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How to Turn a Slope into a Gorgeous Water Feature

Slope landscape water feature Ted Lare

Landscaping a sloped yard can be challenging, as the uneven surface can add some complications to projects like deck and patio builds. But there’s one kind of landscaping project that slopes lend themselves to well: water features!

Having a sloped yard makes it easy to create a whole series of water features, including waterfalls and streams and ponds. That also means plenty of opportunities for beautiful planting, unique rock work, and intimate seating areas to enjoy the sound of running water.

Adding a water feature to your backyard has many benefits beyond the obvious aesthetic value. Listening to running water can help us feel more relaxed, increase blood flow to the brain and heart, and ease anxious feelings. Water features can also inspire us, and they’re great for capturing the imaginations of children!

Having ponds, streams, or waterfalls in your yard is also good for the environment. It provides an easily accessible water source for local wildlife, including those all-important pollinators like birds, bees, and butterflies. Running water can also mask external background noise, like traffic sounds or chatter from neighboring properties.

Slope landscape water feature Ted Lare

How to Turn Your Yard Into a Water Garden

Since water features can be complex to build, we recommend choosing professional landscapers to help you achieve your desired look. There are many different aspects to consider, from the pump systems to materials to planting to the water system’s actual design. Furthermore, the build should consider factors like submerged power lines, structural integrity, and the flow of rainwater. Professional landscapers approach these projects with years of experience that can ensure your water feature looks beautiful and functions smoothly for years to come.

Our landscape design team has designed and built an astounding number of water features, all around Iowa. We’ve been working closely with Iowa homeowners for 37 years now, and we know all the tricks in the book. Our team of expert designers can work with your yard’s slope to create a water feature that looks like a natural part of the landscape or something completely unique and different. From rustic, to ultra-modern minimalist, to traditional Victorian, we can design and build your dream water feature.

Having your water feature designed and installed by an expert landscaping team will save your time, money, and sanity. There are many ways a water feature project can quickly go wrong for DIY-ers. While our team is always glad to assist homeowners whose home installation have gone sideways, these situations inevitably end up costing the homeowner far more time and money than anticipated.

Furthermore, hiring professionals also means you don’t have to find sources for the right materials, understand water engineering, or do the hard digging and heavy lifting. A professional design team will also ensure that your water feature is designed for kids or grandkids to safely play around or interact with.

We also offer water feature maintenance and spring open and fall shut down service, so you can enjoy your water feature without the work!

Slope landscape water feature Ted Lare

How Can You Help Your Landscape Designers

When you first chat with our landscape designers, it can help have photos of your yard handy to show us. Ideally, we prefer to see photos from each corner of the yard to see as much of the current landscape as possible.

It’s also helpful to bring along a little inspiration. A picture of your home from the street will help designers get an idea for your property’s style. It’s also helpful to have a few inspirational photos of water features you love. Pinterest is a great way to set up an “inspiration board” for pictures of water features you like. Looking through it with your designer can help them start to get an idea of the style and features to include in your water feature design.


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If you’ve always wanted a water feature or are struggling with how to landscape a sloped yard, give our landscape designers a call. We can help you build the backyard oasis of your dreams, so you can enjoy it for many years to come.

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5 Patio Essentials When Designing Your Backyard

Designing your backyard patio is a pretty fun project, but there is a lot to consider when you get into the details. There are a few essentials to consider in your design that will make your Des Moines backyard patio into an outdoor escape you’ll never want to leave. 


Outdoor Kitchen & Food Prep Space 

One of the most common requests for landscape designs is to incorporate a dedicated area for grilling. Our design pros have a lot of experience, and tons of ideas for how to incorporate an outdoor kitchen space into your yard, even in small spaces. 

Ideally, your outdoor cooking area should be easily accessible from the indoor kitchen, so you can quickly pop in and out for whatever you need. A whole outdoor kitchen might be more than you want or have space for, but you’d be surprised what sort of innovative ideas our designers can come up with to create a super functional and beautiful food prep space near the grill.


Living & Seating Spaces

People love to congregate together! Whether it’s just family or the whole neighborhood, you’ll want to make sure you have enough space for everyone. A designer can create a layout for your landscape design that will maximize your seating options while maintaining beautiful design and highlighting the features of your yard. 

