Thursday, February 6, 2014

10 Reasons why Iowa is a great place to garden

In these cold days of February (which are nevertheless better than the cold days of January, those now being behind us for another year), it's easy to feel depressed about winter and wish we could live somewhere else than Iowa. I used to wish I could live and garden somewhere else where winters weren't so cold, where more kinds of plants would grow. Like England, that nation of gardeners, that green and fertile isle. Or sunny California, where it rarely frosts and citrus trees grow.

But I've been thinking about gardening here in Iowa, and the more I think about it, the more I realize how lucky we are in our growing conditions:

Tulips need frozen winters to bloom.
Iowa has frozen winters, to spare....
1. Some plants need winter freezes to bloom. If we didn't have frozen winters, we wouldn't be able to grow most fall-planted bulbs or peonies or lilacs, all of which need winter chill to bloom. How could I live without tulips, without the first crocus or daffodils? And the scent of lilacs? And the glory of May peonies; I could never give them up. Gardeners in the south or California resort to buying pre-chilled bulbs each year if they want to enjoy these harbingers of spring.

Iowa soil rarely looks like this,
because we get plenty of rain.

2. We have enough water. Many places out west have water shortages, which we rarely experience except during occasional and temporary summer droughts. The drought last year was really trying to gardeners, and I can't image having to garden under those conditions all the time. I like having green grass and not having to irrigate everything for it to survive. This was brought home to me last year, when a couple I met through friends announced that they were returning to Denver, because as landscapers, they couldn't make a living here in Iowa as they had hoped, because hardly anyone needs professional landscapers here. In Denver, anyone who wants anything to grow in their yard must have expensive artificial irrigation systems installed. Here you just scatter seeds and grass grows, and the problem is keeping it mowed, not keeping it alive and growing.

Slugs are not a problem in Iowa,
unlike in England (where they must
grow hostas in pots!). 
3. We don't have too much water. Damp summers cause all sorts of garden headaches. Tulips rot in the ground in England and hostas are devoured by giant slugs (it's true: those Brits really envy us our being able to grow hostas, which are one of the easiest and most commonly grown plants here in Iowa, but which they often have to grow in pots to keep the slugs away, incredible as it sounds).

Iowa's hours of sunshine put us in the yellow zone
on this map, way ahead of England and most of France.
4. We get enough sun. Iowa is very close to average for the US in number of sunny days per year; not a constant blaze like in the southwest, nor the gloominess of the Pacific Northwest. I don't think I would be very happy living in a place like Oregon or England, because I don't like damp, overcast days. Also, England is 10 degrees higher in latitude than Iowa is, which means their days are shorter than ours, even if their winters are warmer. The Brits can hardly grow tomatoes, even in a greenhouse, because they just don't have enough sun. No thanks, I like sunshine.

Wikipedia says "Iowa has some of the best soils
in the world," although we are losing our topsoil
due to farm erosion.
5. We have good soil. Yes, some people garden in subdivisions where the builder removed and sold off all the good topsoil for no other reason than to make life a living hell for gardeners -- that happens in all areas. But the state in general enjoys a fertile topsoil that has been called "the black gold of Iowa." When settlers moved here from Pennsylvania, people they wrote to back home didn't believe their assertions that the ground could be plowed without hitting large stones every few inches. Nor do we have sandy soil that doesn't hold water, like out west.

Iowa is in Zone 5, the blue and light blue areas.
4. Zone 5 has a wide variety of hardy plants. Some people may think that Iowa is too cold to grow many of the most beautiful plants, but actually, Zone 5b (the "b" always makes me feel better about my zone...) is such a common zone that many cultivars have been bred to grow here. In the map above, you can see that Zone 5, shown as blue and light blue for 5a and 5b, includes a fairly large part of the United States, including large areas of New York state, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska. Plant breeders have a giant incentive to increase the hardiness of their plants, in order to be able to sell them to the millions of gardeners who live in these areas. 

Out of the 1,500 roses for sale at Heirloom Roses, two-thirds of them are hardy in Zone 5 (which is four times as many as are hardy in Zone 4 -- those poor gardeners up there!) and nearly all of them are hardy in Zone 6 (which means that in a sheltered area, they could probably grow here). And I've been reading about new, more hardy cultivars of such traditional warm area plants as camellias, ceanothus, crapemyrtles, alstroemerias, pansies and others. Time and markets are working in our favor.

We already have a satisfyingly wide range of plants that will grow here; so many thousands of species that we are, in fact, spoiled for choice. It's not like we're going to run out of beautiful flowering plants to put in our yards. 

And for all the scary predictions about global warming we keep reading, Iowa has benefited from the slight warming trend here over the past century, according to this fascinating report, which says our winters are getting warmer (while our summers are actually getting cooler), we are getting more rain and the number of frost-free days has increased by 9-10 days over the past century. All of these trends are good for Iowa gardeners and farmers, and also mean that we use less fossil fuel to heat our houses than we did in the past.

