Saturday, January 25, 2014

Book Review: "Gardening the Amana Way" by Larry Rettig

Living only about 20 miles from Amana as the crow flies and having read Larry Rettig's articles on the Dave's Garden website, I was aware of his historical Amana garden, and I was very excited to see that he has published a book about his own garden and traditional Amana gardening.

The first three chapters give a brief overview of the history of the Amana communal villages where he lives and gardens (a German religious group fleeing persecution in the 19th century left Germany and started a religious commune in New York state before relocating to cheaper land in Eastern Iowa in the 1850s).

I was aware of the Amanas' general history, but Rettig's lively retelling filled in important details in an enjoyable-to-read way, and fascinatingly, focused on the life of one particular emigrant who was instrumental in bringing the tradition of ornamental flower gardening to the Amanas.

Amana commune residents plowing and raking
a kitchen garden in spring.
As a strict religious community, non-productive gardening (not vegetables and fruits) had been verboten until this man's background opened the door to planting flowers. (I have noticed that interest in gardening in Iowa still centers around vegetable gardening -- if you mention you are planting a garden, people nearly always assume you mean vegetables.)

And the Amana residents produced with a vengeance in their communal gardens, as Rettig illustrates: included in the book are astounding historical photos of workers alongside the tons of potatoes, cabbages, lettuces, etc. that were grown and processed by the religious order, along with details about how each vegetable was grown.

Tons of cabbages were cleaned, cored and shredded
to make hundreds of gallons of sauerkraut. Yikes!

A short chapter covers the vegetables grown today by Rettig's wife, Wilma, giving details about some of the more unusual historical varieties that they grow and save seeds for in the seed bank they started in the 1980s.

This is only a part of the huge vegetable garden
grown by Rettig and his wife.

But then we get to the subject that is obviously closest to Rettig's heart: his lovingly designed ornamental gardens. A detailed tour of his garden areas, with a number of color photos in the center section of the book, guides us though the gardens he has labored over since Wilma inherited the house in 1984 (the house has been in her family for over a century).

The Amana brick house, built in 1900, that has been in
Wilma Rettig's family for over a century.

Much detail is given about Rettig's favorite plants, some of which are quite rare in the United States, and he relates some of his gardening philosophy, as well as giving a few tips for planting times in spring and other advice. (Note: A map of the layout of his garden would have been very helpful while reading the garden tour section, but those are lamentably rare in garden books.)

The side of the house. The flowering tree is a
Chinese seven-son tree, a still relatively rare,
but easy to grow tree that blooms in August with
white double blossoms in clusters of seven.

A short chapter of heirloom recipes and a final chapter covering garden crafts wraps up what is an enjoyable and knowledgeable book about the history of Amana gardens as well as about one man's gardening life. There are very few books about gardening in Iowa, and this is a valuable and welcome addition.

The small adjoining Kinderschul cottage, built in 1869
as a daycare building for the commune workers, that
Rettig restored and uses for garden tool storage.

And after reading about his gardens, I'm tempted to take up Rettig's generous offer of personal tours when warm weather comes again to Iowa. I look forward to experiencing in person the beautiful gardens he has made and written about in this nearby community with such a fascinating history.

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