Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Book Review: "Refresh Your Garden Design with Color, Texture & Form" by Rebecca Sweet

"Refresh Your Garden Design with Color, Texture & Form" by Rebecca Sweet was published late in 2013, but my library didn't receive it until last month. It actually turned out to be good timing for me though, as winter is the best time to think about making changes in your garden, so there is plenty of time to think things through before spring comes.

And Sweet, a garden designer in Northern California, has many helpful suggestions for gardeners to think about:

Her first chapter deals with seeing what's in your garden, something that most gardeners might think they do already, but actually have trouble doing. It's hard for us to look at something we see every day and notice problem spots that could be improved. Things like gaps where plants have died (we may still think of a spot as "belonging" to the plant that died so we haven't planted something else there); eyesores such as utility boxes, garbage cans or an unattractive structure in our neighbor's yard; or clashing colors between neighboring plants.

The best way to really see our gardens, according to Sweet, is take photos of every area and study them dispassionately, like a disinterested outsider. It's amazing what we can see in photos that we can't see in person. Also, another trick is to use photo editing software to make our photos black and white, so that we aren't distracted by colors, and we can focus on shapes and textures in garden areas. And using a marker to draw on photos can help us visualize new plant shapes in place. This first chapter is probably the most useful in the whole book.
This series of photos from the book shows how black and white photos can reveal a lack of contrasting textures,
especially in the first pair of photos.

The second chapter focuses on color theory, covering adjacent, complementary, split-complementary and monochromatic color schemes in the garden, using a color wheel and garden photos for illustration.

The third chapter shows how different textures can be used to create interest in the garden. This is where the black and white photos really help, and the book shows examples of garden areas in which too many plants of the same texture used together can be boring, despite the differing colors of those plants or leaves. A helpful tip for me in this section was to use bright yellow and chartreuse leaf colors to lighten up shady areas, but to use a higher ratio of fine textures to bold to keep those darker areas looking open and airy. I think I will use this strategy when working on my border against the north side of my house, which is currently shady and formless. A bit of leaf sunshine might be just the answer for this spot.

An example of the textured garden that Sweet advocates.

The last instruction chapter covers form, showing how including different shapes can take a garden area from bland to interesting. Sweet includes photos that demonstrate how the addition of a few spiky-shaped or tall plants can add life to a monotonous garden bed. She also discusses how to balance the visual weight of plants, and how triangular placement of plants adds continuity and visual depth to the garden.

A final chapter provides an annotated and illustrated list of about 80 recommended annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs. 42 of the 71 perennials she suggests are hardy in my Zone 5 garden, which I suppose isn't terrible, considering that the author gardens in California. However, most of the plants lean toward being foliage plants, which this flower lover finds somewhat joyless.

All foliage and few flowers. I do like the bright golden color of the sedum in the bottom right corner, and there is a
rhododendron at top left, which is beautiful.

I understand that every garden needs what she calls "workhorse" plants, which serve as structural plants for most of the year. And the book is about adding color, texture and form to our gardens, not about flower gardening. But I still couldn't help feeling that there just weren't enough flowers in this book, either in her suggested plants or the garden photographs. The book had many hints that will help me in addressing my shady north-facing border, but in my sunnier areas I want more blooms. Perhaps one day when I'm a more mature gardener, I will value foliage over the fleeting loveliness of blossoms, but I haven't reached that stage yet.

Who's afraid of color and flowers? Perhaps what I love is simply out of style these days. This is one of only a couple of photos shown in the book that really wowed me. (And it was given only as an example of complementary colors.)

But this is simply a matter of my personal taste in gardens, not a reflection on the effectiveness of this book. All in all, it's a very helpful book. Gardeners who feel a nagging dissatisfaction with their gardens but can't quite figure out what can be done to improve them should start by reading "Refresh Your Garden Design." It will provide many answers.

(Please note: I am out of town this week and have pre-scheduled this post. I won't be able to respond to any comments until I return. Thanks for reading!)

Friday, February 21, 2014

Fertilizer Friday: February 21

It's again Fertilizer Friday at, and although I've again been hard-pressed to find any flowers around my house this week, I'll do my best:

A strange hibiscus that I've had for some years now:
The flowers were all red at first, but then these yellow
and red ones started blooming after a few years.
They must be from the root stock, but I think
it makes the plant so much more interesting that I
haven't tried to remove the root growth.

Here's one of the red flowers, a couple days after the yellow one bloomed.
You can see the faded yellow one at top right still on the plant.

