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.

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!   

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.