Thursday, September 4, 2014

Garden Visit: Larry Rettig's Historic South Amana Gardens

One of the gardens that I have wanted to visit for some time is that of Larry Rettig, a gardener living in South Amana, Iowa, who I first became aware of through his columns on Dave's Garden. I was quite excited to learn that he had published a book about Amana Gardening and his own garden last year, and I immediately requested that our local public library purchase it, so that it would be available for residents to read. (I reviewed his book in one of my posts last winter.)

In his book, Larry insisted that he is happy to give tours of his garden to interested visitors upon request, so I emailed him at the address he provided in the book and I finally got to see his gardens last weekend!

Larry lives in South Amana, one of the seven villages of the Amanas, a fascinating communal order founded in 1856 that continued until the 1930s, and the villages of which are now a National Historic Landmark. He and his wife, Wilma, live in the brick house built in 1900 that Wilma was born in. 

Wilma's mother maintained a large vegetable garden that Wilma's grandfather established at least a century ago, as well as several ornamental beds that she established in the 1940s, after the communal order (which forbid ornamental gardens) was disbanded and became a for-profit corporation.

Because of its historic status, the garden is listed in the Smithsonian's Archives of American Gardens, one of only around a dozen in the state of Iowa to be included.

Larry and Wilma still maintain the large vegetable garden, which they use to save seeds for a seed bank of historical Amana/German heirloom vegetable varieties, as well as for vegetables for their own table. But they have vastly expanded the ornamental areas (and purchased an adjacent cottage and attached land to further expand the physical boundaries of the garden as well), and Larry has collected many rare species as well as common plants. 

Here are some photos I took on my visit:

The side of the brick house that Larry and Wilma live in, immediately adjacent to the driveway. There are a number of vines growing on the old-style trellis that most houses in Amana used for productively growing grapes, as well as some rare species petunias that Larry received seeds for from a plant explorer whom he knows.

The lath house that houses a bench and numerous potted tropical plants that must be moved inside during
winter. He has a total of nearly 200(!) pots that he waters, cares for and moves outdoors and indoors
in spring and autumn.

The historic ornamental garden bed that Wilma's mother laid out in the 1940s. The 'Annabelle' hydrangeas are the original plants that were planted in the 1940s and still survive and thrive in this location. I had no idea that this variety was that old (here's an interesting link to its history).

A birdbath that Larry found in a dumpster and imaginatively filled with plants
 that resemble a spouting fountain and water running over the sides. Very clever!

The adjacent cottage property that Larry and Wilma bought and restored. The cottage had originally been used as the communal child care facility (because the community women worked during the day gardening and cooking for the commune). The fence was copied to match the original fence and beds both inside and outside it are filled with cottage-style plants. 

The Little Free Library that Larry and Wilma have made out of a display cart that they owned, along a footpath that runs through the village.

A mimosa tree that is actually growing in the ground here in Iowa.
This south-facing bed is evidently protected enough to allow it to survive
even last year's terrible winter, and there is also a much larger crepe myrtle tree
a few feet away. Hoorray for micro-climates!

A long perennial bed that runs along the orchard.

The grassy lawn to the right of the last photo, where the Rettigs have hosted several weddings. Larry and his father built the trellised screen house in the corner in 1990.

The part of their vegetable garden that is devoted to seed saving for their historic
heirloom seed bank.

An apple tree of unknown variety that is apparently grown from a cutting taken from an
old apple tree that was proven to have been planted by Johnny Appleseed himself.
The one apple in the photo is the first this tree has ever borne!

A whimsical tree face, with a little tree gnome peeking out of a "window"
 in his tree house.

Larry thinks these lush-looking ferns are probably as old as the house, as it was
common to dig them out of the woods and plant them on the north sides of houses
at the time the house was built, around the year 1900.

A Chinese Seven-Son Flower tree (Heptacodium miconioides). This is Larry's second
of these trees (the base of the trunk of his first one can be seen behind this tree
-- he had to cut it down when it died of a mysterious ailment that not even
horticultural specialists could diagnose).

Larry and Wilma's gardens are planted with a mix of rarities brought back from plant-hunting expeditions and many common historic plants that would have been grown in an Amana garden a century ago. Touring his gardens was a lovely experience and I learned much about growing both the rarities and the more common plants here in Iowa. I highly recommend visiting him yourself if you are in southeast Iowa (you can contact me using the "Email Me" button at right, and I can put you in touch with him if you are interested).

Many thanks to Larry for taking the time to show us around his beautiful gardens!  -Beth


  1. What a neat garden, Beth! Thanks for sharing. I now have hope that I can grow a crepe myrtle someday... :)

    1. Thanks so much for reading, Beth. I hope you will have success with your crepe myrtle -- I planted a hardi(er) camellia next to my house this year. We gardeners have to take our little gambles to see what will pay off! :-)

  2. A really interesting post Beth... we drive through the Amanas at least once a year but I'm not certain which property this is... will have to keep my eyes open and see if I can recognize it! Larry

    1. I'm glad you liked the post, Larry -- and I hope you will be able to find the garden on your next drive through the area (it's in the NW part of the small village of South Amana). Thanks for reading! -Beth