My husband's mother gave all the women in her
family paperwhite bulbs for Christmas. I'd read
that the smell was off-putting, but these actually
don't smell too strongly and I kind of like them.
This ends the real flowers section of this post.

Desperate for other flowers to include, I remembered the
pipe cleaner flowers that my daughter made last year.
Here's one bouquet...

...and here's another. They may not be real, but I've found that
they're actually a good enough substitute to get me through
the winter without buying cut flowers.

One more of real flowers, outside, so we'll remember how lovely
spring will be when it arrives. 

We'll be in Florida all next week, so I may not post again for a bit, but I'll try to have some good photos of Disneyworld flowers when I return. Happy Fertilizer Friday!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Are Gardens Art? (A Rambling Discourse on Philosophy of Gardens)

Chloris at "The Blooming Garden" asks a question that a number of other (mostly English) gardeners have asked in the past few years: Is Gardening an Art Form?

My immediate answer was: of course! At their highest level, gardens certainly must be art. What gardener hasn't stood in a beautifully composed garden and marveled at the skill and artistic vision of the gardener who made it?

But it's true that gardening is different than the traditional arts recognized by philosophers: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Music and Poetry; as Chloris mentions.

Google tells me that art is:   
"the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power" (my bold)
Some gardens might indeed meet this definition. But perhaps "primarily for their beauty or emotional power" is not often met, since most gardens have a practical design purpose.

Wikipedia says:
"in modern usage the fine arts, where aesthetic considerations are paramount, are distinguished from acquired skills in general, such as the decorative or applied arts." which are: "industrial designgraphic designfashion designinterior design and the decorative arts ... (and) architecture and photography."
Perhaps gardening is a decorative or applied art? Architecture, interior design and garden design all try to solve problems of space, making a place both more functional and more beautiful.

A few thoughts:

Some reasons that gardening should NOT be considered an art:
  1. Gardening is usually not intended as an artistic expression. In order for something to be art, it must be intended as such. Most people garden for other reasons: to grow vegetables, to collect rare species, to beautify our surroundings, to solve design problems with our yards, to have flowers for our tables and our souls, to mimic the gardens of people we admire so as to mimic their "lifestyle".
  2. Gardens are temporary and rarely outlast the gardener.
  3. Gardens are always changing and don't look the same from one day to the next. How can they be art if they're never the same, or what was intended?
  4. Gardening is a skill, like architecture is a skill. Although some architecture might be considered art, architecture is a licensed profession that serves a practical purpose (can architecture be art if the roof leaks or the building collapses, killing people?). Most architecture results in office buildings and big-box stores, not great artistic statements.
  5. Gardens provide a use: they are usually a setting for something, such as a house or public building, or they provide a pleasant space for a homeowner or public garden/park visitor.
  6. Plants do not always (or even often) cooperate with the gardener, growing in the ways intended by the gardener. Plants grow of their own accord, not because we make them (although we have improved many plants to be more floriferous, hardier and more disease-resistant). But if we don't control our medium, how can we be artists?
  7. Art should be recognized as art apart from any knowledge of the artist. But would we admire Sissinghurst so greatly if we didn't know the romantic story of Vita Sackville-West? What about Pearl Fryar's topiary garden in South Carolina -- how can we fully appreciate his fantastic and improbable garden without understanding his humble life?

    Pearl Fryar's topiary garden in Bishopville, SC (wikipedia)
  8. Gardening, like interior design, is subject to trends and fashions, and many gardeners simply want to have a fashionable garden surrounding their fashionable house, so that others will admire their taste.
  9. Most gardens of merit are "inspired by" (or have set pieces directly copied from) other gardens. Many beautiful gardens have White Gardens (including mine), double herbaceous borders and formal boxwood-edged beds. Are these arrangements simply standard "materials" of gardens, or are they derivative design? And does art need to be original for it to be art?
  10. Many gardens are meant to mimic nature, and nature is not art, because it is not designed and executed by the human hand.
  11. Yet other gardens are made to show that we can conquer nature. Is this "reactionary art," or are we simply improving our surroundings?
  12. Just because something is beautiful or inspiring, doesn't mean it is art.
  13. Do gardens inspire real feelings like art, or simply admiration of skill or joy at the beauty of living plants?
  14. Do gardens express and widely communicate the ideas or feelings of the gardener? Or are they simply beautiful plant-filled places that we enjoy?

