Planning a custom landscape is a big thrill. The promise of an inviting deck, colorful garden, or appealing front yard landscape inspires creativity and motivation.
But knowing how much to pay for landscaping can be a challenge.
Budgeting for your project revolves around knowing where costs come from, getting a feel for the fair market rate, and — believe it or not — understanding how you can influence the cost of a landscape design and install yourself.
We want every landscape to be a Maas Verde landscape, but we also know every new client is preparing to make a big decision. That’s why we created this guide to landscape budgeting.
In it, you’ll find:
- Major costs and hidden costs on every landscape job
- Easy prep work you can do to boost efficiencies and drive down costs
- Maas Verde’s baseline pricing for “Am I in the ballpark?” questions
We come to each job site with all the tools we need for success. We believe you should have the same advantage.
Major Drivers of Landscaping Costs
The two main landscaping costs to the customer are materials and labor. This would make it appear that prices generally follow the size of a project.
But labor efficiency doesn’t grow at a constant rate unless it’s repeatable. So project complexity affects landscape prices much more strongly than project size.
Generally, a project grows more complex as the number of distinct services it requires increases.
Complexity Affects Cost More Than Size
Take Zilker Park’s Great Lawn for example. As an experiment, imagine you designed and installed the current landscape. You’d be looking at several acres of ground clearing and grading, irrigation, soil spreading, and sod install.
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While that’s plenty more sod and PVC than you’d lay in a typical back yard, the job tasks required are exactly the same. Zilker will take longer to complete, obviously, but the labor will increase at a predictable rate because the crew rarely transitions between job tasks.
Now let’s completely redesign the park. (Many will recall this almost happened recently.)
In this scenario, say you plan an absorbent rain garden in the top corner of the property to collect stormwater and distribute it thoughout the site. Below that, you’ll install a native planted prairie for wildlife habitat. To protect that habitat, you’ll build a network of elevated walkways. You’ll still include a partial lawn, but you’ll surround it with large tree species like live oaks to protect the turf from scorching. Let’s say the city also contracts you to build the sand volleyball courts, and you decide to fence them off from a nearby boulder garden.
Though these two hypothetical projects are the exact same size, the cost difference between them could easily exceed $500,000.
Why Complex Jobs Cost More
Costs for the landscape company and the client compound each time there’s a new service on the project. The reality of the industry is that most clients want a one-stop shop — a wide range of services from the same contractor. This is Maas Verde’s objective, but it means we need to maintain a large crew and find every efficiency we can.
“We can break down every project into a list of roughly seven elements: earthwork, planting, hardscape, carpentry, steel fabrication, irrigation, and lighting. When an install only has one of these elements, we don’t need to context switch at all, and the demand on management is light. But as you approach all seven, there’s a much higher difficulty. How do we source materials? What tool sets do we need at the job and how do we get them there? There could be storage challenges. The project manager needs to organize the job in phases, and each phase presents its own communication challenges.”
-Maas Verde project manager John Harris
Materials as a Function of Labor
Customers can also consider labor complexity as the main driver of price differences between materials. Maas Verde regularly uses either 4″ cut limestone blocks or 1/4″ plate steel to edge landscape elements.
Maas Verde consistently purchases both materials at virtually the same price per linear foot.
But the labor cost of working with steel can be 50%-100% higher. An aesthetic steel edge demands significantly more attention to detail and specialty labor than a limestone one. These requirements increase on a straight edge, where any imperfection in steel is glaringly obvious. Welding introduces more serious safety concerns and more personal protective equipment (PPE).
The same logic applies to softscapes versus decking. Both accomplish the same general function of ground cover, but because of disparities in labor, carpentry will always cost more than sod or mulched beds.
Most Overlooked Costs
Cost items in landscaping range from overt to obscure. Anyone can infer that a brand-new deck made from premium materials is a cost. Same with a grove of freshly installed 65-gallon shade trees.
But on every job site, a handful of costs almost always get overlooked.
Demolition and Disposal
Consider your site. Maybe it’s a back yard with a collapsing retaining wall and some dying turfgrass. Maybe it’s a concrete patio surrounded by artificial turf. Maybe it’s a rotting deck and a flight of stairs.
No matter what eventually replaces these structures, they must first come out. This removal holds the first two hidden costs in landscaping: demolition and disposal.
“Most people tend to think of the positive, or additive, elements of a landscape project,” Maas Verde project manager Marc Opperman explained. “But the subtractive parts of a job consume resources, too.”
