In the studio | A garden oasis in downtown Ames

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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!

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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.

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Ames-Iowa-Landscape-Design-Master-Plan-Patio-Garden-Landscaping-Red-Fern-Landscape-Design

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.

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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.

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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.

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Ames-Iowa-Landscape-Master-Plan-Backyard-Landscaping-Red-Fern-Landscape-Design
Ames-Iowa-Landscape-Master-Plan-Backyard-Landscaping-Red-Fern-Landscape-Design

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.

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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?

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Plant Profiles | Choosing + using luscious garden peonies in your landscape

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I’m so grateful for peony season ... when my very favorite perennial shows off! There is just nothing like the enormous ice cream cone blooms of an old-fashioned peony.  Scent, cut flowers, great foliage - these perennials have it all.  Maybe you have some questions about peonies and are thinking of planting some, now that you've seen them showing off all over the place?  Read on! 

Plant profile: Pro info and tips about garden peonies for home gardeners

What you need to know:

Growing peonies is a pretty easy endeavor.  They are hardy and happy in zones 3-8, and for generations have thrived in central Iowa's zone 4-5 gardens.  Stunning blooms appear in late May and can keep on coming into early July, depending on the plants you choose.  Plant a few different cultivars and create a long-lasting show from the display of blooms.

Garden peonies (Paeonia lactiflora and hybrids) have been grown for centuries because of those show-stopping flowers. Some perennials will bloom for months in your garden (hi, coreopsis, scabiosa, and catmint! I'm looking at you), but peonies are in and out in around a month or month and a half.  So fleeting and yet so totally worth it.  And the fragrance! Amazing. More and more cultivars are appearing all the time - crosses with tree peonies (Peonia suffruticosa and hybrids) bring more colors, larger blooms and sturdier stems to the mix. 

Garden peony blooms come in three basic types: double, semi-double, and single.  Each has a totally different flair and affect in your landscape.  If your early summer landscape was cast out of Steel Magnolias (and why wouldn’t it be?!?!?) then those doubles would have to be Truvy – extroverted, enthusiastic, and definitely head-turning. The double flowers have row after row of fluffy petals forming a large cone-shaped bloom.  Singles, with one or two rows of large, fluttery petals surrounding a center of stamens, are more along the lines of M’Lynn – delicate, elegant, and subdued.  Semi-doubles still come across as pretty restrained to me, more like Clairee- but they won’t get overlooked!  All have a place and a role to play in the landscape.  What you're left with for the rest of the summer and into the fall is this fabulous glossy foliage - a great backdrop for other plants in your garden and fantastic filler for cut flower arrangements. 

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Combinations:

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a whole sweeping area simply filled with peonies (has anyone been to the Boboli Garden in Florence?) , but a great early summer combo is a mass of peonies planted with big globe allium bulbs.  Try Allium ‘Ambassador’, Allium ‘Globemaster’, or Allium stipatum ‘Mount Everest’.  Layer the peonies with later-blooming perennials for color all season long.  Try pairing them with hardy geranium and sedum for a romantic and refined summer show, or with asters and coneflower for a laid-back, informal garden. 

PRO TIP: CHOOSE CAREFULLY WHEN YOU'RE SITING THESE BEAUTIES.  PEONIES ARE LONG-LIVING, AND THEY DON'T LIKE TO BE MOVED. 

Problems/Concerns:

The only issue I ever run into with peonies is powdery mildew on the foliage later in the summer.  Try to prevent this problem by 1) cleaning up and disposing of foliage in the fall and 2) opening up your plantings to allow good air flow.  If you have powdery mildew anyway, treat it with a conventional fungicide (read and carefully follow the label!!!) or try a mix of baking soda, liquid soap, and dormant oil.  Growing a Greener World's website has a great post on powdery mildew control.

Where to get them:

Check at your local garden center and talk to their buyer about cultivars you're interested in!  If you're patient or on a budget, I highly recommend Van Engelen Inc for wholesale pricing.  Often the bare-root peonies we've gotten from them in the fall will bloom the following spring!