3 First Steps for Lovely Landscaping around your Newly Built Home


Anyone out there live in a brand-new house? Around the Des Moines area, new homes are popping up all the time. Since most new neighborhoods are built in former corn fields, the houses look so lonely! This project used the landscaping to help this new build look like it’s been there forever. I’ll walk you through 3 steps to start with so you can get going.


This house wasn’t in a corn field and was lucky to have some timber around it, but the yard space was just wide open and a complete blank canvas. It’s hard to imagine how to start from bare dirt or new sod and get to lush gardens and sweet outdoor spaces to hang out. It can be overwhelming and confusing to prioritize and get going. Here are the three things I’d do first.

I have a whole blog post about creating a front entry - so go check that out if you haven’t yet! So many clients come to me because they don't know where to start. My advice is to start with your front - you gain curb appeal, YOU see it every day, and it will be the most valuable change you’ll make if you ever sell. I know- you just got this thing built! The facts are that Americans move an average of every 7 years, so investing now to make your home more sellable later is nothing but wise.

  • If you can, avoid the builder-basic concrete pad and go with a more thoughtful surface for your walkway. Choose flagstone or concrete pavers to set your entry apart from the neighbors’.

  • Plant along the whole walkway. Allow people to walk through a garden to your front door. It doesn’t have to be massive or complicated! Pick your favorite color and find a perennial and a shrub that each have that color in it - leaves, stems and flowers are all options. Then find an evergreen you like. Make sure all the plants work with your sun or shade exposure and don’t get too big or stay too small. Place the evergreen as a marker either at the beginning like we did with this small fir, or at the far corner for something larger. Then use your perennials and shrubs to fill in along the walkway. Boom. Front entry done.


I know, your builder planted 2 or 3 around the property. Well, I will bet you $100 at least one of two things are true: the trees are planted too deeply, and they’re the same trees that are all down your street. Y’all. This is a systemic problem and we’re in trouble in 30 years - trouble that we caused and that we can fix.

All these new construction neighborhoods are filled with the same trees! Not only maples, but the same EXACT cultivar, most likely. That means that every tree on your street is genetically identical to the rest, and if a disease or insect comes through you have NO genetic diversity to protect them. Ever heard of Dutch elm disease? it wiped out street trees in every town in America. We still haven’t recovered.

I have a great guide to under-used shade trees that you can get here. Take a peek and help change our towns and cities for good! Plant a deciduous tree (that’s one that loses its leaves in winter) along the southwest corner of your house for optimal shade in the summer and sunshine in winter. Follow the most up-to-date guidelines for tree planting - research has changed how we do things over the years! I give every client a copy of Purdue University’s tree planting guide because it’s the best I’ve ever seen. You can grab it here, totally free from Purdue Extension Service.


Quite often, all I see when “landscaping” is complete is a strip of shrubs slammed along the front foundation of the house, and then a deck or patio tagged on the back door. I want to help people create spaces to spend time in - to gather with friends and family, surrounded by nature. It takes a bit more than a patch of concrete to make that happen. Adding a gathering space will really make a different in your new construction neighborhood. Again, you need things that set your house apart from the neighbors, and I don’t mean for comparison. Your home should be a reflection of YOU- what you and your family love, how you spend your time. Every home in your neighborhood is filled with interesting, unique people that all have wonderful things that set them apart. Your home should celebrate that!

  • If you’re a couple downsizing for retirement, create a small gathering space with a bench tucked in a corner under a tree - maybe in the front yard to visit with neighbors!

  • If you’re parents of tweens, go for broke (ummm… literally?!?) with a pool, patio, and pergola. Create the yard everyone wants to come play in!

  • If your budget is modest, grab a tractor rim and a few bags of pea gravel, and create a fire pit to draw chairs around and hang out with friends.

There are so many different spaces that will encourage you and your loved ones to spend more time outside. Surround these spaces with plantings filled with things you love- maybe it’s prairie flowers, or maybe it’s neat and tidy boxwoods. This last step will help you begin to use your outdoors in this new house of yours, and it will add value and set your home apart. If you’re into prairie-style plantings, I have a prairie-inspired landscape design that you can download and try out in your own yard! Check it out and let me know what you think.


I love the challenge of creating a landscape for a new home. The blank slate is so fun! If you don’t know where to start - 1) get your front entry taken care of, 2) plant a shade tree, and then 3) create a gathering space somewhere. You’ll be amazed how these three small steps will make a landscape that you love.

Is all of this too overwhelming? If you’re ready for more, I have a few options for you. I offer gardener coaching sessions where you can get my input and ideas for 2 full hours at your house - you can learn more and sign up here. I also provide full service design projects, where I create the plan, organize the installation and see it all through to completion. Let me know if you need it. I’d love to help in whatever way works best for you!

Your Secret Sauce for Finished Garden Beds

Image from Proven Winners

Image from Proven Winners

Are you thinking about curb appeal, wanting to clean up the planting beds along your home’s foundation?
Did you just add a deck, and the yard around it looks bare and forgotten?
Does your back yard have a pretty garden space left over from the former owners, but now it looks messy and unfinished?

We all have spaces in our yards that we wish looked professional! I see so many homes with just a few plants scattered in a foundation planting bed, or giant shrubs lined up like soldiers around a patio. The yard looks unfinished, sparse, and lacking any power.

Landscapes with planting beds that have been professionally designed look full and lush, while also clean and finished - not crazy! They have a layered look that adds dimension and depth, and the beds are sized appropriately for the surroundings. This is what all my clients show me when I ask for images that have inspired them- full beds with mature plants and no holes.

How can you make this work in your own landscape? Clean edges. Clean edges tidy up any garden space, and one bulletproof solution for clean edges is LOW-GROWING SHRUBS. Here’s why:

  • Low-growing shrubs are… well, shrubs. Not perennials, Not groundcovers. They don’t need to be cut back in the fall, they aren’t bare in early spring. They really don’t change. For a gardener who wants to putter around, they’re kinda boring! But - for a busy family who wants a lovely yard, they are solid. gold. Low-growing shrubs are the definition of low maintenance: set it and forget it. You don’t have to prune or fuss with them at all.

  • These plants keep weeds down. The ones I suggest grow densely, so they shade out anything beneath them. Weeds need light to germinate and grow, and these babies don’t give weeds a chance. Often in a perennial bed, weeds take over because the perennials are small in springtime and weeds get the sunlight they need. But low-growing shrubs will leaf out early (or be evergreen!) and block out those pesky weeds.

  • They’re cost-effective. Shrubs are usually a bit more pricey than perennials, but you’re getting a more robust plant that adds interest throughout the seasons, not a one-hit bloom time. Check out my list to see suggestions that will bring a full, lush look to your yard and add pretty details all year long.

So what’s a low-growing shrub? This is a plant that has a woody stem - not a soft green stem like perennials have. They can be evergreen (keep their leaves all year) or deciduous (lose their leaves each fall and grow new in spring). I count something as low-growing when it doesn’t get much over two feet tall.

My favorite low-growing shrubs are tough as nails. Many of my clients don’t know plants or how to care for gardens, so I can’t recommend wimpy, needy options. We need plants that are going to get established, leaf out, grow in, and get to work filling out the bed edges and creating nice clean lines. I’m recommending plants that are hardy and tough for my clients in central Iowa - check to see what is best in your area.
Here are my favorites:

Low Scape Mound aronia
This pretty little plant is about as tough as you’ll get. I like to call it a “parking lot plant”, and I mean that with nothing but respect. I want people to have plants in their yards that are beautiful and reliable, and aronia gets the job done. White flowers, dark blue berries, glossy green foliage and killer red fall color make this little guy a great choice. Grows between 1-2’ tall and spreads out 18-24”. Hardy to zone 3a (!!!)

Low Scape Mound aronia from Spring Meadow Nursery

Low Scape Mound aronia from Spring Meadow Nursery

image of aronia Low Scape Mound from Spring Meadow Nursery

image of aronia Low Scape Mound from Spring Meadow Nursery

Lo and Behold Blue Chip Jr. butterfly bush

I love all the small versions of butterfly bush, but the Blue Chip is my fave. You can get ‘Lilac Chip’ (a [ale purple one) ‘Pink Micro Chip’ (a pink one) and “Ice Chip’ (a white one) but I love the purple-blue of this one the best. All these small buddleia (the scientific name for butterfly bush) are around 18-30” tall and spread about 24”. They bloom a LONG time- from summer into fall. They all need full sun (at least 6 hours of direct sunlight) and are hardy to zone 5a. Butterflies and other pollinators love it, and they’re bred specifically to be non-invasive.

Lo and Behold Blue Chip Jr. butterfly bush from State by State Gardening

Lo and Behold Blue Chip Jr. butterfly bush from State by State Gardening

Deutzia ‘Nikko’, Chardonnay Pearls, and Creme Fraiche
I LOVE all these! Deutzia is this old-fashioned shrub that your grandmother (and maybe her mom) grew. It has gorgeous white flowers in the early summer or late spring. Chardonnay Pearls has bright yellow-green foliage all spring and summer- it totally pops in the springtime. ‘Nikko’ has deep green leaves, while Creme Fraiche has a pale green variegation around the edges. I have found that it’s slow to get started - kinda puny and crispy the first year - but then it grows into its own and doesn’t need anything after that. These mini versions of deutzia get about 20-30” tall and spread about the same. They’re hardy to zone 5a, and make it fine all around Des Moines.

