3 First Steps for Lovely Landscaping around your Newly Built Home

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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.

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Red-Fern-Landscape-Design-New-Construction-Landscaping-Front-Yard-Back-Yard-Des-Moines

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.

1- START WITH THE FRONT ENTRY.
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.

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Red-Fern-Landscape-Design-New-Construction-Landscaping-Front-Yard-Back-Yard-Des-Moines

2- PLANT A TREE.
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.

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3- CREATE A GATHERING SPACE.
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.

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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!

Where to start? THE THREE THINGS YOU NEED TO THINK ABOUT FOR A BRILLIANT FRONT ENTRY

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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.

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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.

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THE TRANSITION ZONE
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.

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THE WALKWAY
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.

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THE FRONT ENTRY
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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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  • 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?

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.  

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FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION
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.  

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FUNCTION CAN FOLLOW FORM
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. 

OTHER PRACTICAL THOUGHTS:
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! 

Tree silhouettes - no leaves might be okay, for a while

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While I'm certainly ready for my surroundings to turn green again, I'm also grateful for beautiful springtime days that highlight the outline and structure of the trees around me. 

Form is a powerful element of design.  The shapes we're surrounded by can affect the mood and feel of a space.  Landscape trees come in a variety of shapes, or habits: rounded or ovate trees are welcoming and gentle, columnar forms are formal and strong, and weeping shapes are quiet and contemplative.  Look at how this bald cypress stands at attention at the end of a walkway: 

The upright, pyramidal form of the bald cypress is powerful and energetic - it adds that energy to the landscape around it. 

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This burr oak is gnarly and rough, but its reaching, open habit softens that rugged exterior and makes this giant more welcoming. 

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Take the time this spring to admire and consider the shapes of the trees on your property!  See how their habit contributes to the feel of your space - you might want to add some new dimension this season with other forms. 

If these floors could speak: Design direction at the Charlotte Airport

I am fascinated with the way our surroundings impact our movements.  We take cues from architecture, color, pattern, materials, etc... and move accordingly. Long, narrow spaces cause us to move quickly.  Repeated patterns and high contrast signal to our brains that it's time to pick up the pace.  Less contrast and open spaces encourage gathering and slowing down. At the Charlotte airport recently, the floor pattern in the rental car corridor caught my attention.  The flooring in this area is amazing!  It is designed for people to subtly understand when, where, and how to move - without signs! Let's take a stroll through this area and see how the design works.

When you come off the escalator or come in from the doors, this compass-like pattern in the flooring greets you.  This is a clear focusing spot - where you pause and consider your options.  Decisions are made at places called nodes.  And nodes aren't helpful in a linear, high-energy place.  You need a little time to think - and the space to do it.  The circle surrounded by evenly sized points creates a square shape with a central core.  Everything in this 15'x15' space is encouraging you to slow down.

You make your decision to enter through the doors, and you're greeted by this striped floor pattern. People walk through here, wait in line, and (finally) approach the rental car counters.  The flooring helps make all this happen. Triangular stripes of dark and light tiles encourage movement and increase the energy associated with the space.  This is high contrast, lively territory! You're supposed to walk through this part. 

Floor color detail

Floor color detail

Navy blue, white, and grey were used for the flooring. This provides a slightly less harsh contrast than black and white would.  Blue is a soothing, calming color and surely works overtime at the airport!

As you turn towards your rental car desks, you move off from the navy-white-corridor and into an area dominated by the white tiles.  Some grey and navy remain, but the softer contrast and higher white percentage is far less intense.  This keeps people calmer - what we all need in an airport. Long thin lines of navy delineate each area, and the triangles subtly direct people towards the desks.  Brilliant flooring!  How can we relate this to a client's landscape?  One of the primary considerations of any space is how it's intended to be used: to move, to sit, to relax, to work...  What's under our feet, along with all the other elements of a design, should support the role of a space.

3 pathway pointers to try at home

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At the Brenton Arboretum, outside Dallas Center, Iowa, there is a small path that leads around their visitor's center.  It caught my eye and I'm so excited to talk about it - I love thinking through how we move through garden spaces. This walkway is awesome on so many levels.  While it's at a public facility, it could just as easily grace a homeowner's yard. Let's talk about just the path itself, and leave the plants, the view, and the location for another day.  Here are 3 things to think about when creating a path, and how this example just nails it:

Scale, Shape, and Surface

Scale: The path is a minor option off of the wide main sidewalk to the Visitor Center's entrance.  It is a secondary choice - and as such, it's much narrower than the main walkway.  The major thoroughfare in any landscape should be wide and easy to navigate, but secondary paths get to be interesting, and this one surely is.  It's not quite wide enough for two people, so you can't go too fast.  It's meant for someone who wants to take time to wander.  It is tucked up close to the building, but doesn't feel dwarfed because of all the plant material.

Shape: It has this delightful curve.  You're taking your time here - no runway needed.  Curves slow us down and add mystery.  You can't see the final destination for this path - the curve obscures it.  And that's GREAT for a secondary path. It's not what you want for the main path to your home (or a Visitor's Center) - but it's exactly right for a quiet stroll.

