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.

Ames Iowa Backyard Landscape Design garden Landscaping red Fern landscape Design

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?


How to size a patio

Adding an outdoor gathering area is a great way to bring your party outside and increase the living area of your home.  Choosing how big or small to make it can be intimidating.  The quick answer?  Well, you can always use more space.  Bigger is often better for outdoor seating areas, and it's hard to go back and add more.  Here are some thoughts about how to make decisions for your patio's size.  


To guide your decision, you can follow the adage that form follows function.  We'll talk later about how to flip that rule when needed. If you allow the shape (form) to determine what the patio will be used for (function), you'll need to think through why you'll be out there and who you'll be with.  

Headed outside for dining, and want space for another family to join you for a meal?  Okay, you'll need a lot of space:  I normally go with around 400 square feet- that's a 20 foot by 20 foot square, or a wide rectangle that gets you the square footage you need.  This allows space for a big table, room for chairs to pull out and people to walk around, leaving room for storage.  Allow at least 36 inches - ideally 48 - behind chairs so people can slide their chair out without getting stuck.  

Looking for a quiet sunset spot for you and one other person?  This kind of space can be pretty tiny.  A 5 foot by 8 foot space for two chairs and a little table is all you need.  


While I definitely believe that the function of a space should drive how it's designed, I also use the house's architecture to help make decisions. This can be a situation where the function might arise from whatever form you have to work with. 

At our house, an ancient bedroom addition means that there's a large L-shaped space right along the front door.  This is a great space for a patio, because it's protected and close to the house, but it's long and narrow, and very much out in the open.  So, it's a great gathering spot, and definitely sets the stage for the "sit-and-visit" vibe of our home.  But it's not big enough to handle 10 people for a meal outside, and I don't want my grill right by my front door anyway.  So, instead this space became a seating area rather than a dining area, with a low loveseat and chairs around a coffee table, ready for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.  Function followed form here: the surroundings determined what the space would be used for. 

I have never regretted getting electricity out to any patio.  String lights are the best way to make any space both comfy and party-ready.  

One thing I like to do is check for space for spill-over: a lawn on one side, where more chairs can be pulled up, or maybe use the driveway along part of it, so there's extra room when needed.  This adds flexibility to any of your outdoor spaces.  Think about how the party always ends up in the kitchen, no matter how small it is.  If you want to accommodate more people sometimes, having all sides of the patio packed with plants or closed off will limit how it can be used.  

Of course cost plays into every decision.  If you're hiring a contractor to install a paver patio, expect to spend at least $25 per square foot for good work and good materials.  Decking is far cheaper in terms of both labor and materials.  Poured concrete is super utilitarian, but can be dressed up with an outdoor rug or furniture.  No matter what you choose, it's worth it to save up for something quality rather than spend now on junk.  

Regardless of what size or shape you have to work with, adding a patio will be a great addition to your home.  Now get out there and bring that party outside!