Deutzia photo from Chalet Nursery

Deutzia photo from Chalet Nursery

My Monet weigela
It’s the cutest little bright spot in your yard! My Monet has pink flowers and pink-ish new growth, but the best part is the creamy white variegation around the soft green leaves. It will show up anywhere! Does best in part sun to full sun. Gets about 12-18” tall, and spreads around two feet. Butterflies and other pollinators LOVE the trumpet-shaped flowers! This plant is super tough and hardy to zone 4. It’s fine out in the country at my in-laws’ acreage.

My Monet weigela in my mother-in-law’s gardens

My Monet weigela in my mother-in-law’s gardens

One to avoid:
barberry - it’s invasive like crazy all over the east - in fact, it’s illegal to grow or sell in New England. Birds love to eat the berries and then they get pooped out all over the place, and the plants grow in fast and out-compete native plants in the wild. Yes it’s tough, but there are plenty of other options that have manners. Stick with the list above and leave the barberry alone.

So my best advice for creating a landscape bed that looks finished and intentional is to make sure that your edges are clean and full. Low-growing shrubs will fill in and finish off your edges without asking much of you at all. These babies will be your silver bullet for a great-looking yard! Let me know which one is your favorite!

In the studio | A garden oasis in downtown Ames


The wonderful couple that approached me about this project was not afraid of hard work OR plants. They bought this house from a plantsman, and they saw how everything had slipped away from its former glory. While they didn’t want to re-create the same exact look that the previous owner had created, they did want to honor the yard and make a beautiful space for their family.

We agreed on removing an existing walkway that cut the yard right in two parts, and instead created this irregular oval space for lawn with luscious gardens around it. I honestly don’t fill many projects with plants like this- clients have to tell me they WANT to work in the yard or otherwise I keep things more simple. These amazing folks were up for the challenge, though!


For inspiration, I turned to soft textures and year-round color. The yard is in an old part of Ames and totally surrounded by trees- a woodland lot that you don’t really see much except in downtowns. We played up the feeling of seclusion and mystery while still creating an inviting space for neighbors to see and come visit. Adding in a focal point in the long, narrow property was crucial, and I actually ended up adding a few different spots to draw the eye.


In the front yard, we wanted a welcoming, open garden space that would frame the house and finish off the property, making it feel like the 100-year-old home had nestled right into the gardens. We needed to be strategic about parking areas in this downtown lot, and managed to add both a parking space AND a garden area to block it from view. The front yard will be installed in phases, with the foundation plantings going in first and the sidewalk beds added in a few years. We love the idea of giving all the walkers in the neighborhood something pretty to look at and enjoy as they go by. Also, the gardens up front give a hint to what’s waiting in the back yard.


In the back yard, we wanted to provide space for gathering and dining, but still leave space for the couple’s son and their dog to play. We also wanted access to the back alley that this darling neighborhood boasts. The view below is from the patio - looking out over the flowering shrubs, across the lawn, to the arbor that marks the entrance to the alley. The first “after” picture, taken right after plants were installed, shows the path that leads throughout the garden spaces and the view of lush turf for picnics and playing.

Ames Iowa Backyard Landscape Design garden Landscaping red Fern landscape Design

While there was a patio before, the new design opens it up to include a fire pit. There’s so much room for people to gather, and different spaces to go! Breaking up small yards can actually make them feel bigger, because you can’t see it all at once.


The hardscape plan up above shows all the materials take-offs for the landscape design, so that we can calculate how much mulch, how many pavers, what kind and how many rocks and boulders we’ll need. All of that practical information set these clients up for success when they installed the project.


My very favorite part of this space is the little meditation garden that we tucked around the side of the house. WIth space for really just one person, it’s a great way to turn otherwise wasted space into a special, private, intentional spot.

What’s your favorite area?


3 Pro tips to buy plants like a boss

It’s time to think about buying plants for your yard- you’re excited about some color and something new. But what do you look for? How do you know you’re getting a good deal? How do you know you’re getting quality plants? What if there’s more than one size- which one do you buy? They say plants are supposed to calm us, but all of this can raise some serious anxiety!


I get it! That’s what I feel like when I’m buying makeup. When I walk into Ulta or another makeup store, I’m like a deer in headlights. I don’t know ANYTHING about makeup, and there are all these choices and prices and options.

You don’t want to spend too much money, you don’t really know where to go, when you get there you’re not sure where to begin. I brought my sister-in-law with me recently, and it was like I’d unlocked a new level or something. She knew all the options and what to avoid- that part seemed like the biggest super power to me. With so many choices, it was nice to ignore a whole lot of the store.

If that’s how you feel when you go to buy plants, take a deep breath. We’re going to break this thing down and set you up for success at the garden center.

You don’t have to be overwhelmed, and you don’t have to waste your money. So let’s break this down. A few important tips will get you on your way to buying plants with confidence.

Clients often want to start with the biggest plants they can get, until they see the price tag. The secret is that, especially with trees, you can start with a smaller plant and save your pennies for something else. Here’s the deal: countless studies have researched how plants grow using trees of various species and various starting sizes in similar growing conditions. There is quite often NO DIFFERENCE in size after a few years. Countless studies of lots of different tree species have shown that the smaller plants catch up to the ones that started out bigger. And sometimes the larger plants suffer more transplant shock and never really recover, while the smaller ones just take off.

Take-home point: go big if you want immediate impact, but know that you can save money on smaller plants if you are willing to wait just a few years.

What I’m talking about here are the roots. They matter most. Yes, the stem or branches or trunk matters. We need healthy plants- I won’t accept a tree with a damaged trunk on the job site. The plants have enough stress just with getting settled into their new home, so we don’t need to start off with injured material. All of this is more of a big deal when you’re dropping $250 or more on trees or shrubs, and may not be quite as important for a $20 perennial.

But no matter what, the most important thing to evaluate is what the root system is like. For plants in containers, you don’t want smelly potting media - the “dirt” should smell nice. The roots should be white, at least some of them, and they shouldn’t be packed super tightly in the pot. (That’s called being root bound, and it’s not ideal.) You don’t want something that just got planted, either- if you pull the plant out of the pot and tons of potting media falls away from the roots, it was just potted up. But you also don’t want to pull it out and the roots are so jammed in there you can’t get the plant out. right in the middle is what you’re after. Yes, I’m describing you at the nursery or garden center, pulling the plant out of its pot. I don’t do this every single time, but if I’m concerned about plant health, this is the first and most important place I look.

For ball-and-burlap plants, you still want to check what the soil is like where they’re grown. Ask the nursery staff to pull back the burlap so you can see the trunk, all the way to the flare where trunk becomes roots. Often this is below the soil line- don’t get those plants! Planting too deep is often a big problem.

For trees and shrubs, you want to check seriously for what’s called stem-girdling roots. The roots of all plants should grow AWAY from the center, not curve back around toward it. Girdling roots will kill a tree and waste your money and time.

Take-home point: Roots are really important, y’all. Get serious about what you’re buying.

Plant nurseries invest a whole lot of time, manpower and resources into their plants. When they can turn around a good-sized plant quickly, it doesn’t cost them as much and that gets passed on to you. When they have to invest years into a plant, it’s super expensive for their business and therefore pricey for you to purchase. Many evergreens are very costly, and this is because a nursery might have them for 10 years before they’re able to make a profit on them. That’s a lot of investment and a lot of risk. However, some evergreens grow pretty quickly and therefore are cheaper.

Other plants just don’t root very easily, or they’re picky about the substrate they’re grown in, or how much water they get - all of these things lead to higher prices for the consumer. Yes, some pricing is based on demand- popular plants can command a higher price. But also some of the pricing is just based on the reality of growing a particular plant. If you’re at a good nursery or garden center, they’ll have more than one option for you. Maybe you liked the Japanese maple, but the price tag scared you. Consider something like an elderberry, which is a fraction of the cost with similar dissected purple leaves and great fall color. If the sales staff don’t have ideas for you, ask if other staff members could help. Many nurseries are family run, and almost all are small businesses, so there’s bound to be a knowledgable plant person somewhere on site.

This may not help you at a big box store. I don’t shop for plants at hardware stores- rarely are the plants healthy there. Seek out an independent garden center in your area and give them your business!

Take-home point: Look around or ask the nursery staff if you like something that’s priced too high. There may be a comparable plant at a lower cost, or a smaller size (see above).


I love plants, and I love yards that are full of them! Buying plants doesn’t have to be scary or overwhelming. Take these tips and go to the garden center with confidence! Let me know if you have more questions.



