Low-cost features can make a big difference in your yard. One versatile option is precast concrete stepping stones, which are usually slightly more than a dollar for a simple foot-square stepper and sold in all home-improvement stores.

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 foot-square stepper costs about $1.40 each, while a 16-inch-square one is about $3.25 — both of which are an incredible value. Stepping stones 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 very straight, rectilinear layout for a walkway, be it used rarely or often.

Create a wider walkway. For this option you can use two 1-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.

Turn the lawn into checkerboard. Everybody wants to cut back on lawn care and water use. One way to explore 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 in a weekend. Steppers are great for renters or those with a very small yard. Simply level the ground and set the larger 16-inch-square concrete pavers edge-to-edge for more stability.

Mind the gaps

The new permeable look features gaps between the concrete squares. How wide these gaps are depends on what kind of filler you choose:

Grass 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 groundcovers are another popular gap filler. Herbs such as creeping thyme and chamomile are great choices because they release fragrance when walked upon. Other groundcovers bloom in a fabulous carpet of color, or mix them up with small clumping perennials, such as thrift.

Gravel is a very popular choice, but avoid gray pea gravel, which doesn’t enhance this look. With gray steppers, you need contrasting gravel in a dark slate color, warm earth tones and some unusual gravels in green, for a lush feeling, or red-orange terra cotta. For crafters, this is a great opportunity to dabble in pebble mosaics to fill these gaps. Above all, choose gravel that’s readily available locally so you can always get more in the future.

Though less available, consider recycled glass tumbled to gravel for potent colors that work best in tiny gardens that need a big design punch. This is an essential of the jewel box succulent garden look and provides great opportunity 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 other small budget garden ideas at http://bit.ly/JF4lnT.