Even if you’re working with a smaller yard, a designer can help you create multiple defined outdoor spaces. A dining space with a table and chairs near the grill is a top priority, and a living room or family room space with comfortable seating is ideal for relaxing. It’s always nice to have a lounging space where you can soak up some vitamin D and watch the kids play, or even a private and secluded space where you can sit and meditate or enjoy a quiet cup of tea. 


Shelter From the Elements 

We usually get outside to enjoy the natural environment, but sometimes it’s nice to have a little shelter from the elements as well. A landscape designer will work with your yard and consider our climate, prevailing winds, and sun positioning to give you protection from the elements. 

Whether it’s with umbrellas, strategically planted trees for shade, a patio with a full roof, or an elegant gazebo, a designer can create shade and wind protection that blends seamlessly into the overall design of your landscape. With a little something between you and the sky, you can still enjoy your outdoor space when the weather is less than ideal. Watching the rain from a covered gazebo can be a cozy way to spend a Sunday afternoon!



Having a fire feature in the backyard extends the day, making your yard inviting and comfortable, even after the sun goes down. Firepits and outdoor fireplaces are available in endless styles and variations now. 

A landscape designer can show you a variety of ideas and designs that could fit in with your design style. Whether you prefer sleek and ultra-modern gas-powered firepits, a more traditional style wood-burning fire ring, or even an outdoor oven, our designers can work a fire feature into your space. 

Not into a firepit or a fireplace? Torches can give you a similar ambiance and are available in many different styles.


Integrated Lighting

Integrating lighting into your landscape is a subtle way to make a huge impact. A landscape designer will work in lighting that matches your style and highlights the assets and focal points of your landscape and home. 

Twinkling string lights make seating areas feel cozy and warm. Decorative overhead fixtures add an element of art to covered patio spaces and are the perfect finishing touch to really anchor a covered space. Discreet path lighting and accent lighting invite you to explore your yard after dark and highlight the best features of your home and landscape. 

Seeing the different elements of your space lit up after dark gives you a whole new perspective on your space, and a new reason to fall in love with your home! 


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Keeping these ideas in mind will help you design the patio space of your dreams for your family to enjoy for years to come. If you’re not quite sure how to put your design onto paper, get in touch with one of our professional landscape designers! We can help you nail down a design, and come up with a plan to make it happen.

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The Best Landscape Border Materials for the Long Haul

When you plan your landscaping, you are planning for the long term. You want everything, especially border edging, to last as long as possible—no matter what Mother Nature throws at it. Since landscaping is often one of the most significant investments you’ll make in your property, it can feel like you’ve wasted money if products break down, decay, or start to look dingy after just a few years. 

There’s a wide variety of products you can use for border edging. Here are the pros and cons of a few of the most common edging options available, and what we recommend for the longest-lasting hardscapes in Iowa

Plastic Edging

Plastic edging is a very affordable option, and it comes in a variety of colors and styles. However, plastic edging is a true case of “you get what you pay for.” Plastic edging degrades very quickly when exposed to the elements. Sun fades its color and weakens the material while snow and freezing temperatures make it even more brittle. Then it starts to crack, break, and look bad in just a few seasons. The plastic edging looks cheap, and it only gets worse with time. While plastic edging may seem like a great deal, you’ll be replacing it pretty frequently, and cleaning up all the bits and pieces from your yard can be difficult. We don’t recommend plastic edging to anyone. 

Spade Edging

A clean-cut line of spade edging looks fantastic. It’s minimalist, it’s definitely the most affordable option, and it allows strong landscaping to stand on its own without distraction. However, it is a high-maintenance approach. To keep it looking nice, it needs to be cleaned up at least once per year, and perhaps a second time depending on how crisp you want to keep the edge.  

Metal Edging

Metal edging products are very utilitarian and leave very clean lines. With that said, they’re not particularly attractive or creative, and they don’t bend well. These products are most useful in straight lines for commercial applications and utility areas of your home.