I am often asked for help because people don’t even know where to start with their yards. They see a plant they like in a magazine or at a nursery and want to use it, and maybe they have so many ideas from Pinterest that they’re just overwhelmed. In order to get a landscape done right, we have to start with the layout- not the plants. Plants are the accessories, not the outfit. If you like prairie grasses, you can use them - if you like a woodland feeling, you can create that. But the layout has to come first, before the plant choices.


The first area at your house to get right? The front entry. This is the connection between your house and the street. It matters for resale, for your own peace of mind every time you come and go, AND for any and all guests or visitors coming to your house. Sure, we might do more of our living in the back yard, but first impressions are critical. You get a whole lot of bang for your buck if the approach and entry to your home designed well.

I’m not trying to be pretentious as much as practical: the front yard is what might get someone in the door to buy your house later on, and it’s what every single person sees (including you!) as they drive by or come over.

Maybe your builder put in a 30-inch wide concrete sidewalk from the driveway to the front door, and even your own kids tromp happily across the grass instead. Maybe, like me, you have a 30-year-old walkway going right by a huge tree that you don’t dare disturb. Would I suggest starting over? Sure - but that’s not always an option. You can implement any of these ideas (or all of them!) to improve your front entry right away.

There are three parts to your home’s entry: the transition zone, the front walkway, and the entry landing at the front door. Each of these three parts can be carefully considered to make the experience of coming to your house even better. The goal is to extend your hospitality beyond the walls of your home so that people feel cared for the moment they arrive.


Let’s start at the spot farthest awayy from your house- that’s the transition zone. This is the beginning of the front walkway, where people get out of their cars and approach your house on foot. Here you need to create an adequate landing for everyone to open a car door and get out comfortably, using flagstone or an extension of your walkway surface. Narrow, tight spaces end up with a damaged car door or wet, muddy feet. Know where people get out of their cars and make sure you have an extended, solid, flat space for them to step on. I always think of a couple that’s coming over for a party - they have a couple of kids, a birthday present and a lasagna in the backseat. They need enough room to walk around, unclick car seats, and haul that 9x13 out of the car.

Do you need to highlight the transition zone even more? You can add an address marker, lights, and an arbor at the start of the walkway. You can surround the landing with plantings of your favorite shrub. All these decisions will depend on the layout of your house- how people access your front door, and the impact of your style and budget. In general, the idea is to make the transition zone as gracious and easy to navigate as possible: it’s a visitor’s first encounter with your home.


Next, we tackle the walkway itself. Starting with width: you need at least five feet, and ideally six. We want two people to walk comfortably next to each other, and one of them might be holding a squirming toddler while the other balances a lasagna. They need space. The main entrance pathway should be the widest, boldest walkway in your yard.

Keep it off the house a little! Often these skinny walkways are placed just a few feet off the house- and the house is often 2 1/2 stories high! No one is comfortable feeling like they’re walking a balance beam while a giant building towers over them. Pull the walkway away from the house a bit, to give yourself room for some foundation plantings that will be sized to human scale. Wider walkways and more space off the house are my two biggest recommendations for front yards.

If the walkway slopes, add steps with generous landings so that the pace and effort required to get to your front door are minimized. You might add a bench at one of these landings- just the suggestion of rest can make the whole journey seem more peaceful.

Think about the layout of your walkway. Can you see the front door? Even if there is a curve or turn in the walkway, try to make sure that the goal is in sight if possible. Don’t make people take unnecessary curves- they’ll cut across the grass. Stand at the entrance and snap a picture. Look out especially for other doors people have to choose from- people generally go to the first door they see, so you may have your work cut out for you. We’ll talk about how to highlight the front door next, but also down-play any other doors, maybe by painting them to match your house color so that they fade back in priority. Definitely make sure that your walkway is the broadest, clearest option in the yard.


Once you’ve gotten people out of their cars and along your walkway, it’s time to work on your front door. I believe all houses need an entry landing - a space like an exterior foyer, or the entryway into your house. It’s a space to transition from the public to the private, and it’s often completely left out of builders’ plans. The front entry should highlight your front door and offer some personality and a hint about who lives inside.

The entry landing should be level with the front door- this may require a retaining wall to create a flat area up to your front door.  The size and layout of the entry landing is determined by the architecture and footprint of your home, and again your budget and style. It should be scaled in proportion to the size of your house, also – a little bungalow probably doesn’t require a 200 square foot entry landing, and a McMansion will need more space. The roles of this space include creating a transition in feeling from public to private, offering a space for guests to wait, and highlighting the front entry. 

This is the equivalent of your home’s foyer, so you can start the hospitality process here. I love for the entry landing to include a small ornamental tree that will create a welcoming canopy and provide shade for this outdoor room. A bench or seating area will create a feeling of welcoming and add another outdoor space to enjoy. Fill the entry landing garden with fragrant plants or your favorite colors.  Add a garden ornament or sculpture to give a hint of your personality and style. Give people a little room to breathe as you welcome them inside. 

When you’re thinking of your landscape and you just don’t know where to get started, take a look at your front yard. See what’s missing, or what’s in the cards to change for this year. Make sure you have all three pieces covered: the transition zone, the walkway, and the front entry - these will help your home welcome guests effortlessly.

Studio tour


I started gardening next to my mom and grandmother, but I didn’t even know that horticulture or landscape design was a thing until I was in my mid-20s. Taking on this career has been a dream come true. I’ve carved out workspace in four different houses before finally getting this incredible office space.

As soon as we bought this acreage, we started work on the former lambing room/farm office/dog kennel that is now my beautiful studio. (You can read about our first steps in this blog post from three years ago.) Because we did the majority of the work ourselves, the process took almost two years and plenty of blood, sweat and tears. Both of our dads both helped so much throughout this process. From filling dumpsters during demo to building me a bargain, custom-sized worktable, our dads were an amazing gift to us.


One of my goals with designing this new space was to open it up by stealing a little height from the storage room above. Thanks to vintage (read: not OSHA-approved) scaffolding from Brian’s dad, we took out half the upper room and vaulted my ceiling. I love how lofty and open the room feels.


I love bright white, clean spaces - I feel calm and creative when I’m not surrounded by clutter. We used beadboard to add texture and I tell Brian all the time that I feel like I work surrounded by a pin-striped suit - which is good thing for me! I love all the lines. The room gets glorious south and west light, so plenty of days I don’t even need to turn on the overhead lights to work.


I thought through and drew out every space, using the same process I use for landscape design clients. Brian and I talked through all the things I use the office for: meeting with clients, presenting projects, drafting, research, business planning… and I wanted to be as flexible as I could. The same seating space where I pour over design books is used by clients during project reviews, and it’s also where my boys sit and read when I’m still working after school. The worktable is sized just right for my short self to work standing, and there is so. much. storage. I can have the room look serene and uncluttered while off-the-rack cabinets hold everything from measuring tools to thank-you cards. My flat file (a Craig’s List find from the NH DOT keeps all projects organized.

I also wanted to bring in antique and meaningful pieces to give life to the space. I bought corbels from one of my favorite stores two years ago during demo - I had no idea then how I’d use them, but I knew they’d be perfect in here. The giant, vintage tobacco basket is a nod to my North Carolina roots, and I love the spindle legs on the little console table.


Here’s what we learned after tackling this giant project:

-Stay in your lane.

We had a mix of DIY and pro labor in here, and used both well. Brian’s trim work is so careful and perfect for the room- there are zero right angles in this old building, so having my precise husband cut all the trim pieces and put it all together meant I got exactly what I wanted. We hired out the drywall work, and that crew completed in 2 days what would have taken us 3 weeks - and did it better than we ever could. Brian tried hanging the door and screen, and after a frustrating fail we called in the experts.

-Be as efficient as you can afford.

Because we gutted the entire thing, we were able to extend the wall studs to fit thicker insulation in. This room is cozy and wrapped up tight - it’s warm in the winter and cool all summer. I have a little window A/C that I barely need to use, and the ceiling fan blows the warm air down in the winter. I would have LOVED to use a mini-split heat pump to heat and cool the workspace, but the ROI wasn’t worth it.

-Follow your budget.

We planned out space for a kitchenette and bathroom, stubbing in the plumbing and running all the electrical. But it just wasn’t in the initial budget to get it done, so that’s one of my goals for this year. There’s something truly satisfying about spending only what we budgeted and having a goal to work toward.


So there you have it! I love going to work every morning. Ushering clients into this bright, cheerful space makes me so proud. Come on over and have a cup of coffee with me!


Chairs- Homemakers | Rug- Ballard Designs | Console table- HomeGoods | Tobacco basket & corbels- RJ Home | Cabinetry & counters- Lowe’s | Desk & desk chair- IKEA | Worktable- custom

4 quick tips for a prairie-inspired landscape (and why you need it)

With snow surrounding us in Iowa (and lots of other places), I’m dreaming of summer landscapes. To me, the most quintessential summertime style is a the prairie-inspired landscape. This style takes its cues from the vast grasslands that used to cover most of Iowa, blending grasses and flowering perennials into a graceful, ever-changing scene. A landscape design inspired by prairies reminds me of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the frontier she and her family traveled. If you’re thinking of a natural-looking, sustainable landscape design that’s easy on the budget and low maintenance, skip the over-used shrubs and play around with prairies for a change.