Reasons that gardening SHOULD be considered an art form:
  1. Gardening uses, as Chloris mentions, the same artistic principles of colour, shape, texture and form.
  2. Just because something is just a hobby for most people doesn't mean it can't be art for some people.
  3. Yes, gardens change over time, but so does much art: Paintings degrade and lose their color; so do sculptures -- ancient Greek sculptures were often brightly painted when they were made, but are they not considered art simply because their appearance has changed over time (a lot longer time)?
    Is this not art, even though it appears
    different to us today than it did when
    it was first created?
    Winged Victory of Samothrace
    (flickr, jay8085)
  4. Gardens may not be permanent, but what art truly is? Ikebana (what we call "the Japanese art of flower arranging" but what apparently really means "flowers kept alive"), developed as a Buddhist expression of the beauty of nature and is clearly considered by many to be an art. And would a beautiful sculpture in ice be considered art, or would it have to be made of stone to count? What about paper mache or another more temporary medium? As long as a garden is documented in books and photos, the ideas and feelings behind it can still be accessed by others long after the garden and the gardener are gone.
    Is this art? Many think so. (wikipedia)
  5. Few gardeners can make a great garden; it takes horticultural and artistic skill (and not a little money and time), just as few artists can make great art, which takes talent, technical skill and artistic vision (and time and money to develop skill).
  6. Gardens, like art, have been used for sacred purpose, just as art has. An arrangement of trees or rocks was a sacred thing and meant something to pagans thousands of years ago, as well as in eastern art more recently.
    Ancient yew tree at St. George's Church,
    Wiltshire. (, Miss Steel)
  7. We don't make gardens simply for their utility. Growing plants in a creative arrangement that expresses our idea of beauty is something more than simply growing vegetables to eat them or maintaining a lawn and plantings for the value of our houses. 
  8. Other cultures have considered gardening to be the highest of arts: Japan and Islamic cultures, to name two.
  9. So many artists have also been gardeners that the two must surely be related, at the very least.
    Great artists, great gardens.
    How could this be anything but art?
    Monet himself said: “My garden is
    my most beautiful masterpiece.”
    (Claude Monet in his garden, 1922.)
  10. There are certainly styles of gardens, just as there are styles of art, and both follow trends.
  11. Art moves people to feel something, and great gardens do this too. They at least inspire feelings of what is good and noble in humanity and nature.
  12. Does this not inspire us to nobler thoughts and deeds?
    Nishat Bagh Mughal Gardens, India (wikipedia)

  13. I would wager that the majority of humans, upon seeing a garden such as Giverny or Nishat Bagh, would recognize it as art, even if some philosophers don't. Doesn't that make it art?
In the end, does it matter if some philosophers don't consider gardens to be art? To what end would that help gardening or make gardeners feel more respected? If a number of influential gardeners decide that gardening is an art and develop standards with which to judge it artistically (as some are), then perhaps that means some gardens are art, albeit a distinctly different kind than painting or poetry. Perhaps the highest of the arts.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Dreaming of Spring and the MOBOT

Hi-Ho, still February here in Iowa. But my thoughts are turning to the visits my husband and I take once or twice each year to visit friends in St. Louis, where, if the spring weather permits, we always try to see the incredibly beautiful gardens at the Missouri Botanical Gardens (the MOBOT). The first time we visited there was in spring 2010, and we were astounded at the magnificent Japanese garden and other garden areas.

Here are a few photos, so you too can enjoy their beauty:

Like I mentioned, the Japanese Garden, one of the the largest in the US,
is of such stunning beauty that even snapshots look like art.

My husband in the stripes, and our good friend, Eric, under a flowering cherry tree. The petals were wafting down like pink snow and it was truly magical.

Azaleas and water lilies.

Magnificent azaleas and rhododendrons (I can never tell them apart since I can hardly grow either very well here in Iowa). This photo doesn't do justice to the profusion of giant neon domes set in perfectly raked white gravel.

One of the more restrained garden areas. What a sunny spring day!

The Moorish walled garden inside the Temperate House, one of the MOBOT's three conservatories.

A lovely tulip display

Another spring annual display of purple tulips and pansies, backed by azaleas (I think).
I can't highly enough recommend driving down in mid-to-late April (depending on how early spring comes) to see these beautiful spring gardens. The MOBOT has numerous garden areas: Chinese, Ottoman, Bavarian and English woodland gardens; Iris, Hosta, Daylily and Rose gardens; Victorian and Maze gardens; and demonstration Vegetable, Fruit, Fragrance, Bird, Butterfly and Children's gardens.