Natural Stone Border

One of the best and longest-lasting options is a natural stone border. Natural stone has a classic, timeless look, and fits into any landscape beautifully. As edging, natural stone is extremely durable, and weather and sunshine won’t drastically affect the look or texture. If you’re going with stone, avoid soft stone, like Iowa Buff, as it will discolor and degrade very quickly. Choose a dense stone that will stand up well to wear and tear over time. 

Stones that are at least 6″ wide and 2-3″ thick are the best for durability. If you have areas that see regular traffic from lawn equipment, like around pathways and patios, choose larger stones. Natural stone can be cut to custom sizes and installed end-to-end for a tighter or looser fit, depending on the look you’re going for.

Paver Stones

Paver stones are also a top option for landscape borders. These days, there are so many varieties, styles, sizes, and colors available to choose from! They’re also very durable and will last for a very long time. Similar to stone, we recommend larger and thicker pavers—at least 6 inches wide—for high-traffic areas.

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If you need help choosing and installing a landscape border, one of our landscaping pros would be happy to give you their opinion and some pricing for your home.  

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Working with a Landscape Pro- Your Questions Answered

When it’s time to consider a new landscaping project, you need to know the basics of how to work with a landscape professional. What is the consultation process? How long will it take? And how much is all of this going to cost? 

Our resident landscape expert Keegan Lare, shares his advice on what to expect when you work with our professional team here at Ted Lare.    

The First Step: The Phone Consultation  

After you call in to start a project, we organize a phone conversation with one of our designers. This typically happens within 24-48 hours of the initial call, depending on what part of the season we’re in. 

During this call, we answer any questions you may have, and we try to get a feel for the projects you’re looking for. If it seems like a solid fit for both sides, then we schedule an on-site consultation at your home or your business if it’s a commercial job. 


Next Steps: The On-Site Consultation

We usually meet for up to an hour to check out your residence and discuss our initial thoughts on your project. 

We charge $100 for consultations in the Des Moines Metro area, but this $100 gets credited back to you if we do the work. Depending on the complexity of the job, we may charge up to $200-500 to account for some of our design time. This will all be discussed on-site and agreed upon before we move forward. You will also receive that amount back in credit if you decide to carry out the project.

Most importantly, the on-site consultation is a time for you to ask questions, so don’t be shy!  


Common Questions during the Consultation 

Here are some of the questions you can expect us to discuss with you when we visit your property for the first time. 


What are your goals? 

In general, we like to ask homeowners what their top 3 goals are for their outdoor spaces. These goals help us focus on what is most important to you and allows us to develop a plan that meets your aspirations.

How do you live? 

We’ll also ask for general information about your lifestyle. For example, how big are the gatherings you expect to have on your new patio? What does a typical weekend look like for you? Do you love the sun, or prefer to hang out in the shade?


What are your tastes? 

Any images that show your taste in materials (patios, walls, etc.) always help us get an idea of what you like. Providing any previous plans for the property also helps us save time creating a base plan from scratch. 


What is your budget? 

Discussing a budget range is very helpful so that we know any limitations on the project. We’ll generally give options with different price points, as clients find it beneficial to have a few choices.  


Information Gathered for Design 

When at your site, we capture all the data we need to create an initial design. This includes several photos of the yard and home, critical measurements of the space, and information on accessibility, powerlines, and obstacles. 

This process can be quick or rather extensive, depending on the existing conditions of the location. New homes without a lot of previous installations are easy to measure and capture. Older homes with many existing hardscapes and plantings can take longer to document. 

Design Timeline 

We try to respond with design ideas and a preliminary budget within two weeks of the first meeting, but this time frame depends on the complexity of the project. If there are many construction elements to design and price out, it may take longer.  


Moving Forward 

After we provide you with an initial design, the decision is in your hands on how to move forward and set a schedule. Often there are different phases of work to choose from, such as tree removal, garden preparation, installation of hardscapes, etc. We are happy to do it all at one time or phase it in over a few years. Usually, it makes sense to do as much construction as possible in one trip to limit the cleanup expenses involved in multiple trips over several years. 

Once the project scope of work is agreed upon, we work to schedule the project in the near future.  If it is a simple planting, it may only be a few weeks before we can complete the work. If the project involves a lot of construction, it might be a few months before we can start a project. Once we start a job, we see it through to completion.  Our install crews are some of the best around and you will love working with them.