Red Fern Landscape Design is based in central Iowa, and I love the wide open spaces and beautiful views that are unique to this part of the country. I strongly believe in the idea of a “sense of place” - meaning, your surroundings should correspond with where you’ve settled. Pine trees and stone walls in New England; palm trees and brick walkways in Savannah - you get the idea. Well, here in Iowa we used to have endless prairies - tall grasslands sprinkled with flowers and dotted with occasional groups of trees. When you can use that landscape as an inspiration for the garden spaces in your own yard, you’re connecting with your surroundings, with history, and maybe even with Mrs Wilder herself.

  • Low on funds for your landscape? Prairie-style gardens are less expensive than shrubs and evergreens.

  • Like birds and wildlife? Prairie-style gardens will welcome them in.

  • Love native plantings? These gardens can use plants that are found right where you live.

  • Want to limit pesticides? These gardens hold up to pests and disease.

  • Tired of mowing grass? This low-maintenance option will simplify your yard work.

  • Want to have a unique landscape? Builder-basic gardens are EVERYWHERE. Prairie-inspired landscapes are a great alternative.


Not every household has tons of grass to give up, and that’s okay. A prairie-inspired landscape can look great right along your house foundation, softening hard lines and changing with the seasons. Not everybody wants evergreens or shrubs that look exactly the same, month after month. Prairie grasses and perennials go from tiny new growth in the spring to tall, powerful plants by late fall. In between, you have blooms and foliage to look lovely and even offer cut flowers, too.

So how can you create a prairie-inspired landscape at your own house? Here are a few things to think about.

Know your sun and shade patterns, how wet the area gets, and how tall things can grow. Put the right plants in the right places. Need help? Check out my favorite ornamental grasses to get started. Along with the grasses, combine coneflower (Echinacea) and Russian sage (Perovskia) in the sun or Autumn Bride coral bells (Heuchera) and Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum) in the shade.

Prairie-inspired landscapes don’t need to be buttoned up and perfect. Use broad sweeps of plants. There’s no need to follow the “plant in 3s and 5s” rule. Be loose with your plantings. You’re not going for confetti, but you’re also not going for a rigid, formal arrangement. This planting at the Brenton Arboretum is very simple and clean, but still wild and energetic.


Really what I mean is, be okay with mess and death. Yep. Prairie-style plantings are all about flowers that have finished blooming (that’s when you get the seed heads!) brown leaves (that’s how you have fall color and winter interest!) and change. Your garden will look completely different in early spring from mid summer. Blooms come and go, plants grow up tall, and different parts are focal points. Here in Iowa, we only have about a 6-month growing season. Rather than blank landscapes the other half a year, enjoy dried seed heads and a range of tans and browns from the foliage of your plants.


We aren’t talking about an actual prairie, but a prairie-inspired landscape design, right? So you need some structure. Maybe it’s edging for the planting bed, or a seating wall, or a full patio - either way, choose native limestone or sandstone to keep the “sense of place” going strong. If you lean more formal or modern in your own personal style, use hewn blocks or cut flagstone to get some clean edges and sharp lines. If you’re more organic and casual, use natural edge or tumbled stone for flagstone walkways or seating walls. Pea gravel is wonderful for paths or patios - it’s soft underfoot, has a delightful crunch, and fits in with the wild garden you’ve created.


Comprised mostly of perennials, a prairie-inspired garden is cheaper to install than shrubs and evergreens. You get color, movement, and changing texture all year long from the grasses and flowering plants. If you’re intrigued a the idea of a more wild, original landscape, check out our FREE prairie-inspired garden plan! Designed as a square garden space, you can copy just half of it to use for a foundation planting, or take out the center and add in a patio with prairie-style planting surrounding it.

The FREE download includes a scaled planting plan & plant list so that you can get busy this spring creating your own prairie-inspired landscape!

how can you break up your blank-slate yard without completely rejecting your neighbors?

blank slate landscaping des moines side yard

Here’s the thing about neighbors: you love them, but you need a little space - a little separation sometimes. With some yards, that can be hard because there’s nothing defining your yard as separate from your neighbors’ - many new construction homes have yards that are just a big open blank slate. Mowing leaves these obvious lines along your property line because nobody mows at exactly the same time. Raking leaves or any other kind of maintenance creates the same problems, because you’re following a property line that is actually invisible. It’s hard to know where your property starts or stops, and nobody’s bringing a string line out there to check.

Not only that, but your property is open and exposed - everyone can see everything. It’s a little weird to grill and eat on your patio while feeling like your neighbors can look right over your shoulder. Now, I love community and humans need each other, no question. You don’t need to create a fortress. We’re not talking about completely blacking every inch of the property line, carving out the entire space. (Unless you want to! We can make that look good too.) Today we’re talking about just setting some boundaries so that the yard makes more sense, and mowing and maintenance are easier to navigate. You may not want everyone in the neighborhood to see you on a Saturday morning drinking coffee in your robe while you read Better Homes and Gardens. The goal is to be neighborly and connected while also having some options for privacy.


Our precious neighbor at a former house had all the time in the world to mow, trim, and even clean up the clippings from our shared side yard. Meanwhile, we barely were able to mow once each week, and the line between our two yards was IMPOSSIBLE to miss- crisp and perfect on their side and mangy and overgrown on ours. We just had two different ways of handling our yards, and no buffer in between made it obvious.

So many neighborhoods in Iowa are built on old corn fields, and clients come to me with the blankest blank slate you can imagine to work with. What can you do with a big swath of green(ish) and nothing else? We’re not trying to completely turn our backs on our neighbors, but we’d like some definition in our yards.

How can you enjoy a bit of privacy, work with your property lines, and still have a welcoming connection with your neighbors?

What do we do when we don’t want a fortress but we do want some help defining our own outdoor spaces?

Enter the one-two punch of a screened seating area combined with island beds. The seating area could be the deck attached to your house, a pea gravel patio out in the back corner, or any other space you want to carve out that will get you outside without feeling like you’re under a microscope. Island beds aren’t connected to our houses - they serve to break up the boundaries of our yards and give everyone something better to look at than the mowed line between our yard and our neighbor’s.

Let’s start with the screened seating area. You need somewhere to gather outside- to sit, relax, and entertain that doesn’t feel like you’re on display. Maybe the builder added a deck or patio, but there’s nothing but grass around it. Maybe you’re starting from scratch and want a space separate from your house to sit and enjoy being outside. Here are some things to think about.

  • Screen at human-scale height. You’re not going for a 3-story wall here, or ankle-high grasses. You want to stick with 3-6 foot tall screening. Screen on two or three sides so you’re mostly blocked while you’re seated but you don’t feel like you’re in a jail. Three of my favorite plants to use for screening that get to that 3-6 foot height quick enough without getting humongous are:

    1) hydrangeas (especially Limelight)
    2) ‘Sea Green’ juniper (not all junipers stay low, so check)
    3) switchgrass (I’m partial to ‘Prairie Sky’)

  • Make sure there’s something protecting your back. You can go higher on one side of the patio or seating area so that you feel safe. Our instinct (possibly enhanced by watching too many action movies) is to avoid being out in the open, and to have something “covering our six” (that’s a little Smokey and the Bandit reference for you.) Try a lattice with vines on one side of a patio - it’s somewhat open but still gives protection.

  • Make sure the seating area is sized for what you need. Think about what you’ll be doing out there - if you have a deck large enough for a table, maybe you need only a couple of chairs or a bench. If you want to gather with a lot of people, be sure to create enough space for it. Check out our blog post on sizing a patio to help decide how much space you’ll need.


Once you have a nice place to be outdoors, you need to handle those edges - the boundaries of your yard. Right now they bleed into everyone else’s. Be careful of setbacks that your neighborhood or city might have- it’s okay to create the bed off the actual property line a bit so that you’re not too close to the edge. You don’t want to end up causing more work for your neighbors in the long run.

  • Fill the corners. An easy way to break up the yard’s edges without creating Fort Knox is to add in planting beds at the corners. You can go high in the back center and then step lower on the sides. This helps define the yard without needing to invest in a fence. An easy combination is a cone-shaped evergreen like a Holmstrup arborvitae flanked by some rounded shrubs like Little Devil ninebark, with lady’s mantle or geranium across the front. You’re making something similar to the “thriller, filler, spiller” concept we use for containers. (Read more about THAT in our blog post here.)

  • Use GOOD plants. Choosing your plant material carefully is important. Check the tags and read up on the plants. Evergreens never really stop growing, so a spruce from the nursery that is 6 feet tall now may become 40 feet tall before your younger kids graduate high school. That may be WAY too big for an island bed. (Maybe it isn’t… it depends on the size of your yard!) You don’t have to stick with evergreens. Try grasses or deciduous shrubs as the backdrop, and use evergreens up front for color throughout the year.

