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.

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?