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The landscape consultation process is often that simple. For a small fee and in short order, you can have professional designers guide you towards your ideal renovation. If you have any further questions on the landscaping process, or would like to start a project, please don’t hesitate to contact Ted Lare Design & Build. We would love to hear from you!

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The Best Backyard Plants to Provide Food for Birds in Iowa

Setting up a feeding station and water source for birds in our gardens goes a long way toward helping them flourish. However, there’s even more you can do that requires even less long-term effort. Planting a variety of plants that produce seeds and berries for Iowa birds is a great way to support the local ecosystem. There’s a wide variety of plants that produce berries and seeds that birds love to eat. These types of plants support avian populations all throughout the year.

So what are the best bird-friendly garden plants in Iowa? Generally speaking, the best plants to support bird populations are native plants. Different birds like different types of plants, so its important to grow a mix of native trees, shrubs, and grasses. Birds also prefer sheltered food sources, so plants for birds should be planted where they’ll be a bit protected from the wind by other plants or structures in your yard.

Landscaping for Backyard Birds

Wide-open patches of trimmed grass have no value for birds, so consider giving up some of your lawn to grow more shrubs and garden beds. The best thing about landscaping for birds is that the best plants for them are plants that are native to Iowa. Native plants are, by definition, adapted to our climate and require very little maintenance, and next to no watering once established. Growing a dense shelterbelt, or a few large evergreens, that protect your yard from prevailing winds gives birds a place to rest and take shelter in storms and bad weather. Planting should include a wide variety of heights and shelter for different types of birds.

Here are some of the best bird-friendly plants for our backyards in Iowa.

Pagoda Dogwood produces a navy-blue berry. This tree is popular with woodpeckers, nuthatches, orioles, mockingbirds, sparrows, warblers, vireos, and thrushes.

American Basswood tree, or Linden, is popular with a wide variety of birds. It’s popular with insects, which are a primary food source for many birds. It also produces a small nut-like fruit that birds like. Woodpeckers and Baltimore orioles like to nest in these trees.

Black Raspberry is popular not only as a food source for birds but also as a source of nesting material for native bees. 

Blue Grama is a perennial grass that grows in bunches. It is popular with birds that eat seeds, like nuthatches, finches, sparrows, chickadees, and cardinals.

Goldenrod is popular with a variety of insects and is also a favorite of insectivorous birds like warblers, woodpeckers, swallows, and wrens.

Chokecherry is another shrub that grows food for not just birds, but other small critters as well. 

Buttonbush is a pretty shrub that produces a small button-like berry. The blossoms and berries attract a variety of birds and pollinators.

Common sunflowers are an excellent easy-to-grow source of food for birds. In the fall, you can leave sunflowers standing as they are for the birds, or you can cut them down and prop up the seed heads near the shrubs and trees where birds like to hang out.

Little Bluestem is a beautiful ornamental grass that produces white seed-heads that birds love. 

Prairie Dropseed grass is another attractive ornamental grass that grows seed heads that attract birds.

Juniper berries are also popular with many different types of birds. The pale-blue berries contrast beautifully with the brilliant green foliage. 

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Planting your yard with trees, shrubs, and plants that are popular with birds is an excellent way to increase the biodiversity in your backyard. A garden full of native plants and shrubs supports the wildlife in our region and offers essential support for declining bird populations across the continent. Ready to make your yard and garden into a bird haven? Stop by our garden center today to discover more trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers that your backyard birds will love!

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The Best Colorful Trees and Shrubs for an Attractive Winter Garden

Sometimes it seems like winter in our gardens is very monotone: grey leafless trees and white snow, with a few evergreens here and there. But there are actually quite a variety of hardy trees and shrubs that can add pops of color, shape, and texture to give our gardens a beautiful aesthetic, all year long.

We’ve got plenty of ideas on how to make your garden just as beautiful in winter as it is in summer. Here are just a few of the best shrubs, trees, and grasses for winter interest in Iowa.