  • Break up a long expanse with an island bed. These can be various sizes, depending on how long you’re working with. If the corners are filled, sometimes just one bed set near your property line, at about the center will be enough. I like to create the backbone and then layer in front. These beds can be narrow, but some layering helps it not feel like a pencil line. The length and width of the bed needs to be proportional to the size of the yard space - a 20-foot long property line might only need a 5-foot long island bed, but a 150-foot property line might need either a couple of them OR something more like 15-foot long.

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I work with many homeowners that are starting with a blank slate - a wide open yard surrounded by neighboring houses with wide open yards. While we LOVE our neighbors, we often want just a little separation or definition for our own spaces. As you gaze across the backyard and possibly right into the neighbor’s kitchen, consider adding something to your yard that breaks up your view a little, gives THEM something nice to look at, and gives you just a bit of privacy.

How do you feel about a little bit of screening? What would you add to your yard to break it up from your neighbors’ just a little?

An elegant facelift for an historic downtown beauty


I was honored to twice create a landscape plan with this amazing family! A few years ago, we completed a master plan for their property, but then they had to move before completing the project! This time around, they needed a smaller design that would still bring beauty and a bit of revival to their landscape. Their historic, elegant Tudor home had been neglected but was full of potential. We started with a foundation planting plan that would complement their house without creating a whole bunch of work for them. Keeping the palette pretty simple, I designed a planting plan that is both approachable and a little bit fancy - much like their house.


With a combination of greens and whites from evergreens, flowering shrubs, and a few perennials, we created a soft, elegant plant palette. Near the front door, we saved a small space for a combination of deep orange and bright pink - a welcoming hotspot that was small enough for the family to maintain.

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des moines landscaping landscape downtown red fern

Overall, the idea was to keep maintenance to a bare minimum for this hard-working mom and dad, since they spend their time at home chasing around their busy preschooler and toddler. This project was all about the planting plan- we kept the original brick edging with all its charm - and it shows how just a few changes can make a big difference.

I can’t wait to see these plantings mature, softening the foundation of this lovely home as this sweet happy family grows along with it.

3 ways your landscaping can keep you warm and save you money

Heating costs are expected to rise just about every year – it costs a lot to keep our houses cozy during winter. Growing up in North Carolina, winter didn’t seem like a big deal.  However, now that I’ve spent 7 winters in New Hampshire and 3 in Iowa, I know winter is game time. Cold weather doesn’t mess around out here, and we need all the help we can get.  And since winter shows up in November and doesn’t leave until mid-April, we’ve got an important and expensive problem on our hands. Luckily, landscape design comes to the rescue again! The US Department of Energy has a few stats to help drive home the point:

  • A well-designed landscape can save up to 25% of your home’s energy costs for heating and cooling.

  • Windbreaks can cut your heating bills by an average of 30%.

  • Well-placed plants can allow passive solar heating to keep your home toasty without bumping up the heat.

Basically, what we want to do is block cold winds from the west and north, and capitalize on sunshine coming from the south.  Let’s put your landscaping to work all winter long!


Windbreaks are plantings that screen our houses from the wind – they slow down wind gusts and send them up and over our homes. And if you live in the Midwest, you KNOW that the wind deserves to be messed with a little. Whether your yard is a wide-open acreage or a modest suburban lot, chances are you have some type of crazy wind tunnel to deal with.  Windbreaks reduce the wind chill- that “feels like” temperature that is caused by low air temps combined with the wind speed. If you’re thinking about planting a windbreak, follow these guidelines: 

  • Block the north and west winds. In the Midwest, we have the Great Plains and Canada to thank for our freezing cold winds, so plant to the north and west of your house for the best protection.

  • Plant at the right distance.The goal is to lift the wind up and over your house. To do this, figure out the mature height of the trees you’re using. Multiply that number by ~3 (there’s some wiggle room with this math), and plant the windbreak that distance from your house.  So, if the tallest trees you’re using will get 40 feet high, you want that windbreak 120 feet off the house.  You can go backwards with this math, too.  If your property line is only 60 feet from your house, choose plants that only reach 20 feet at maturity. 

  • Use a combination of plants for the greatest impact.  Combine lower-growing shrubs closest to the house, followed by taller deciduous trees, and finally tall evergreens. This layered planting will block the wind, lift it up and over your house, and capture the snow to keep it from drifting. You’re looking for quick-growing, low-cost, hardy plants to fill in your windbreak without breaking the bank.  Some great choices include: 

    • Evergreens - arborvitae, spruce, pine, red cedar, juniper, fir

    • Deciduous trees – oak, hickory, hackberry

    • Shrubs – ninebark, dogwood, lilac, sumac

This GIF from the Arbor Day Foundation shows that freezing cold wind pulled up and over your house.


Planting beds along the foundation of the house not only look lovely, they also can lower heating costs. In the right spots, plants will create air pockets that insulate both in summer AND in winter.  

The biggest mistake people make is crowding their foundation plantings too close to the house.  You have to know how big the plants will be when they mature, and plan for that.  You want around 12”-18” of open air space between the walls of your house and the foundation planting beds. 

Even if the hydrangeas or junipers you have your eyes on at the nursery are only two feet across in the pot, trust the tag that says it will get six feet wide! Plant those shrubs so that the center is around 3-4 feet off the wall of the house – even if it seems silly when it’s tiny, it doesn’t take long for the plants to grow.  Planning ahead will save you time and money, since you won’t have to prune (and risk damaging the plants) or buy new plants when they get too big. 

While we are guaranteed to have windy, cold days in the Midwest winter, we also can count on bright blue sunny skies.  This usually happens when - I’m not kidding - it’s too cold to snow.  Even when it’s cold outside, that sunshine can be put to work.  Here are a couple of ways to harness the warmth of the sun, even if you don't have solar panels:  

  • Leave some areas to the south of your home open – snow will gather there and reflect radiant heat from sunlight into your house. 

  • Plant deciduous trees to the south and southwest of your home. (Deciduous trees are the kind that lose their leaves each fall.)  They’ll shade your roof and windows all summer, but allow warm sunshine to come in during the winter.  

Cold weather can be miserable AND expensive.  Plan now for landscaping projects that will reduce your heating costs and make your house more comfortable.  Looking for warm-weather solutions for energy efficiency?  We wrote about that during the dog days of summer… you can catch up on our post here.  

Need to add some landscaping to keep your house cozy? Winter is the best time for design work, so that we can be ready to go in the spring.  Let us know if Red Fern can help!   

The Red Fern Landscape Design Process: Phase 4

In the final phase of our signature design process, we get to the stuff that you can touch, keep, and see. After all the preliminary background work, and all the conceptual design, and the final design work is finished, it's time to get our clients some lovely and useful materials that they can use to install the designs and to serve as reference materials for years to come.


First up is the design book.  Once the design work has all been done, and we're all satisfied, we package the design into an 11x17-sized book that will easily fit in a drawer or on a shelf.  Rather than some rolled-up sheets that you'll never open, this will serve as a reference in the future. This book contains the story of your design. Always a teacher, I have found there is so much value in including all the steps it took us to get to your final designs. We show the entire process - the base plan, our conceptual drawings and inspiration boards, and the final, annotated design.  This way all our decisions are there, so that if any changes are made in the future, you can check back to see why the landscaping looks the way it does.  


We also add more detail, like views of the final landscape from a variety of vantage points so that you and your contractor can visualize what the final installed design will look like. There are hardscape sheets with materials specified, and plant lists with each plant and its spacing noted.

The beauty of having all these supporting sheets along with the master plan, planting plan, and hardscape sheets is that you can communicate WHY we did what we did. Many landscapers don't do all the background work that it takes to produce an informed design, and fewer still actually communicate what decisions led to the final design. You have a visual story of your investment that will serve you for the future.

The other book you'll get is an 8.5x11-sized reference book that's chock full of information. We include a bloom chart for the entire year so you know what's blooming or has interesting foliage at any season, a data sheet for every single plant in your design, plant lists with every plant listed out so it's easy to do an inventory, maintenance information with a plan for the entire year, and installation guides for trees and shrubs, since these are your biggest plant investment and are often planted poorly. You can use this to communicate with the installer and make sure things are done correctly.


Lastly, our final design phase includes my involvement in the installation process. Depending on the project, this could be a multi-year commitment. I work with professional, licensed contractors that value education and service. I serve as a liaison for you with your contractor. as you go through the process of instilling the landscape. 

This includes me being present and/or available on install days, so that the contractor can follow up with any questions or concerns. We will be checking in on installation if it goes on over a few days or weeks, and know where the project stands.  With all the hard work put into the design, I want to be certain that it's installed correctly and you get what we dreamed up.  


Our final phase is the culmination of a lot of hard work and communication.  Design is basically creative problem-solving, and I love the entire process from start to finish.  We take on a range of projects throughout the year, and this method ensures that our clients are taken care of all the way.  

The Red Fern Landscape Design Process: Phase 3

The next step in our design process is the "real" design.  Combining the background practical information from phase 1 with the aesthetic, stylistic direction we got from phase 2, we rely on solid design fundamentals to site actual things in physical places.  We're not dealing with concepts any longer- we’re making the plan that will be used to create your landscape.  


