Is A Beautiful Garden Only For the Wealthy?

Sep 1, 2018 | Gardens

This question was recently posted on the Cape Cod Gardening Group page, and I thought it was a great query.

“Curious: have seen many beautiful properties in this group and am wondering: do most of the people who post here have 1+ acre lots and a fair amount of disposable income? I’ve worked on my gardens for almost 18 years but spend on average only about $200 per year. There’s nothing in my yard that comes close to the gardens on this page. We can’t afford to put in a well or an irrigation system. Wondering if we should just give up, especially after this summer. Is gardening on Cape Cod really an endeavor for just the upper middle class and the wealthy?”

I decided to answer this member’s post on my blog since I think this is a question that people all over the country might pose, especially in the age of Pinterest, Facebook and other social platforms. When constantly faced with photos of beautiful gardens it’s natural to wonder, “Can I do this? Is something like this possible in small spaces or on a tight budget?”

I can speak to this post personally because I’ve gardened since I was in college, and for many years did so with little space and even less money. When we moved to Cape Cod we had a house on less than a quarter acre. All of the photos illustrating this post are from that small yard. Over the years I’ve also visited small gardens all over this country and in other parts of the world.  I’ve seen that even the smallest balcony, or the tiniest piece of earth in front of a city brownstone, can become a beautiful garden. Size doesn’t matter.

These photos also show that money doesn’t have to be abundant either. If your budget is tight, however, there needs to be more planning and patience. Here are some of the ways I used to create the garden shown here on a very small budget.

  • Grow plants from seed. Perennials, annuals and even shrubs and trees can be grown from seed. You can often buy dozens of seeds for less than a single plant costs in the garden center. You just need to be patient and willing to start small.
  • Accept plants from neighbors and friends. Many gardeners fill entire landscapes with “pass along plants.” These gardens can be beautiful but they are not necessarily low-maintenance. Pass along plants often spread quickly or need frequent dividing, so they will keep you working in the landscape.
  • Grow self-seeding plants. If you buy one lady’s mantle, for example, you’ll soon have others that will either fill the area or can be moved elsewhere. The caveat here is that you’ll need to be willing to edit such plants out when they get “out of bounds” or “out of control…” because they will.
  • Always start small. Buy a tree when it’s two feet tall, or accept a friend’s seedling Japanese maple, golden rain tree or wild cherry. I have many trees in my yard right now that are only eight years old and were planted when they were less than a foot high. They are now twelve to fifteen feet tall or even higher.

In terms of water use, you can plant a beautiful landscape using plants that only need watering once a month in times of drought. My “hell strip” along the road is planted this way since I don’t want to drag a hose and sprinkler up to that part of the property. I have colorful flowers and foliage there all summer, and this summer I haven’t watered it at all, even in the heat. (My short list: Baptisia, Zagreb Coreopsis, daylilies, Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite, Physocarpus ‘Summer Wine’ and ‘Coppertina,’ variegated yucca, low sedums and tall upright junipers. All of these were purchased very small from plant sales are now a lush, colorful border.)  Use the right plants, amend with free composted horse manure or your own compost, and mulch with chopped leaves from your own trees. 

Here’s the bottom line, however. You do have to invest something, but it’s not money. It’s time, work and thought. If you’re willing to spend hours in the garden, water the beds with your sweat, and plan carefully, you will have a beautiful, Pinterest-worthy garden.

And in my experience you’ll also have a great time, learn more than you thought possible, and meet some pretty fantastic people along the way.

This was my backyard garden for the first fifteen years we lived on the Cape. We had a quarter of an acre, much of which was taken up by the house and two driveways. When we arrived the house was recently completed so there was very little landscaping. All the plants you see in this photo, with the exception of the lawn, tall oaks and dwarf Alberta spruce trees I planted gradually over the time we lived here.

This was the side yard and it was filled with plants that spread and/or self seeded. I started with one Epimedium and split it every three years until I had several. I let the Stylophorum (yellow flower), Lunaria (purple flower) and Labrador violets self-seed. These were all pass-along plants. I planted a hydrangea from a piece given to me by another gardener. I bought one perennial geranium and divided it over the years. The two trees were only a foot tall when I got them, so even they cost less than $20.


Finally, every year I grew new biennials and perennials from seed. This was the front yard the year after I started dozens of foxgloves. Now, in my new gardens, I have many offspring from the perennials and biennials I grew from seed twenty-five years ago. In fact, they have produced so many more plants and so many smiles, that I consider myself wealthy…in smiles, experiences, and beauty if not in dollars.



  1. Julia M Oliver

    I love this and you!

  2. Celeste Makely

    Great advice,C.l.
    I have always had big gardens, my favorite was in Wellfleet,but since moving to a condo, I have had to go small.
    Still, I have surrounded myself with the plants I love, and kept some favorites in pots.
    I have Figs from my tree for breakfast, veggies and herbs for lunch, and my orange tree is is producing well.
    I still save seeds and share plants ,
    have a spot in the community garden and supply my friends with tomatoes.
    In my eighty first year.. still going strong and planning next years garden.
    Do I miss my Cape friends and my beautiful garden?
    You bet!!.. But small can be beautiful too.
    Love the group , and reading your comments.
    Celeste Makely


    I’ve seen both your old and your current homes. I rather liked the old one with its gorgeous hill garden!

    You do appear to be wealthy, and deservedly so. You’ve shared your knowledge so generously to so many people in so many ways. I own “The Cocktail Garden” and it’s brought much reading and visual pleasure.

    Thanks for your recommendations and encouragement.

  4. Buffy Alten

    Such encouraging advice. There are times when I feel my gardens, which have grown quite large over the years, seen unmanagable. However, I keep doing what I love, and that’s keeping order and doing little things daily ..
    Like watering, weeding, edging, dividing and replanting, fertilizing, amending the soil not to mention duty I g the lawn weekly. Ok. It is a lot of sweat equity for me. The payoff is worth it.

  5. Trish rivers

    So beautiful!!! Thank you for sharing your tips, we are all the wealthier for it!


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