Trees are an excellent addition to your garden for many reasons, not just because they’re beautiful. Trees increase property values, reduce noise, clean our air, and help lower our utility costs by shading our homes. These trees offer all of these benefits while giving your landscape four-season color.

Colorado Blue Spruce features bright blue needles on gracefully drooping branches that look beautiful under the snow. It can be trained for upright growth or a spreading groundcover form. The steely blue color is striking in winter.

White Pine features long silky-smooth needles. It looks a little fuzzy from a distance, which makes it look very cozy under snow in the winter. It is a beautiful shade tree in a brilliant warm green.

Norway Spruce is a durable evergreen with a uniform cone shape. The needles mature to a rich deep green for the winter.

Trembling Aspen is a North American deciduous native. It features striking white bark, the beauty of which is revealed when it has lost its leaves. It’s brilliant white contrasts beautifully with rich blue winter skies or evergreen backdrops.

As River Birch matures, it develops richly colored peeling bark in shades of white, brown, and golden-yellow. The unique bark adds visual texture and color interest in winter.

Red Jewel Crabapple is a small ornamental crabapple. It’s spring blooms are beautiful, but it provides beautiful color all the way through the year with brilliant red fruit that hangs on all through the winter. The fruit is a spectacular pop of color, and the Cedar Waxwings arriving next spring will appreciate them as well.


Shrubs add texture, height variation, and depth to your yard, drawing the viewer’s eye through the landscape. They also provide shelter and safety for our important native Iowa birds and critters.

Japanese Garden Juniper is a spreading groundcover juniper. It features bluish-green foliage that turns a purplish-blue in winter.

Montgomery Blue Spruce is a mounded shrub that resembles a short, plump Christmas tree at maturity. Its silvery-blue foliage looks beautiful under snow in the winter.

Green Velvet Boxwood is a mounding broadleaf evergreen that can be pruned into any shape you like, from a clean and uniform hedge to a unique topiary shape. Its leaves maintain a brilliant green through winter, and a totally unique texture compared to other needle-type evergreens.

PJM Rhododendron is another broadleaf evergreen. The leaves turn a dark purple-red in the fall. The dark leaves really stand out against a backdrop of white snow.

Ivory Halo Dogwood forms a rounded mound and has four-season interest. It has showy variegated foliage during the growing season, creamy white flowers and berries in the spring, and eye-catching bright red branches in the winter.

Little Lime Hydrangea is a deciduous shrub, but the blossoms will dry on the stems and last all winter. The conical flower heads and branches fade to rich golden brown and add unique shapes to the garden.

Technically Forsythia is a spring-blooming shrub. But it’s so early in the year, sometimes the very first thing to bloom, that it can still feel like winter when its bright yellow flowers burst into bloom.

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Shrubs add texture, height variation, and depth to your yard, drawing the viewer’s eye through the landscape. They also provide shelter and safety for our important native Iowa birds and critters.

Grasses add a completely different look and feel to our yards in winter. Their tall wispy fronds add structure and drama against a snowy backdrop. Their golden yellow color contrasts beautifully with evergreens and snow.

Karl Foerster Reed Grass grows in clumps and up to five feet tall and features a fine delicate texture. A row of delicate golden-tan clumps adds texture and definition in winter.

Purple Fountain Grass grows up to four feet tall and features thick bottle-brush seed heads, and rich reddish-purple color all winter long. The gracefully arching seed heads and foliage are beautiful against snow.

Northwind Switch Grass grows up to five feet tall and turns a brilliant coppery-bronze in winter. It’s rigid upright form, and brick red seed heads are strikingly beautiful.

If you’re finding your yard a little lackluster to look at this winter, come visit our garden center in the spring. Pick out some gorgeous new trees, shrubs, and grasses to fill your yard with vibrant color next year.

Please note: we are currently closed for the season. We will be open on the weekends of January 24-26, and February 7-9 and then we will officially reopen for the season on March 23, 2020. Stay informed – sign up for our newsletter. We can’t wait to see you next year!

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How to Get Started With Backyard Birding: The Basics

If you want to get started with birdwatching, or “birding,” in your backyard, you’ll need a few basic things; food, water, and shelter. It really is that simple. However, knowing how to use those tools to attract birds is a little more involved. 

