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DIY Landscaping Approaches

April 4, 2011

Landscaping is one of the most common do-it-yourself projects out there. Almost everyone has planted a tree, shrub or flowering plant, and the DIY shows on television make the whole process look simple and doable in a weekend. Although landscape design and installation doesn’t require the same precision as brain surgery, there are still some really important underlying principles that need to be considered for the landscape to be successful. It would take far more space than this blog allows to cover them in detail, so I have simplified it to 5 key points and provided a few references at the end for more information.

1. Planning
Just as with most successful projects, good landscape design requires planning. The planning involves first analyzing the site where the new (or renovated) landscape will be installed. Included in this analysis is determining the environmental factors that will impact plant growth such as light conditions, soil type and drainage patterns. You should also note if there are existing features on the site like plants, buildings, or walkways that will need to be designed around.

2. Determining Function
Once you’ve decided what you have to work with on the site (soil, light conditions, etc.) the next step it to decide the function of the new landscape. Is it simply for aesthetics, maybe to highlight the entrance to a facility or building? Does it need to screen something or direct traffic around an area? Will it serve as a windbreak to protect an area? These are just a few examples, but there certainly are many more. In many cases the function of a landscape directly determines plant selection for the project.

3. Design Consideration
After the environmental factors have been considered and the landscape’s function determined, the design process can begin. During this phase the basic elements of design such as shape, texture, and color should be considered, in addition to the specific principles of landscape design. Understanding and implementing the complete array of landscape design principles is particularly important when large-scale designs (like a site master plan or residential backyard) are being created. On the other hand, for smaller individual projects which are more likely the type to be done on a golf course or municipal park, focusing on the shape of the planting area and the plants, as well as the texture and color of the plants and hardscapes will likely be sufficient.

4. Hardscape Selection
Hardscapes are any non-plant part of the landscape and include such things as concrete pavers, natural stone, poured concrete and wood. There is a whole range of hardscape materials that can be used in our climate and often the selection of a particular product is based on its aesthetic qualities (color and texture), price and availability, and ease of installation. Another consideration I suggest is the product’s sustainability. Is it made from recycled materials? Or, is it a permeable material that allows rainfall to pass through it and reenter the groundwater supply? There are a number of great resources available that describe pros and cons of different hardscape materials and they can be used to direct decisions about hardscapes.

5. Plant Selection
Matching a plant to the growing environment of the landscape site is the most important step in plant selection. Once this is addressed, then you can narrow your selection based on aesthetic features of a plant such as form, texture and color. One way to maximize the visual appeal of a landscape is to mass plants together in groups. The mature size of the plant impacts how many plants should be in the mass. Larger plants such as shrubs can have fewer plants, while a group of smaller perennials really need to have more plants (5-7 or so) in order to provide enough visual appeal. Combining plants with different sized leaves creates a nice contrast of textures and this adds visual interest. And certainly choosing plants with a long blooming period can provide lots of color in the landscape. Instead of relying just on flowers for color, be sure to include plants with unique and colorful leaves since the leaves will be persistent in the landscape all season long and provide color even when plants aren’t flowering.

Below are some examples of landscape plantings





Here are a few resources for more information:
Iowa State University Extension publications available at:
Landscape Plants for the Midwest (PM 0212)
Perennials for Sun (PM 1914)
Perennials for Shade (PM 1913)

Ortho’s All About Landscaping, by Kellum and McKinley

Ann Marie ZanDerZanden
Professor & Associate Director for ISU Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching
Iowa State University


Tried and True Perennials - and Some New Ones Too

March 21, 2011
Purple coneflower is well suited for full sun areas while providing interest to your landscape. Check out the rest of the recommendations below.

Perennials are often the backbone of beautiful and long-lasting ornamental plantings. As a group they provide colorful flowers and foliage, a variety of shapes and forms, and a mix of textures from the fine, delicate leaves of ornamental grasses to the bold, coarse texture of large leafed hostas. Perennials can also grow in a variety of light and soil conditions. This means there is a perennial, or two or three or more, for just about any location in the landscape.

