In Full Bloom

Tara Dudley of Plant Life Designs in Van Meter believes “the garden has so much to teach us. It is a way for us to be present.” Photographer: Duane Tinkey.

Writer: Karla Walsh

When other kids were playing video games, Tara Dudley was installing a flower and vegetable garden around her rural Iowa yard—complete with accent landscaping.

“I had a strong desire to beautify the space around me at a young age, and plants were my medium,” says Dudley, who grew up in Worthington, a town of some 375 people in eastern Iowa. “The more I learned about plants, the more I wanted to share that and create beautiful spaces for people to enjoy. The garden has so much to teach us. It is a way for us to be present and ‘adopt the pace of nature,’ as Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote.”

In January 2006, she turned her hobby into a career, launching Plant Life Designs in Van Meter. It originally offered only design services but in 2011 grew into an installation business as well—meaning clients can have their dream landscape created via PDF, then in real life, without lifting a finger.

For the past two summers, she has also partnered with other local business owners, including Jacob Schroeder of Crafted Food Services, to host pizza picnics, farm-to-table dinners and more at her test garden.

“Not only is it a wonderful way to relax … with pizza and drinks in the garden, but it is also a way to see the garden change and grow from spring to fall,” Dudley says. “Every month our guests will encounter something different and colorful.” (Keep up with all public events at

5 Ways to Refresh Your Fall Landscape

Fall is not the end of your garden, Dudley believes—it can be a beautiful beginning. Rather than surrendering your garden to the elements, consider these showy touches to give it new life come September and beyond.

Layer on rich hues. In contrast to springy, perky pastels and bright shades, “I enjoy richer tones in fall, like a blend of bronze paired with dark burgundy foliage and pops of fuchsia,” Dudley says. Consider burgundy heuchera (a leafy perennial) alongside fuchsia celosia (ornamental wool flowers) or mums and bronze-colored grasses.

Plant an autumnal focal point. “Fothergilla is a shrub that literally looks like it is on fire in the fall with its bright red fall display,” Dudley says. “I recommend this shrub over any other for fall color, and as a bonus it also has a beautiful creamy white spring bloom that you can look forward to next year.”

Consider a container. If you live in a townhome or apartment or simply don’t want to plant something in the ground, “fill a taller planter with vibrant colorful fall annuals like pansies, dianthus and asters and place it in the garden where color is lacking to add a pop,” Dudley says.

Add portable accents. “The garden can sometimes look a bit tired this time of year as blooms fade,” Dudley says. So amid your fall garden beds or containers, tuck in white pumpkins, small squash or sweeps of bittersweet vine. “You can source these all at the farmers market if you don’t feel like growing them yourself,” Dudley says. All are affordable and mobile—and require zero planning ahead or planting.

Brighten up with berries. Dudley anticipates the fall harvest of red raspberries and heirloom tomatoes every year. While it’s too late to make this a reality this year, plant both fruit plants in mid-May next spring, then prepare to reap the benefits come September.

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