There are over 150 types of birds that are common to Des Moines. Many of them overwinter in Iowa, and they would be happy to stop by your backyard bird buffet. It’s a joyful moment for beginner “birders” when you start to recognize the visitors that frequent your property. On top of the warm feeling of getting to know your winged neighbors, you can also feel good about your role in their survival. All it takes is filling up feeders and refreshing their water now and then. 

Common Iowa backyard birds we’ll see in winter include chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches, cardinals, mourning doves, blue jays, finches, titmice, and woodpeckers. Dark-eyed juncos, sparrows, and purple finches come south to Iowa for the winter. Occasionally, redpolls, grosbeaks, and pine siskins will make an appearance as well. So, how can you get all these cute feathery creatures to visit your yard? Here’s all you need to know to start attracting some feathered friends. 

birds at bird feeder

Food for Your Backyard Birds

Naturally, one of the main things that will attract birds to your yard is bird food—but don’t just grab the first bag of birdseed or the first feeder you come across! Different birds like different types of food. Some of the most popular things are nyjer seed, sunflower seeds, insects, peanuts, suet, berries, and fruits. 

Birds don’t like stale food, so if they’re not eating what you’ve put out, trying replacing it with fresh food. 

Setting up a Feeding Station

When you’re setting up a bird feeding station in your yard, you’ll want to make sure you choose a good location. There are three guidelines for perfect placement:

  1. Protected: somewhere that’s protected from the wind, and that will get some sun, the south side of your house is best.
  2. Safe Exits: birds need a safe escape, and somewhere to hide, so within 10-15 feet of a tree or shrubs is ideal.
  3. Visible: If you’re going to enjoy these birds, make sure you can easily see your feeding station from your windows.

Lots of birds don’t like to share their outdoor bird feeders, and some prefer different types of feeders, so you may want to have a few different styles. A tall round feeder with big enough holes for peanuts will be popular with woodpeckers. Something with edges to sit on and a roof over the top will be popular with sparrows. A skinny feeder with a perch by each feeding hole will be popular with chickadees. Some birds also prefer to eat from the ground, so you could provide a tray underneath your feeders that will catch dropped seed for ground feeders. You can also spread seed on an old stump for some of your birds. Suet can be hung in cages from trees.

Most backyard birds are generally ok with being reasonably close to buildings, so you can keep the feeders within 10-15 feet of the house for best visibility. There are bird feeder stands available that allow you to hang up to 4 feeders from the same post, offering lots of choices for your bird friends. 

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Offering Birds a Water Source

Like us, birds need to drink water, even in winter. Also, it’s a myth that birds will have a bath, soak their feathers, and then freeze to death on horrible icy days. Birds are smarter than that; they know how to keep themselves safe and warm.

Birdbaths are easy enough to maintain in summer, but keeping open water through the winter is a little more tricky. A heated dog dish is one of the most affordable options for keeping water available. Or, you can get a heater disk to add to an existing birdbath. 

The water shouldn’t be more than 1-2 inches deep, so you’ll want to find a reasonably large rock to place in the middle of the dish. Many birds will be happy standing on the rock, but some prefer twigs or branches. If you have spruce boughs available, you can place some of those around the outside edge of the water dish, so little birds have somewhere to sit.

It’s important to make sure the water is clean. Because birds tend to relieve themselves wherever they are, you’ll want to clean out the water dish and refill it with fresh water about once a week.

bird on branch

Somewhere to Shelter

The best backyard bird garden will have lots of places for birds to take shelter. A variety of shrubs and trees, evergreens and deciduous, will make your yard inviting for birds all year round. Shrubs and trees with berries—like dogwood, chokeberry, winterberry, hawthorn, and holly—are popular with a wide variety of birds. 

If you’ve got birdhouses up in your yard, you can clean them out for winter, but don’t put them away. Some birds will still use them to take cover through extra frigid nights.

Dealing with Squirrels

If you’ve got trees and shrubs and bird feeders, there’s a good chance you have squirrels. They can be a pest, but they’re also not the worst creature on the planet. There are plenty of excellent squirrel-proof feeders on the market that can make it more difficult for them to steal bird food. But, since squirrels are very intelligent, they’re likely to figure out a way eventually. 