Landscape design, at its core, is a problem-solving venture combining art with science.  Decisions are informed by site analysis and horticulture practices (the science piece) alongside design fundamentals and inspiration (the art piece).  You can’t separate the two and still have a useful, beautiful outdoor space.  Phase 3 of our signature process unites these two pieces.  We treat the residential site like a series of outdoor rooms, created for people to actually use.  People arrive, move from one space to another, relax, play, eat, socialize, entertain, and even work – and we figure out how to carve out intentional spaces that allow for those things to happen seamlessly.


In Phase 3, we give the bubbles and squiggles from the conceptual plan actual shape and character.  Our design process looks at form composition – the 2D shapes we’ll use to create our outdoor living spaces. A squiggly bubble that was marking the spot for a patio in the conceptual plan might become a hard-lined rectangle, serving as the core that everything else links off of.  Or maybe that bubble becomes a patio with a gentle curve that leads your eye past it and towards a lovely view in the distance. Form composition allows us to consider the layout of the space and the appearance and geometry of how everything connects in it.  

We also evaluate with design principles like rhythm, order, and unity help make sure we’re creating a cohesive space. Repeated elements emphasize an area and allow the front walkway to coordinate with the back patio, for example.  Bold foliage might grab your eye and draw you towards the front door, while an arbor in the corner shares the same arched shape as the fence’s gate.  We consider all these details to make sure that the design functions well and does its job:  bringing the party (and the people) outside.  


After form composition and design principles, we consider this thing called spatial composition.  This is basically the process of evaluating the three-dimensional rooms we are creating. Along a walkway – how high do the plants come up on each side? On a patio – is there a pergola or cover overhead? In a seating area – can you see out in all directions, or should you be sheltered by a hedge? These are the spatial composition questions that drive our design process forward. What’s fun about landscape design, compared with residential home architecture, is that we get to decide all the rules! It’s our call how high the “ceiling” is, how thick our “walls” are, and what they’re made out of.  We have so many choices in an outside space: walls can be a planting of grasses OR a stone retaining wall… the ceiling can be the open blue sky OR the arching branches of a tree. 


During this phase of the design process, we are considering more and more detail to create the master plan. Once the initial design is ready, we present it to you during our working design meeting. Either at the studio or using a shared screen, we go through the design and talk over the whybehind each element.  We show you in 3D what the space will feel like, what the views will be, and we articulate all the plants and hardscape materials that are used.  You have a chance to weigh in, ask questions, and give feedback, which we take and use to adjust the design as needed.  This process goes back and forth until we’re both happy with the decisions the design is complete.  

Landscape design gets to be this combination of down-to-earth data and ethereal inspiration. We always celebrate when phase 3 is completed – it’s like giving birth to something completely new.  Stay tuned for phase 4 – this is when all that good stuff actually gets used.  

Prairie-inspired landscape design

This lovely brick home was newly built in Ankeny and the owners were desperate to get some landscaping to soften it.  We worked with them on a landscape design that was inspired by prairie plantings -  and just wild enough to give a nod to their roots - while still able to stand up to all the strong lines and hard surfaces around the home.  We combined a few ornamental trees, many different flowering and evergreen shrubs, grasses, and perennials to give them year-round color and interest.  

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It will be a few seasons before this project comes into its own - the trees will fill out, the shrubs will form sweeps of color, and the perennials will grow in nicely.  Can't wait to see this through the years!

Want to try out your own little wild and wonderful garden area?

These “just after” photos give you an idea of what things look like right after planting. It won’t be long before this fills right in!



Next up in our tour of the Red Fern Landscape Design signature process is Phase 2: the Conceptual Design.  Once we are done with all the basic core discovery work from Phase 1 and we have the background we need to make good decisions, we move towards the design concepts for your landscaping.  

Landscape Design Process Ideas Landscaping Des Moines

In our conceptual design phase you share with me all the secret Pinterest boards you have- the fire pit you love, the big tree with a bench underneath it… All those Houzz ideabooks with pictures you’ve squirreled away. These are useful to our process- even though we won’t replicate exactly what’s there- because it gives us the ideas, the feeling, the look that you’re going for. And pictures really do speak louder than words.  Going through all these helps me know what you want AND it helps you know what you want. I will look through the images you share, reference the answers you gave on our questionnaire and my notes from our initial meeting, and I’ll make sure I have a sense of the style that appeals to you.  

Next, I curate images to create your inspiration board.  These 12 different pictures give us something to work off-  we’re not trying to copy them, but to use them as a jumping-off point to create a design unique for you.  

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Landscaper Des Moines Design

The two boards shown above are great examples.  One is very modern and clean and simple, the other is loose, romantic and wild and full of curves.  The inspiration boards show us the lines and shapes and materials we’ll use.  We’re going to make two very different projects from those two looks.

While the inspiration boards help, the plants are what make our outdoor spaces come alive.  The plant palette helps you know what I’m talking about when I pull out plants for your landscaping.  The palette shows you the core features that we’ll be taking advantage of: evergreens with a soft blue tinge, big blousy flowers during the dog days of summer. Again, these aren’t set in stone, but it gives us an idea of what we’re looking for.  

Landscaping Des Moines Landscaper Ideas

We take the inspiration board and the plant palette, mix in your responses to our questionnaire, allow your design program to weigh in, and run those past the site analysis to create the conceptual plan.  

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It might look just like a bunch of shapes and squiggles, but actually the conceptual plan is the WHY… the big decisions are made here, and the details wait until Phase 3.  Your landscaping is an important investment, and we don't just quickly drop some things in the ground. In the conceptual design phase, we know the basic shapes and layouts of beds, we know what’s going where and how it’s all connecting to each other.  When we meet, we’re still talking in broad strokes, but because we have inspiration boards, plant palettes, and the conceptual plan, we can get on the same page without wasting any time and get ready to hone in deeper to the master plan. 

The Red Fern Landscape Design Process: PHASE 1

Maybe your landscape is a blank, new-construction slate, complete with a tiny, useless deck, some not-so-interesting sod and a couple of spindly trees.  Or maybe (like me) you inherited someone else's shrubs around the house, a patio and deck that need lots of work, and a walkway that makes no sense.  If you're hoping for landscaping that shows off your house, brings beauty to your life, and gives you more reasons to enjoy life outdoors, you need a plan.  A landscape design ties together all the pieces of the puzzle - an educated understanding of the nuts and bolts of your specific site, a clear reflection of YOUR style, and a knowledgable selection of plants and materials that are worth the investment.  

We take all the problem areas of your property and all the dreams you have about living more of your life outdoors, and we create solutions that bring that party outside.  Ever wonder how it all goes down?  We follow an in-depth, comprehensive process to give clients a landscape designed to live in.  On the website there's a simplified overview of our process, but here's a more detailed run-down of what we do and what you get when you hire Red Fern to transform your property.  We'll walk you through each step of our signature process, so that you can imagine yourself surrounded by lovely plants and walking over to a patio or fire pit that you WANT to sit around.  We'll start with Phase 1, which gathers all sorts of information to keep the landscape design moving forward.   

Signature landscape design process

There is so much information to gather!  We start with our signature questionnaire, which lets you work through what you're really after.  There are all sorts of questions meant to pull out both the practical details of the site and also the more subjective style and impression you want to have.  We use this during our first meeting at the site, where I work through what the scope of the project is- how much we're trying to accomplish.  We talk, walk the property, and answer tons of questions.  This initial meeting helps both of us- you get to articulate what you're after and size me up to see if I'm a good fit, and I get to see the site and fully understand what your goals are. 

After this first meeting, I create something called the Design Program.  This is super valuable even if you don't take the project any further.  I write up all the elements you're looking for along with your style, beloved colors and plants, and all the other info that gets things going.  You get the program along with your proposal so that you'll know exactly what the design fee will cover: every project is different, and we need to make sure that the fountain you want designed isn't lost in all the other elements of your new yard.  

Landscape Design Des Moines

Once the project is booked and the start date arrives, I get going with all sorts of practical work.  If you already have an accurate site map, I'll use it; if not- I create one.  We evaluate the entire scope of the project, noting every major tree, building, existing hedge, and structure that's there.  This is called the site inventory.  Next up, the site analysis happens when I evaluate it all:  what's shady, where the water tends to collect, which old trees are hazards, the important views, and on and on.  The site analysis is an important working document that drives all the pretty stuff that happens later.  

Red Fern Landscape Design Des Moines

Circulation and use analysis tell us where you go now, what it's like, and how it could make more sense.  Is the trash can in the dumbest spot possible?  Do people cut across your lawn rather than walk over to the walkway?  Do you avoid the veggie garden because you hate walking through wet grass?  How do guests get from parking to the front door?  All of this helps us down the line, because form really does follow function.  A homeowner myself, I'm not going to design something that isn't first useful.  

Red Fern Landscape Design Des Moines

All of this core discovery work gets us set up to begin to create - to layer some beauty on top of all this data.  Tune in next week as we move to the conceptual design phase, where we ask even MORE questions and begin to develop the design direction for your project.   

