Lesson Plans in an Iowa Garden | Midwest Living

Lesson Plans in an Iowa Garden

Working through 30 years of summer breaks and then retirement, two Iowa teachers molded an empty backyard into an A+ landscape. Strolling through their gardens offers lessons in creating a great yard with a limited budget and lots of patience.
  • Planting and dreaming

    In 1977, a close call with a push mower on their steep lot led Jim and Mary Lippold to their first landscaping decision. They tamed the slope with steps and terraced retaining walls made from railroad ties. The Lippolds spent the next several years planting Midwest perennial flower beds, shrubs and trees.

    Buying the adjacent partially flat/partially hilly half-lot inspired them to dream of more. Today, with more flower and foliage plantings, and the addition of flagstone paths and patios, the Lippolds have gradually reduced the lawn area on their 165x100-foot lot to a point that makes Jim’s mowing job quick, flat and safe. Click ahead for more photos of this garden.



  • Taming the slope

    After a second riding mower incident convinced them they needed professional help, the Lippolds turned to local landscapers. One sketched out a master plan to replace ties with stone and integrate the new space, and Jim built a clapboard garden shed as its centerpiece. Additions of boxwood hedges, native grasses and a pond have given the yard an eclectic style.

    Here, a canopy of trees shades stone terraces filled with hostas and ferns flanking the stairway.

  • A natural for water

    The Lippolds’ sloped yard was a natural for a 65-foot rock-lined stream and waterfall leading to a pond. 

  • Colonial inspiration

    A 1992 trip to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, inspired this circular garden of ‘Green Mountain’ boxwood in front of the garden shed. Thanks to the hedges’ dense foliage and slow growth (bushes only reach about 3 feet when mature), Jim can easily keep them trimmed into compact formal shapes.


  • Pleasing vistas

    Grouping plants with different foliage colors creates a pleasing vista. Birdhouses and a bridge Jim built offer structural interest.

  • Minimal maintenance

    Native prairie plants, such as Liatris (or gayfeather), and beds of perennials—coneflowers, black-eyed Susans and Asiatic lilies—require minimal maintenance. The easy-to-care-for hardy coneflower (pictured) is Jim’s favorite perennial.

  • Miniature trees

     A cement planter holds miniature conifers. Dwarf varieties grow less than an inch a year, making them suitable for containers and rock gardens.

  • Vegetable and herb garden

    A tidy vegetable and herb garden (with its own composting area) is tucked next to the shed. 

  • Garden timeline

    1977–1980s:  Budget-friendly railroad-tie steps and walls initially transform the steep lot. In 1998, as the expanded design plan starts to take shape, the Lippolds replace the ties with stone.

    1992 The garden grows with ornamental grasses, dwarf conifers, prairie plants, Mary’s favorite Asiatic lilies and more.

    1999 Trees planted in the ’80s now provide shade for new beds of hundreds of varieties of hostas and ferns.

    2001 The waterfall, stream and 3,000-galllon pond are completed. Pretty water lilies and koi thrive each summer.

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