Generally, the best and most humane solution to keep squirrels out of your bird feeders is to let them have their own feeding station somewhere else in your yard. A cheap feeder stocked with nyjer or sunflower seeds will keep them busy and mostly away from your bird feeding station.

image of bird sticker on window

The Window Problem

It’s always sad when a bird hits the window. However, there are easy solutions to keep them from mistaking your glass for open skies. Reflective stickers or tape are great options, but you’ll find more products to prevent bird-to-window collisions at our garden center.

Once you get started with backyard birding you’ll enjoy observing these delightful creatures all winter. When your feeders are all set up, make sure to keep your camera or phone handy—you never know who might visit your bird buffet!

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A Checklist for Putting Your Garden to Bed

Fall garden shed Iowa

It’s that time of year when we’re starting to think about putting our gardens to bed for winter. That dreaded four-letter word, snow, isn’t too far around the corner, and the more cleanup we do now, the less we’ll have when that spring sunshine shows up again. Everyone has their theories about what the weather will do in Iowa this winter. Whatever it does, we don’t want to risk the chance of unfinished garden cleanup getting caught under a massive layer of snow from a freak storm. Here’s a checklist of the things we’re working through to tuck our gardens in for wintertime. 

The best time to start checking off these tasks is once we’ve had our first frost in Des Moines. This will finish off any late-blooming annuals, and set perennials into their winter dormancy cycle.

Fall Planting

We tend to think about cleaning up, not planting at this time of year. However, we can do some fall garden planting in Iowa. Tulips, snowdrops, daffodils, hyacinths, crocuses, and garlic should be planted now. The cold period in the winter is crucial for getting them started in the spring. We’ve got a variety of bulbs for fall planting at our garden center, so come take a look! Make sure you follow the planting instructions on the package or ask our staff for tips. 

Empty Garden Beds

Clear out spent plants now, so there’s less cleanup to deal with in the spring. Collect and store things like tomato cages, trellises, and stakes. Cut down all the foliage from vegetables. You can lay them out and mow over them with a mulching lawnmower, or scoop them directly into yard waste bags. If you mow over them, make sure to set the deck height a little higher than you would for mowing the lawn. The lawnmower will break them up, and then you add them into your composter or directly into the soil. If any of your plants showed signs of disease or pest invasion before the frost, dispose of them in yard waste bags. Do not put diseased plants in your compost—safe is always better than sorry.

fall garden composting Iowa

Tuck in Some Compost

If you’ve got a good stock of compost going, spread it over your garden and work it in with a tiller or by hand. If you’re turning the soil by hand, turn over big chunks with a spade or fork. You don’t need to break them down. Leaving them in large chunks allows air to circulate into the soil, and they’ll break down on their own over the winter.

Trim Back Perennials

Clean up perennials, but don’t mow them down. It’s a good idea to trim back a bit on your perennials, but don’t cut back too much. Cutting back too much and too soon could potentially encourage new growth before winter, which will not end well for the plant.

Rake the Leaves

Rake up your leaves, but don’t throw them out. Fallen leaves are among the best things you can add to improve your soil. You can do the same thing you did with the veggies; you can mow over leaves to break them down, then add them to your compost or work them into your soil.

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Wrap up Shrubs

Wrap up tender shrubs. If you’ve planted new shrubs this year, or you have a few that are more susceptible to winter burn like arborvitae, wrap them up well with burlap.

Add a Layer of Mulch

Mulch perennials, shrubs, and new trees to insulate and protect the roots. A 2-4 inch layer of mulch helps to protect your trees, shrubs, perennials, and bulbs through the winter. Make sure the mulch doesn’t touch the trunk of trees or shrubs but makes a good thick layer over the root area.

Empty garden bed fall Iowa

Clean Up Raised Beds

Raised gardens shouldn’t need too much protection, but you’ll want to double-check a few things. If they’re elevated off the ground, you’ll want to make sure they’re not a warm cozy shelter for mice to nest. Clean out underneath them, and barricade around them so pests can’t get in. Sometimes desperate rodents will burrow in from underneath. If you’re wondering what to put under raised garden beds, consider laying down a few layers of poultry wire.