Removal of existing structures, soils, vegetation, and hardscape elements takes time. And depending on the materials involved, dumping isn’t always a one-stop shop.
Another commonly forgotten landscape cost is irrigation. For most people, the reality is that maintaining aesthetic standards for plants during Central Texas summers will require at least some artificial irrigation. An existing irrigation system may or may not meet the demands of a new plant plan. And a new system costs $2,000 per zone to install.
Maas Verde recommends an irrigation diagnostic for all existing systems before new plantings go in. The process is cost-effective at $250 and can help expectations align with reality.
Subsurface Conditions and Access
Other underground conditions also influence landscaping prices. Not a day goes by without Maas Verde crew members excavating — and when they have to break through stubborn kaliche or limestone, it adds time.
Finally, characteristics that limit access can strongly influence the cost for landscaping.
Maas Verde uses machines to unlock efficiencies whenever we can. And while we maintain equipment specialized to our working conditions, there are limits. Our mini skid steers can pass through a four-foot (48”) gate, for instance, but not a three-foot (36”) one.
We can operate on slopes, but only so steep.
“When I estimate labor, I’m looking at a site and I’m thinking about all these things,” John Harris, Maas Verde project manager, said. “Subsurface and surface conditions. Will we be carrying materials by hand or can we use a machine? Can we get a machine to an area where we need to excavate or not? If not, those situations add up.”
How You Can Control Costs
While you can’t influence the rates a landscaper charges, you can influence your own cost for landscaping services. Any home or business owner can do this by doing some property research and prep work.
The Impact of Surveys
To start, you can make a major impact with a solid property survey. This document can be instrumental in project design and planning.
A good survey shows exact property boundaries, substantial trees and their species, built features, and even includes insights on buried utilities. Savings will be reflected in design fees and install efficiency.
Surveys give our designers limits, telling them what they can and can’t do. Say you want a stone patio but your property is close to the City’s impervious cover limit. In that case, we can find out what’s feasible.
Communication is critical, especially on big projects — and creating a tight design is one of the best ways to get any crew on the same page. Once we’re on the job site, the survey will limit surprises. For instance, knowing the exact property line on a fence project can save hours.
Claiming Rebates and Preparing Your Area
Applying for the City of Austin’s multiple rebates can help pay back landscape costs. A $5,000 rebate is available for rainwater harvesting, and the “WaterWise” rebate for native plant conversions pays up to $3,000. These rebates aren’t for every customer, but knowing what you do or don’t want to apply for is an excellent place to start.
Finally, simply cleaning up your property for our crews will build efficiencies. You can remove brush piles or unwanted plants and clear tight access areas of any debris or home goods.
How Maas Verde Combats Lack of Pricing Standards
Pricing in the landscape industry is often a moving target. But this can be frustrating for customers and hazardous to companies.
Industry standard pricing is elusive, if it exists at all. Protocols for estimates are the same. Our project managers experience these circumstances when, for instance, they recruit subcontractors for large projects.
Proposals they receive range widely. Some are painstakingly itemized, and some consist of a few crude sentences followed by a lump sum. Pricing comes in all over the board, and doesn’t necessarily follow predictable trends.
Most landscape clients find the same thing.
Forbes summed up the situation in a 2023 article that attempts to outline “average” landscaping prices. The publication landed on numbers that reflect the chasm that is pricing in the industry.
“When it comes to services that upgrade your outdoor space, the sky is literally the limit. With that in mind, a landscaping project can cost as little as $90 or more than $60,000.”
While you can get almost nothing done with $90, Forbes’ assessment is patently true otherwise. The situation it describes is just extremely vague.
Estimating a landscape project takes experience and ongoing practice. Our project managers bring a deep understanding of our techniques and overall model — they helped create it! They also work closely alongside our crew members, which helps build reliable time budgeting.
But there’s a reason they call an estimate an “estimate,” and multiple factors can affect the timeline of any job.
Because that’s the case, we are working on aggregate pricing tools to put clients in control with ballpark numbers they can count on. Our goal is to limit client interactions where the numbers just don’t line up.
Internal evaluation has so far shown us that we can reliably price garden beds at $7-10 per square foot. And because plantings are the core of any landscape design, we recommend using this square-foot pricing as a rough guideline as we continue our research.
From there, keep the key concepts from this guide in mind as you consider your budget. For Maas Verde, ecological restoration is the objective — and empowering clients is the priority.