Also known as Shaw's Garden, named after the merchant who established them in the 1850s, the gardens have an illustrious history (documented in this fascinating book), they maintain a great website that includes a plant information guide for cultivars that grow well in the Midwest, and are without doubt the most beautiful gardens within driving distance of Iowa. I can't wait to see them again this spring!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Fertilizer Friday: February 14

So, I'm joining the "Fertilizer Friday" group at for their weekly sharing of flower photos (which has nothing directly to do with fertilizer, apparently, only flowers). But it looks like fun, so I'll give it a go.

Since it's February, I don't have anything flowering in my gardens, but I took look around my house and found some (almost) blooms:

My dill plant is just about blooming. Not very showy
flowers, to be sure, but they did smell pretty good!

I'm not even sure whether these are blooms or some other
part of the cactus (or whatever cactus-like plants these
were that Wal-Mart sold me for $1 each several years ago).
But they are colorful things on top of a green, stem-like part
of a plant, so perhaps they could count as "flowers"?

OK, so I'm getting a bit desperate here.
My 10-year-old daughter made this from
an origami kit she received for Christmas,
 and I thought it was quite pretty.
So I'll resort to last year's flower photos. I bought all
these snapdragons (4 flats) at an Amish flower auction
last spring. They were so beautiful and bloomed all over
my yard until several frosts shut them down in November.
They may reseed this spring, however. I'll keep my eyes out....
And one more: blue hyacinths from last April.
I can't wait for spring again!
Happy Fertilizer Friday!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Yep, still winter....

More snow the other day -- it is still February, after all; we're lucky it's not much worse. Here are a few white-on-white photos of our yard, which look interesting because of their graphic quality:

The garden shed and gazebo. The pond is actually
under the snow on the far left, not that you'd guess....

The herb garden, snowed under. The hedges outlining
the formal beds are completely hidden (which I hope
means the boxwoods will have enough snow cover
to survive our severe cold temperatures....

 White house, white snow, white sky.
(There's still a blue sky on our porch ceiling.)

The rainbow border, no rainbow colors today.

Brrr! Only a short "outside kitty adventure" this time.

I hope everyone is keeping warm inside, while reading garden catalogs and dreaming of spring -- only 34 days till March 21st!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Book Review: "Plantiful" by Kristin Green

Plantiful? Or INVASIVE? (...cue sinister music.)
"Plantiful" by Kristin Green was just published at the end of January by Timber Press, and already I've gotten to read it (I love it when my local library is able to purchase books right away, not after months of waiting, since reviews are not nearly as helpful later on).

But it's a book that, despite its usefulness, I'm a bit surprised was ever published at all, due to the controversy over plants that spread, which some people confuse with genuinely invasive plants.

The premise of the book is that to make gardening easier, cheaper and more serendipitous, we should grow plants that are bountiful and exuberant in their nature: plants that self-seed and spread generously of their own accord. In this way, gardeners can save money by buying fewer plants and have a garden that fills in quickly.

Uh-Oh, I hear gardeners everywhere chiming in together. Doesn't that mean the author is telling unknowing new gardeners to plant INVASIVE species? No, in fact she spends a section of the book addressing that question:
  1. Not all aggressive or weedy plants are invasive.
  2. Not all invasive plants are invasive everywhere.
  3. The term "invasive" should be used only for introduced species that have escaped cultivation, colonized vulnerable ecosystems or outcompeted native species, and deprive insects and birds of edible species. 
  4. The term does not apply to plants that can be fairly easily controlled within a tended garden, despite their spreading or seeding tendencies.
  5. Gardeners should consult invasive species lists for their state, as well as local extensions or master gardeners for advice about what is truly invasive and what is simply exuberant. Additionally, the author lists the states (if any) in which the plants on her lists are actually considered to be invasive.
With that in mind, Green has provided lists of:
  1. 50 self-seeding annuals and perennials and general information on seed saving and propagation from seeds.
  2. 50 spreading perennials and shrubs and general info about dividing and propagating them.
  3. 50 tender perennials that can be overwintered in cold frames, basements and indoors. 
Cleome seeds around, but
who really minds?
The first section doesn't seem controversial to me; most gardeners value the way annuals and perennials can seed themselves into spots that we would never think about or be able to purposely plant things, and our gardens are the more interesting and beautiful for it. Most, if seeded in excess, can be easily be pulled out or moved by any but the most neglectful gardener, and her list includes such cottage garden stalwarts as chives, Queen Anne's lace, milkweed, cleome, larkspur, foxgloves, columbines, California poppies, hellbores, bronze fennel, lupines, forget-me-nots, nigella, nicotiana, feverfew, mullein, and verbena bonariensis. Most gardeners love these flowers and wouldn't want to garden without them.