Compared to annuals, perennials are less expensive in the long-run because they don’t need to be replanted each year and most tend to bloom well with minimal to no additional fertilizer, provided they are planted in good soil to start with. And, they only need a little attention in the spring to cut back the previous year’s foliage before they start growing again.

Spring is a great time to think about designing and installing a new perennial bed. Maybe you want to draw attention to the clubhouse, a tee box or the entry to your facility. Or maybe you have an existing bed that needs to be reworked to give it a little more pizzazz. Regardless of your situation, matching the right perennial to the growing conditions is important for the planting to be a success.

Below is a short list of tried and true perennials that thrive in our Midwestern climate. Many of these plants are familiar and used frequently in the landscape because they are easy to find in the trade and easy to grow.

Black-eyed Susan

Perennials for Sun

  • Rudbeckia fulgida; Black-eyed Susan
  • Echinacea purpurea; Purple coneflower
  • Achillea; Yarrow
  • Asclepias tuberosa; Butterfly Weed

Perennials for Shade

  • Astilbe;
  • Hosta;
  • Heuchera; Coralbells
  • Mertensia virginica; Virginia Bluebells

Here are some lesser know perennials that also do great in the Midwest. These plants may be a little harder to find, but they are well worth including. Most of these provide summer long interest either because of their unique foliage or because of their one to two month flowering period. Including any of these plants will give your planting a fresh look and be a nice change from the ordinary.

Lesser-Known Perennials for Sun

  • Amsonia hubrichtii; Narrow Leaf Blue Star, Arkansas Amsonia
  • Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo’; Wood Betony
  • Stachys grandiflora 'Rosea'; Big Pink Betony
  • Allium 'Summer Beauty'; Summer Beauty Allium


Ann Marie ZanDerZanden

Professor & Associate Director for ISU Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching
Iowa State University


Why Was Winter 2013-14 So Hard On Our Landscape Plants?

May 16, 2014

I think we’d all agree, the past winter season was a long and difficult one.  Even now, in the third week of May, temperatures are struggling to reach 70°.  And the three overriding questions remain…will summer ever arrive?  How do I explain to my boss, club members, clients, etc. why so many plants look dead after the winter of 2013-14?  And perhaps most importantly, why was this past winter so tough on landscape plants? 

Consider these events important events:

  • As we entered late fall and early winter, soil conditions were very dry.
  • As a result, many landscape plants entered winter under stress or in a weakened condition.
  • Severe low temperatures (before measureable snowfall) caused the soil to freeze to impressive depths.  This could have resulted in root death to sensitive or stressed plants.
  • When snowfall eventually arrived, it blanketed the ground without interruption, persisting until early spring in some locations and ensuring frozen soil until late March/early April.
  • Strong winds seemed to be an everyday occurrence.  When coupled with high light intensity and frozen soil conditions, the damage to evergreens became a foregone conclusion.
  • Finally, low temperatures, the likes we haven’t seen for many years, helped create the perfect storm.

Mitigating Winter Injury

Winter injury may not be immediately apparent when plants resume growth in the spring. Some plants may actually leaf out and appear quite normal for a time, only to decline and die later during stressful summer conditions.  To minimize unsightliness and promote plant health, dead wood should be pruned out as it becomes apparent. 

Providing appropriate amounts of water to compromised plants may be the most important task for landscape managers.  Plants already suffering from winter injury may die quickly if forced to cope with drought stress.  Mulching the area around trees and shrubs with organic materials like wood chips or shredded bark will help conserve soil moisture and keep lawn maintenance equipment away from sensitive bark and stem tissue. 

Finally, it is important to remember that fertilizer is not a cure-all for winter-injured plants.  If a soil test determines that mineral elements are deficient, then applying an appropriate fertilizer makes perfect sense.  But high rates of fertilizer will not miraculously close sunscald wounds, restore life to killed roots or buds, or reverse any of the other negative effects resulting from the memorable winter of 2013-14.

Jeff Iles

Department of Horticulture

Iowa State University

Below you will fine a few pictures taken by Dr. Iles around Ames.