A house with a big yard: what every gardener wants.
5. We have relatively affordable real estate (except for farm land) and property taxes. What good is a favorable growing climate if a gardener can't afford a house with a yard, as is the case in many warmer areas of the country? And I believe the cost of plants is probably more affordable here as well -- I can buy a very wide selection of 4" perennials for 3/$10 near me, which seems pretty reasonable. I'm pretty sure that professional landscaping costs must be lower too.

Iowa has never had many gardens like this Tacoma, WA one (from a 1933 photo in the Smithsonian Garden Club of America collection), because there have never been many wealthy estates here. Our standards of ornamental gardening are far more forgiving than those in cities with a history of wealth.
6. Iowa gardening standards are quite forgiving. This is the nice way to view the fact that we don't have a lot of serious ornamental gardeners or gardens here. In England, there are so many beautiful gardens to visit that you could see a different one every day for a year and hardly make a dent. Sadly, there are very few gardens open to the public here in Iowa. Several public ones such as Reiman Gardens and Brucemore are open year-round. And a few private gardens are usually open in each town or area every June, but they are often just small landscaped yards, not proper gardens as the Brits would understand them. In fact, this is one of the main reasons I garden: because I want to visit beautiful gardens and there just aren't many near me -- so I'm making the garden I want to visit.

Iowa simply doesn't have a history of large, designed flower gardens, which only a few extremely wealthy Midwestern families ever had until recently (Iowa has never had many extremely wealthy families, compared to Illinois or Michigan, for example). Serious vegetable and fruit growing we absolutely do have -- Iowa's agricultural heritage still influences our views of what is useful and fitting to grow. Whenever I mention that I garden, people here almost always assume that I mean vegetable gardening, not flowers, which apparently still seem frivolous to many, at least flowers in large numbers or in a planned design.

But the upside to our shortage of ornamental gardens is that we Iowans are impressed with just about any garden that someone has taken some time and effort to design and plant, especially if it has a lot of flowers in bloom. We may judge our own gardens to be unworthy of display, but most people will likely be impressed with our efforts and believe that we are expert gardeners (and being polite Iowans, would probably keep it to themselves if they didn't). I might feel a great deal of pressure to meet the high standards of England or wealthy metro areas here in the US, if I lived in one of those places, but here in Iowa I don't feel like I'm obligated to have expensive hardscaping or a professionally-designed garden plan, edge my beds with precision sharpness every year, fertilize my roses to make them bloom longer, or keep my borders weed-free all the time. I see this as a good thing.

7. It takes a while for plant diseases to get here. It seems like most dreaded plant blights enter the US through the east coast: boxwood blight, tomato blight, eastern filbert blight, even the scourge of Japanese beetles started in the east. I suppose it's not their fault that their ports let in diseases and pathogens, which then start to spread across the US; but they usually take a few years to reach the Midwest (we haven't gotten the dreaded boxwood blight yet...), so this is, in fact, an advantage of gardening here.

8. There's really no place where you can grow everything. Not that I know of, anyway. Even if winter temperatures and water are not issues, soil conditions in one place cannot accommodate every type of plant: some need acid soil, some alkaline; some need light, sandy soil, some heavy moist soil. Some need hot summers, some must have mild summers. Every location has horticultural limits, just as Iowa does.

Winter can be cozy if you don't have to go out. Time for reading
seed catalogs and planning this year's gardens. (Flickr; djwtwo)
9. Winter provides a much-needed rest. I don't know about you, but I'm usually totally burned out by the end of June and need to take a short break. And even though I get a second wind in autumn, I'm actually relieved that winter allows me some time to concentrate on other things besides gardening. Yes, winter wouldn't necessarily have to go on for so long, but it still helps me maintain a better life balance ("all gardening makes Beth a dull girl"). And I don't think I would be so enthusiastic about gardening if I could do it all year long -- its limited availability renders it a privilege, not a constant burden.

Winter is a good time for improvements inside the house (I just repainted my bedroom in a new lush green shade with a sky-blue ceiling, to remind me of summer), as well as reading garden books to learn new things, getting in shape to make gardening (and everything else) easier come spring, and little projects such as organizing photos and other things that I won't want to do when it's nice outside. And don't forget how cozy it feels to read seed catalogs next to a blazing wood stove. For everything there is a season.

Iowa has cold winters, but there are far worse places....
10. It could be a lot worse. Compared to Minnesota and central Canada, Iowa often feels like a balmy subtropical heaven. And if we lived any further south, our summers would be blazingly unbearable (in Texas it is said that they have 4 seasons: Almost Summer, Summer, Still Summer, and Christmas -- and summer often means months of 100+degree days). Perhaps in retirement, we'll get a little house down in south Texas for the winter months, but I'll always want to come back to Iowa for the glories of spring.

We Iowa gardeners have many reasons to be happy that we can garden under such favorable conditions, despite our often-cold winters. There's a reason that our state slogan used to be: "Iowa: a Place to Grow." Here's to Spring!


  1. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintence, Beth. I am not aware of any other Iowa gardening blogs. There are two Wisconsin bloggers I highly recommend. I have visited both of their gardens in person and they are beyond amazing. Here are the links to their blogs: and

    I will add you to my blogroll, Beth. Have a great day!

    1. So great to hear from you, Beth, and thanks for adding my site to the blogroll on your own wonderful blog! And thanks for the links!