What's wrong with a few self-seeders? This certainly looks beautiful to me.

The second section of spreading perennials is probably what will leave some gardeners (such as the first reviewer of this book on frowning in disapproval, perhaps even gasping for breath in horror. I myself have never had problems with many of the plants on this list here in Iowa: Yarrow, Japanese anemones, mums, cranesbill geranium, lysimachia, lamium, monarda and phlox (both tall garden and creeping). However, there are undoubtedly some species on the list that have caused gardeners grief: plume poppy, lily turf, Mexican evening primrose, and even spearmint (which I still love because it's so delightful in fragrance and indispensable for julips or mojitos, although she sensibly recommends planting it in a place with natural boundaries, such as between house and sidewalk).

Spearmint: It's thuggish, but I still wouldn't be without it.
Mmmm... mohitos.
She does mention in her text (but does not include on her lists) plants that she personally doesn't have problems keeping in check but that might actually be invasive in some places: ox-eye daisies (leucanthemum vulgaris -- one of my favorite plants which I couldn't live without), lamb's ears, ajuga and borage among them.

Her lists don't include gooseneck loosestrife, physostegia, bishop's weed, comfrey, lily of the valley (which, for some reason, I can't seem to make flower or spread at all), trumpet vine or many other plants that are widely acknowledged as highly aggressive or even truly invasive.

The dreaded plume poppy.
Nevertheless, many gardeners will still be horrified at the thought that new gardeners may unknowingly plant some of the things on her lists and end up regretting the amount of time and physical labor they will spend trying to eradicate them, and there is some truth to this worry.

However, she is absolutely right that beautiful and enjoyable gardens are filled with plants that flourish and look exuberant. Should we avoid those plants and grow only species that behave themselves by not spreading or seeding?

How could I ever live without ox-eye daisies?
It seems to me that there is a continuum of species (which is different for each location and each gardener's desires, of course):
  1. Species that are prone to dying immediately and are wholly unsuited to our climate, soil and location. We will have to coddle these constantly to even get them to survive. In my opinion, a gardener who desperately wants to grow a species like this should probably either move to a place where it will grow or simply give up.
  2. Species that will survive and grow without heroic intervention but will never flower that well or look happy, because growing conditions are not quite right or the plants are generally weak in constitution.
  3. Well-behaved species or cultivars that grow well but hardly increase in size or spread seeds. If a gardener wants a carefully-controlled garden as a work of art, she should limit herself to growing these. These plants should probably also be the foundation of most gardens.
  4. Self-seeders and exuberant spreaders that delight the gardener. These pop up in unexpected places and allow serendipity to have a hand in creating our gardens. As such, many gardeners will want to include them, even though there is some additional work in keeping them from spreading "too much" (whatever each gardener's definition of that is -- it's like defining a weed). This is what "Plantiful" is about.
  5. Truly invasive species that damage natural areas, farms or other people's gardens, which should be avoided and destroyed when possible.
It's too bad that some gardeners will condemn this book outright because of their inflexible opinions and their certainty about which plants are suitable for every gardener's location and temperament. There certainly is a place for a book about deliberately and knowledgeably growing self-seeders and spreaders -- the author is indeed right that gardeners can make delightful, cost-effective gardens by including these exuberant plants.

The third section of the book covers overwintering tender perennials, which seems somewhat unrelated to the first two sections. I know her reasoning is that overwintering allows gardeners to save money by not re-purchasing frost-tender plants each year, and since she spent time in California, she undoubtedly misses growing many things now in Rhode Island. But overwintering seems to involve so much extra work to make them survive, which is unrelated to plants that grow well (perhaps too well) outside. Sure, I'd love to be able to grow rosemary and lemon verbena here, but I'm not certain that the trouble of overwintering it would be worth the money saved in not replacing it each year. But perhaps I'll give it a shot this year and see how it goes.

One of the few photos in the book showing a larger view of a garden: a path edged with chives in bloom. Beautiful.

The photos in the book are not particularly glorious, with only a few showing the larger design of gardens and most of them just closeups of listed flowers, but they suffice for the task. Her writing is certainly both knowledgeable and enthusiastic and does inspire me to try some of her ideas, while providing advice about how to go about doing it. Altogether a useful book, although one that is doomed to be condemned by gardeners suffering from invasive species hysteria.

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!