio and an inexpensive alternative to outdoor lighting kits. String lights are available in a variety of styles and colors and some of them are solar-powered, so you can even use them in a remote part of the yard.

This garden isn’t very large or filled with exotic plants, but it offers a variety of creative ways to find new purpose for the forgotten and discarded. Using a keen eye and your imagination, what will you find that can add to a special spot in your garden?

Published: March 13, 2018

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Here are some supplies and tools we find essential in our everyday work in the garden. We may receive a commission from sales referred by our links; however, we have carefully selected these products for their usefulness and quality.


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