I find the best small-budget gardening ideas on Pinterest. I gather them to help gardeners realize how to create low-cost features that make a big difference in the yard.
With the new movement toward modern, minimalist layouts and organic style, there's one element I look for more than any other. In generic terms, they're called precast concrete steppingstones, but that hardly does them justice. They're sold in all home improvement stores from coast to coast, costing a little more than a dollar for a simple foot-square stepper.
All over, folks are rethinking their midcentury tract homes, which have become swanky architecture for the new millennium. Study these projects enough and you see that concrete has evolved from the low-cost choice to hot stuff. This trend is driven by the introduction of permeable paving, which is the green alternative to pouring a solid slab.
Today, a standard square- foot stepper costs $1.40, while a 16-inch-square one costs about $3.25; both are incredible values. Steppingstones are the best deal you can find for making big changes for little money.
Create a linear pathway with steppers. The new look is a straight layout for a walkway, whether it's used rarely or often. For a wider walkway, you can use two one-foot steppers set flush edge to edge for a 1-by-2-foot shape that no longer looks like a stepper at all. This is an alternative to hand-cut rectangular stone pavers that cost big bucks.
Or turn your lawn into checkerboard. Everybody wants to cut back on lawn care and water use. One way to do this is to cut squares out of your lawn and replace them with concrete steppers. Anyone can do this for big results in one weekend. Lay a mini-patio this weekend. Steppers are great for those with a very small yard. Simply level the ground and set 16-inch concrete squares edge to edge for more stability.
The new permeable look features gaps between the concrete squares. How wide these gaps are depends on what kind of filler you choose. Lawn is a popular choice, but it's hard to manage, so many folks have discovered the new artificial turf that's so realistic it fools me all the time. This is a great way to get the green grids you see in magazines without the high maintenance of living grass.
Ground-hugging herbs and ornamental ground covers are other popular gap fillers. Herbs such as creeping thyme and chamomile are great choices because they release fragrances when walked on. Other ground covers bloom in a fabulous carpet of color; or mix them with small clumping perennials such as thrift.
Gravel is a very popular choice, but avoid gray pea gravel, which doesn't enhance this look. Take some time to find a truly attractive choice. With gray steppers, you need contrasting gravel in dark slate color, warm earth tones and some unusual gravels in green that add a lush feeling and terra cotta for red-orange. For crafters, this is an opportunity to dabble in pebble mosaics to fill gaps. Above all, choose gravel readily available locally so you always can get more in the future.
Although it's less available, consider recycled glass tumbled to gravel for potent colors that work best in small gardens that need a big design punch. This is an essential of the jewel box succulent garden look and provides great opportunities to make something special.
For those hoping to create gardens and outdoor living spaces in keeping with the modern trends, or if you're just short on cash, consider using the 12-inch or 16-inch squares in your next project.
Explore this look on my Small Budget Gardening board on Pinterest -- along with 15,000 other folks just like you -- to find more inspiration.