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Surface: Oh, this one is fun!  We're at an arboretum - a living tree collection - so of course we'll use tree slices, or tree cookies, as the steppers.  Set in concrete, these are not perfectly level and they'll break down and change over time, but it's a great material for this site.  Not only is it a nod to the location, but it adds a graphic, artistic quality that plain gravel can't provide.

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For clients, I like to think about the job of each walkway, and make sure that the scale, shape and surface we use line up with the role that path plays.  This little path is beckoning a visitor to come explore more - and I'm first in line.

Color Cues: White and Green Combinations

In fashion, neutrals are those colors that will complement any outfit. They don’t necessarily stand out, but always looks great in any season, at any event. In gardening, green is our neutral – any palette’s background color. All the shades of green (and there are so many) surround us and evoke feelings of calm and restraint. It’s the color of life and growth – hospital patients heal faster when they can see green plants!*  White is similar – it is restful, subtle and subdued. Every other bloom and foliage color look great with white. Alone, white can really dazzle. In twilight, white is a gift outdoors because it will reflect the fading light. When green and white are the star colors of a garden or container, they can really shine.

So think about the effect you want your landscape to have on you – is there a part of your yard where you'd like a more quiet, peaceful feeling? Maybe it’s a private contemplative courtyard for sitting in the beginning or the end of the day, or perhaps you need an elegant, tranquil welcome at your front entry after a long day’s work, or you’re looking for a goes-with-anything backdrop for a riotous perennial collection… Consider combining green and white, and enjoy the serenity.

*For more information on the responses humans have to plants, see the People-Plant Interaction Resource Center http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/hih/index.asp

What the Dutch know about planters

Most European towns have great combinations of plants outside their restaurants, but no one quite knows how to handle horticulture like the Dutch.  These planters grace a sweet lunch and dinner spot in the sleepy town of Delft.

Plant combinations have a tremendous effect on the mood of their surroundings.  Here the color palette is a study in subdued contrasts: silvery-blue, deep purple-black, and touches of creamy yellow... Broad glossy foliage combined with thin, airy stems... It's not jarring but it's not boring either! Summer evenings in the Netherlands last until after 10pm, so mix these elegantly casual planters with a few great cocktails, and you've set the perfect stage for interesting conversations that stretch over hours.

Garden Ornament- Ceramic Spheres

These simple ceramic garden orbs caught my eye at Earl May (of all places?!?) the other week. I loved their simple shape and deep vibrant colors. I can imagine one of these nestled into a soft groundcover planting – try artemisia or bearberry, or incorporated into a container display with similar pots. They were weather-resistant ceramic, but in case there’s concern about Iowa’s harsh winters, look for glazed fiberglass or other options to leave them out all year.

Hellstrip Plantings in Frankenmuth, Michigan

Let’s look again at the “hellstrip”- that patch of your property between the road and the sidewalk. Hellstrip plantings take all kinds of abuse but also are in a prime location for viewing. This time we gain inspiration from a darling tourist destination in northeastern Michigan. Germans settled Frankenmuth, MI  in 1845 and have held on to some serious roots for 170 years. Fabulous planters, window boxes, and annual displays highlight the shops lining Main Street all year long. The result is a cheerful, dazzling display that might just be worth the work.

And it is work. The town maintains the hanging baskets and the hellstrip plantings, and they do not mess around. The red truck in the image below waters the plants each day as needed, and one of the maintenance vehicles is outfitted with a boom so that the job requires only one employee. In summer the plantings are a wash of tropical foliage plants and annual color, and these plants require some serious care.

These plantings are like the antithesis to the golden drought-tolerant grasses we’ve seen elsewhere. Really, though, once you get the maintenance needs down, the display itself is compelling enough to consider babying a strip of your yard for a season. With a great planting media in place and good drainage, plants may really perform dazzlingly without much more attention than water.

If you want to work your hellstrip with wild tropicals, consider really amending the soil that’s there. Add compost, keep the soil light and loamy, and mulch well. Consider a slow-release fertilizer and/or regular drenches with fertilizer. The plants will reward your hard work with a great display all summer long. The planting will keep lawn clippings and other debris from making its way to the storm drains, and best of all – it’s one less place you have to mow!

Michigan’s Little Bavaria was just amazing. The bright flowers, bold foliage, and beautiful combinations made me consider putting in the effort for a colorful tropical hellstrip planting.

Garden Container Inspiration - Go Big!

Looking for some container garden inspiration?  Check out these amazing containers! I love getting inspired by large corporate installations – they are so grand!  Our own home gardens might not require planters that tower overhead, but the punch and strength of these babies can be scaled to back patio size, at a fraction of the cost. These containers were outside a Michigan mall, and some were along the main street in Frankenmuth, MI. Check out other inspiration from Frankenmuth here!

The standard recipe for an awesome container is just three parts: thriller, filler, and spiller. The thriller stands high, the filler adds dimension and medium-height, and the spiller drapes down the side of the container. It’s easy to get a container right if you use the basic recipe. It’s not the only way, but it’s tried and true.

So if you're wanting some container garden inspiration, look around your yard and think about going big!  Stick to the thriller, spiller, filler formula if you're nervous, or riff on it if you're confident.  Enjoy the garden container inspiration you can find all over- big or small.