So, there's Phase 1.  It's certainly an in-depth process, meant to solve problems rather than create them.  Are there areas of your landscape that need attention?  Are you unsure of where to begin, or what plants to choose, or how to achieve the outdoor escape you long for?  Reach out and start with the questionnaire! We have a few design project openings for this fall and winter, so that you'll be all ready to go in the spring.  






How to size a patio

Adding an outdoor gathering area is a great way to bring your party outside and increase the living area of your home.  Choosing how big or small to make it can be intimidating.  The quick answer?  Well, you can always use more space.  Bigger is often better for outdoor seating areas, and it's hard to go back and add more.  Here are some thoughts about how to make decisions for your patio's size.  


To guide your decision, you can follow the adage that form follows function.  We'll talk later about how to flip that rule when needed. If you allow the shape (form) to determine what the patio will be used for (function), you'll need to think through why you'll be out there and who you'll be with.  

Headed outside for dining, and want space for another family to join you for a meal?  Okay, you'll need a lot of space:  I normally go with around 400 square feet- that's a 20 foot by 20 foot square, or a wide rectangle that gets you the square footage you need.  This allows space for a big table, room for chairs to pull out and people to walk around, leaving room for storage.  Allow at least 36 inches - ideally 48 - behind chairs so people can slide their chair out without getting stuck.  

Looking for a quiet sunset spot for you and one other person?  This kind of space can be pretty tiny.  A 5 foot by 8 foot space for two chairs and a little table is all you need.  


While I definitely believe that the function of a space should drive how it's designed, I also use the house's architecture to help make decisions. This can be a situation where the function might arise from whatever form you have to work with. 

At our house, an ancient bedroom addition means that there's a large L-shaped space right along the front door.  This is a great space for a patio, because it's protected and close to the house, but it's long and narrow, and very much out in the open.  So, it's a great gathering spot, and definitely sets the stage for the "sit-and-visit" vibe of our home.  But it's not big enough to handle 10 people for a meal outside, and I don't want my grill right by my front door anyway.  So, instead this space became a seating area rather than a dining area, with a low loveseat and chairs around a coffee table, ready for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.  Function followed form here: the surroundings determined what the space would be used for. 

I have never regretted getting electricity out to any patio.  String lights are the best way to make any space both comfy and party-ready.  

One thing I like to do is check for space for spill-over: a lawn on one side, where more chairs can be pulled up, or maybe use the driveway along part of it, so there's extra room when needed.  This adds flexibility to any of your outdoor spaces.  Think about how the party always ends up in the kitchen, no matter how small it is.  If you want to accommodate more people sometimes, having all sides of the patio packed with plants or closed off will limit how it can be used.  

Of course cost plays into every decision.  If you're hiring a contractor to install a paver patio, expect to spend at least $25 per square foot for good work and good materials.  Decking is far cheaper in terms of both labor and materials.  Poured concrete is super utilitarian, but can be dressed up with an outdoor rug or furniture.  No matter what you choose, it's worth it to save up for something quality rather than spend now on junk.  

Regardless of what size or shape you have to work with, adding a patio will be a great addition to your home.  Now get out there and bring that party outside! 

3 simple steps for bright blue hydrangeas

I miss all kinds of things about growing plants in the Southeast and in New England, but probably the biggest loss for me is the giant, blue bombs of color in summer you get from a mophead hydrangea.  Sure, you can grow mophead hydrangeas in Iowa, but their flowers will be pink.  I love that blue so much it's worth it to me, even as the lowest of low-maintenance gardeners, to do a little work to get my hydrangeas blue.  Here are three easy steps for you to make sure your hydrangeas bloom blue all summer long. 

blue hydrangea

Step one is to choose the right plant.  Many hydrangeas bloom pink, cream, or white, but only a few will bloom blue.  I adore oakleaf hydrangeas and ‘Limelight’ hydrangea, but you’ll never see a bright blue flower on those.  Mophead and lacecap hydrangeas are the only ones that bloom blue (that’s Hydrangea macrophylla and her hybrids.)  Once you have a mophead, select plants that are bred to go blue.  

‘Endless Summer’ hydrangeas are about the only ones hardy enough for Iowa’s winters that will bloom blue.  There are many plants in the ‘Endless Summer’ line, so check the label – they are churning out some crazy color combinations, and if you want the true blue, stick with The Original Endless Summer hydrangea.  That plant is my standby for big blue bombs of color.  ‘Nikko Blue’ is another option, but it’s only hardy to zone 5 and blooms only on old wood – meaning, if you get a bad spring frost and the flower buds get zapped, you won’t have flowers at all that season.  ‘Endless Summer’ blooms on both old and new wood, so you’ll get flowers whether there’s a frost or not.  Out at our acreage, my Endless Summer hydrangeas died back just about to the ground this past miserable winter, and they’re already blooming this year.  

‘Twist and Shout’ is another hardy blue-bloomer, but it’s a lacecap, not a true mophead.  Lacecap hydrangeas have little tiny flowers surrounded by larger ones, instead of just one big ball of color.  They make more of a mess as cut flowers, but they do provide something for pollinators to eat, which the mopheads don’t.  So select a plant that is actually able to bloom blue, is bred for bright blue color, AND is tough enough for your climate.  

Pink or blue hydrangea flowers depend on what’s going on in the soil.  Mophead hydrangeas bloom pink in alkaline soil and blue in acidic soils, so you need to get that pH down below 7 – ideally 5.5 and lower for a true blue.  Here in Iowa, you’re pretty much guaranteed that your soil is not acidic enough for blue flowers without some help.  It’s worth doing a very simple pH test that you can pick up at any hardware store or garden center- at the very least, it’s fun science to do with your kiddos.  

The good news is that there are super easy ways to change the pH around your hydrangeas without becoming a soil scientist.  Some people will DIY it with coffee grounds, sprinkling them around the base of their plants.  This may not change the soil enough to get the pH down low for a deep blue flower color, and you’ll have to apply often as the coffee grounds break down.  There’s likely no harm done, though, so feel free to sprinkle away.  Compost is also typically acidic, so adding compost around your shrubs may help too.  And if your compost is mostly coffee grounds, like ours is- even better! 

You can also purchase straight up aluminum sulfate like a real farmer.  You have to mix it with water and apply often- it is so soluble it will wash out of the soil.  But you also need to be careful not to apply too much, as it can be toxic to plants at high levels.  I don't go this route, even though I'm married to an Iowa farm boy.  It's too much measuring and monitoring for me.  

I stick with soil acidifiers like Holly-tone.  Bailey’s makes one also, with blue hydrangea flowers right on the label.  Soil acidifiers are available at every hardware store and garden center near the fertilizer. Use their instructions and included scoop, and the work is done for you. Pay attention to how much you need to reapply, so that your blue blooms stay around all season.  And seriously, read the package instructions so you don’t harm any surrounding plants. 

Mulching with pine straw or pine bark is also a good idea even if you use one of the other options – hydrangeas like moist, rich soil, so a good mulch cover will keep them happy – and the pine straw or pine bark will lower the soil pH as it breaks down.  

Being from the East coast, a blue hydrangea is an emblem of summertime for me.  Moving to the Heartland means I have to work a little bit harder, but it’s worth it for these glorious flowers in my yard.  

How to use your landscaping to beat the heat


Sure, the planting beds around your house can look pretty.  But have you thought through how investing in plantings can reduce your home's energy needs? So many benefits come from shade trees - Areas with trees have reduced crime, increased property values, less road rage and traffic accidents, and people even drive slower on tree-lined streets!  (Texas A&M did a study that showed people slowed down 3-15 mph along streets with trees.)  If you want more fun trivia and data about how awesome trees are, this infographic from the US Department of Energy is great

Besides all that good stuff, trees add beauty and bring the party outside – they make it more pleasant in the hot summer, that’s for sure. It turns out that a well-designed landscape can even reduce your energy bills. According to the Department of Energy, carefully positioned plantings can save up to 25% of an average household's energy costs. I know about a million things I'd like to spend that 25% on!  I heard an excellent talk from Mark Dwyer of the Rotary Botanical Gardens in Janesville Wisconsin a few years ago, and it changed the way I design plantings around people’s houses.  I'm thinking of the aesthetics, sure, but I'm also thinking of adding value and taking care of our earth while saving my clients some money.  I’m excited to share some thoughts on landscape design for energy efficiency as the temps rise outside.  

As we enter into the hottest months of the year, let's think about how plants can impact your wallet and your air conditioner.  Shade provided by plants around your home can cool things down before your A/C even needs to come on – air temps around trees can be as much as 12 degrees F lower than out in the sun.  Each appropriately-placed tree can save an average household over $50 every year.  It will cost you about $400 to have a nursery plant a nice 2”caliper tree (that’s 2” diameter at the trunk, basically) at your house – so in 8 years, the tree has paid for itself, while still adding to your home’s value and providing habitat for all sorts of birds and other creatures. Seems like a no-brainer to me. So, how do you get started? What do you need to think about?  

