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!

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?

Prairie-inspired landscape design

This lovely brick home was newly built in Ankeny and the owners were desperate to get some landscaping to soften it.  We worked with them on a landscape design that was inspired by prairie plantings -  and just wild enough to give a nod to their roots - while still able to stand up to all the strong lines and hard surfaces around the home.  We combined a few ornamental trees, many different flowering and evergreen shrubs, grasses, and perennials to give them year-round color and interest.  

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Ankeny-Landscaping-New-Construction
Ankeny-Landscaping-New-Construction

It will be a few seasons before this project comes into its own - the trees will fill out, the shrubs will form sweeps of color, and the perennials will grow in nicely.  Can't wait to see this through the years!

Want to try out your own little wild and wonderful garden area?

These “just after” photos give you an idea of what things look like right after planting. It won’t be long before this fills right in!

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Ankeny-New-Construction-Landscaping-Plantings
Ankeny-New-Construction-Landscaping