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.

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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.


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?


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.


Six Questions to help you choose the best Garden Center Markdown (or twelve!)

Happy August! At this time of year, garden centers in Iowa and in other cold parts of the country are beginning to mark plants down.  Well, this girl loves a bargain!  How do you decide if it’s worth it to pull over when you see those 30% off (or more) signs? Don’t be swayed by just any old price cut.   There are a few questions to think about before you load that garden cart. 

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1. What’s this garden center like? Is the place relatively clean and free of weeds?  Do you know if the staff knows anything about plants?  You’re buying living things, and you want ones that have been cared for.

2. How do the leaves and stems look on the plants you’re interested in? Is there a lot of dieback?  Are the leaves brown and curled up, or normal colored and healthy-looking?  Do you see any signs of insects or disease?  You’re looking for strong stems and clean, healthy leaves. 

3. What’s it like inside the pot?  Yes, I really do mean for you to gently slide the plant out of its pot. This is the most important thing!  Does the soil smell earthy and fresh, or sour and gross?  What are the roots like?  Do they wrap around and around the plant?  Are there thick roots right around the stem, if you’re looking at a tree or shrub?  You’re looking for a healthy roots system that isn’t bound up inside the pot. 

4. Is this a tender plant or a tough plant? Are you looking at fussy, hard-to-grow plants?  Are they barely hardy in your area?  If so, they may not make it in your yard.  If they’re tough, tried-and-true garden standbys, you’ll be much more likely to have success. 

5. Just how late in the season is it? For those of us in planting zone 5 and lower, we have to weigh the risk of a late season purchase meaning that an early frost could slow down our already stressed out bargain plants.  However, roots grow when it’s cool out, so fall is a wonderful time to plant!  If we buy and plant when it’s miserably hot and dry, we risk stressing them out even more! This leads us to the last question…

6. Can you take care of them?  If you snag a bunch of marked-down plants and immediately go on vacation for a couple of weeks, leaving them sitting in their pots abandoned on your driveway, chances are they’ll be dead when you return. If you can plant them in the right spot straightaway, and water consistently, you should have great results.

It’s hard work to sit in a pot, often near hot asphalt, all summer.  Plants are stressed from being out there and that’s why they’re marked down.  You can still get a great deal, but you need to check to see if your plant is healthy- both above ground and inside the pot- free of disease, not too tender, AND you can get them in the ground and taken care of as soon as possible.  Use these six questions the next time you see a discounted plants sign, and find out how successful you can be!

6 tips to help you choose the best garden center markdown plant | Red Fern Landscape Design | Des Moines, Iowa | garden + landscape designs for great outdoor spaces