North, South, East & West
It's worth it to pay attention to the path the sunlight makes across your yard.  Remember that "west is best" for energy efficiency - meaning, we want to shade western exposures above all else.  You might think south-facing areas are the most impacted, but it turns out that more than 2 times more solar energy comes in the east and west windows than through the south windows.  And, at least in the Heartland, any western exposure pretty much gets the stuffing knocked out of it all year long... cold blasting winds from the northwest in the winter, and hot blazing sun along the southwest in the summer.  So shading the west side of your house is your first priority.  Then hit up the east.  It's good to actually leave the south-facing exposures open for solar gain in the winter.  

What needs the shade? 
Try to shade any impervious surface - that's roof, walls, driveway, walkway, patio, and anything else that attaches to your home on the west or east sides.  A driveway can soak up the heat and remain hot for hours after the sun has gone down, and keep your car hot, too.  
Next, take a look at your A/C - where is it? The A/C  unit(s) should be shaded without affecting the air flow around it.  I've noticed when working in new construction that many A/C units are attached on the north side of the house or in a shaded spot, but my century-old farmhouse has one on the west side - where it gets blazing hot afternoon sun all. summer. long.  Since a shaded air conditioner can increase efficiency up to 40%, we are planting shrubs that will grow high enough to shade it for now -  and eventually, we'll bury an electrical line so we can add a shade tree to shade that side of the house.

What should you plant? 
To provide shade and reduce cooling costs, use large shade trees.   With acres of developments all around our town, all planted with the same maple cultivar, I want to encourage some diversity. Maples are lovely trees, but there are many more shade trees out there to choose from.  

Deciduous trees that will let sunshine in during the winter and shade the sun during the summer are a great choice.  The branches will block the sun even in the winter (when you want it) so choose trees that have a more open canopy.  Trees that leaf out on the later end of spring allow more warmth when you still need it.  Kentucky coffeetree is one of those late leafer-outers that works great. Honey locusts also add dappled shade and have the bonus of not needing lots of raking in the fall- their leaflets are so tiny.  Oaks and hickories are great choices too.  The new hybrid elms like ’Accolade’ are gorgeous, and disease-resistant. Take a look at our underused shade tree guide and see if anything catches your eye.  

Where should you plant?  
I know we already said start on the western side, but it's good to think about how close to the house you get. You need to look at the mature size of whatever tree you choose. Don’t plant so close to the house that you’ll have to pay for expensive pruning later on.  Siting a shade tree about 20 feet off the southwest corner of your house is a solid bet, but it depends on how many stories your house is and what the terrain is like.  Each property is different, so give some careful thought to how the tree will grow before you get it in the ground.  

Here's one more fun source for tree info - this brochure from the Morton Arboretum has tons of great data on why trees are so good:  

I know at my own house I experience the impact that designing for energy efficiency has  on how comfortable our house is.  Take a look at your property one of these sweltering days and see if you have a spot to add a tree or put the shade in just the right place.  


What a Landscape Designer Loves to Hear from Clients


I finished my master's degree 16 years ago, and have practiced as a landscape designer in various capacities ever since- that’s a third of my life in this field. I've run this business, worked for other companies, moonlighted while I taught school full-time, and fit in projects while I kept two babies alive. But only in the last two years have I realized I am a small business owner, and this has been a pivotal shift in my mindset. I run an operation that affects my family, my community, and my peers in the industry. When I got serious about my landscape design work as a business, I hired a brand designer and poured through her blog. 

One of the first things I read was a post titled “the worst thing you can say to your designer”. It was enlightening to me as her client, and I wanted to think through what I could share with my own clients to open up communication.  Irene's post is pretty much exactly what I would say, and I can't just copy it - but basically, be honest and let me know if you want something different!  Don't be afraid to ask for changes, new ideas, clarification, or help.  You can check out Magnoliahouse Creative’s blog post here.

With all that honesty and open communication taken care of, I’d like to encourage you a bit more.  Here are two completely different statements that I hear all the time from clients, and I want to explain why I love them both. 

“I saw this on Pinterest/Fixer Upper/my neighbor’s yard...”I LOVE that! Go ahead and get inspired- find ideas and pin away. Check out other people’s patios and seating walls. Envy your neighbor’s blooming shrub that you're not sure the name of.  People are often so sheepish about their secret Pinterest garden boards!  It is my job to cull through #allthethings and distill out what you really want.  Just recently a client requested (among other things) a rose garden.  We talked through what aspects of the rose garden appealed to them, what it felt like to be in a space like that, and finally determined that it wasn't the roses particularly - it was the order in the space and the cacophony of color that they wanted.  Didn't have to be roses particularly.  Sometimes clients hand over a file folder stuffed with magazine pages or share Houzz boards with hundreds of images, apologetic that they have so many possibilities.  I can talk you down from the analysis paralysis that often follows all those ideas, and come up with exactly the outdoor spaces that are right for YOU.  

“I have no idea what I want.” This is gold, too. Seriously.  After a zillion conversations about how many people come over for a bonfire, or what views really matter from the back of the house, I know how to ask the right questions to draw out what’s going to work for you – even if you don’t.  I have this four-page questionnaire that covers everything from inspiration to irrigation, so that we all know where we’re headed even before we get started.  This is why I create an inspiration board to communicate the style and feeling that your landscape will have. Design is all about solutions - it's not just loveliness for the sake of loveliness.  We have a full toolbox of design fundamentals at our disposal: texture and focal point and rhythm and many more.  We'll take the particular details of your site and create plan that fits your needs beautifully.  I'm a relentless over-explainer and an educator to my core, so you'll end up knowing why we made the decisions we did, even if you weren't able to articulate what you wanted in the beginning.  

Landscape design is all about creating outdoor living spaces.  It’s this beautiful intersection between communication, art, and science, all with the goal of getting people to bring the party outside.  Design provides solutions based on clear communication.  Whether you are overwhelmed with all kinds of ideas or frustrated because you have none, my job is to listen and arrange all the pieces to fit perfectly together.  

Where do you fall?  Are you overwhelmed with ideas or stuck in a rut?  I’d love to hear about it either way! 

What makes a quality landscape contractor?

One of the best parts of my job is seeing the designs we come up with become real life outdoor spaces in my clients' homes. but the thing is...I don't do that work! I have to rely on quality landscape contractors to install the projects that my clients and I work so hard to create. Since I've moved all over the country and have had to establish relationships with contractors each time, I have a few strong opinions about what makes a quality contractor. Here are some thoughts that might help when selecting someone to do landscaping work around your home or business.


First, I look for professionalism. Listen, as a beloved professor once pointed out, nobody hobbies in brain surgery, but plenty of people hobby in "gardening". There is no shortage of guys out there with a truck and a lawn mower, selling their services as landscape contractors (or designers!) But the thing is, you should get what you pay for. Quality landscaping costs money. A good company will pay their employees a living wage, provide continuing education for their entire staff, purchase high-quality plants and materials, and invest in their businesses' marketing and customer service. All of these incredibly professional choices cost money, but give you a quality product and experience. And since we're dealing with pretty permanent additions to your home’s exterior and adding living things that require expertise, it is wise to select a company that takes itself seriously.

Second, I look for plant knowledge. Granted, I'm biased- I’m a horticulturalist by education. But seriously, which plants are selected makes a major difference in the success of a landscape! How they're planted, even if the right plants are chosen, is equally important! If you're having someone plant you a tree, ask how deep they should plant it. (#protip: it's the depth of the rootball.) If you haven't hired a designer to select the right plants, find out how much the contractor knows about what plants to choose and how to arrange them.

Along with this, I ask where the contractor learned his or her trade. If they went to school, was it a 2-year or 4-year program? Kirkwood, DMACC, and Hawkeye all have great Horticulture programs, as does ISU. Or did they learn on the job, from someone else? That’s legit... IF the person they learned from knew their stuff! Research and recommendations have changed a ton just since I’ve been practicing: we don't recommend landscape fabric anymore, and you can prune many trees during the growing season!

That leads me to continuing education, which might be more important than the original education. Your contractor should belong to the local Nursery/Landscape association (here it’s INLA) and they should go to trainings. They can get certified, meaning they demonstrated sufficient basic knowledge in their field. I’m a Certified Nursery Professional here in Iowa, and I was certified in New Hampshire, too. It’s not an indication of everything, but it demonstrates knowledge and skill. Ask how they stay on top of new info- American Nurseryman has a great magazine that keeps me informed of trends in the nursery trade. Many hardscape suppliers offer trainings on how to instal their products. All of this helps us get better at our trade and elevates a contractor beyond somebody picking stuff up at Menard’s or Home Depot.

Last, ask about where they get their materials. Where do they find quality plants? What’s their favorite paver to work with and why? You may not know all these details, but listen to their reasoning, what they value, and how they choose. Your contractor makes decisions in real time, in real life- and you need to understand a little about how they think.

Since my business is design-only, these are the same questions I look for as I match up with contractors to install our projects. I am pleased to know educated, devoted landscapers who are running excellent businesses. As I put my clients and our projects in their hands, I use these questions to ensure that the end result will be stunning.