Add Edging

If you’ve been wanting to add edging to your landscaping, now is a great time to do it. Whatever you choose—bricks, slate, steel, curbing—you don’t have to worry about disturbing annuals or bulbs. If you’d like to know how to put bricks around a flower bed, have a chat with our landscaping staff. We can help you get it done correctly before the snow flies. 

Take Care of Your Tools

When it’s finally time to head back out to the garden in the spring, it’s a major setback to find your tools wrecked from rust or dull from last year’s use. When you’re finished with your yard cleanup, spend some time on your tools. Wash, sanitize, and dry them thoroughly, sharpen blades where needed, and apply a light coating of oil to tools that could rust. You’ll have a much easier start to spring with well-maintained tools.

Getting your garden prepped for winter now will mean your soil warms more quickly in the spring, and you can get back to gardening sooner. If you have questions, or need any tools or supplies, swing by our garden center for a visit. We can help you get the garden all tucked in and cozy for winter, so you can cozy up inside and start your planning for next year.

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Creating Shade

It’s no accident that many of us wistfully imagine a shady sanctuary, relaxing under the leafy boughs of a tree. The image of a perfect afternoon spent under the cool shadow of a tree has been romanticized by poets and painters for centuries. We can’t deny that there’s something nostalgic about letting our minds drift off underneath a beautiful shady tree – and what better location than from the convenient security of your own backyard?

When you think of creating your own backyard oasis, you aren’t limited to giant trees with decades of growth. There are some fantastic options that provide the shade and elegance that you want, some of which can fit into the corners of even the smallest suburban lots. Here are some of our favorites that you might have seen in your neighbors’ yards:

fiddle-leaf figs placed indoors


Best Large Shade Trees for Iowa (over 30 ft tall and wide)

Ted’s Pick: Swamp White Oak

Tall, mature trees are destined to become landmarks in the neighborhood. Thanks to its faster rate of growth (compared to other oaks), Swamp White Oak reaches its mature height sooner, bathing everything around it in cool shade. 

Swamp White Oak is also well-suited to the landscape because of its high tolerance for urban soils. It’s tough, and yet also ruggedly handsome. The thick, straight trunk has attractive peeling, flat-ridged bark. Its leaves spend the spring and summer with dark green surfaces and white, fuzzy undersides. In the fall, the color matures into lovely shades of yellow and golden brown.

Other large shade trees to try:

fiddle-leaf fig plant


Best Medium-Sized Shade Trees (around 30 ft tall)

Ted’s Pick: Hot Wings Tartarian Maple 

It’s hard to beat a maple when it comes to fall color. What sets Hot Wings apart is the presence of red tones before the fall begins. During the summer, the branches bear clusters of bright red samaras that look almost like fruit or flowers against the brilliant green foliage. In the fall, the leaves take on a gorgeous display of red, orange, and yellow tones.

A fast-growing specimen, Hot Wings Tartarian Maple grows “out” as much as it grows tall, which gives it an attractive rounded habit at maturity. On top of offering plenty of shade and color, this maple is also very cold-hardy and has no trouble surviving a Des Moines winter.

Other medium shade trees to try:

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fiddle-leaf fig plant


Best Compact Shade Trees for Patio Areas or Corners of Home (under 30 ft)

Ted’s Pick: Serviceberry

There’s so much to love about serviceberry trees. Not only are they wonderful choices for adding three-season interest, they produce delicious edible berries similar in color and flavor to blueberries. The Autumn Brilliance cultivar is especially beautiful, with its intense orange-red fall foliage.

In the early spring, the serviceberry blooms profusely with crisp white flowers. As spring fades into summer and the flowers are replaced with berries, you’ll notice your yard becoming a lot more popular with the local birds!

Serviceberries are medium growers, which allows them to look well-established after a few years while remaining compact.

Other compact shade trees to try:

These trees are great options for people looking to create shade in their backyard landscape. They provide a relaxing respite for you and your plants, soaking up the sun in any area where you’d rather not. Provided a little bit of space, some good soil, and simple regular upkeep, even a modest tree can be a practical addition to your backyard that gives back year after year.