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Gardening in Iowa

July 15, 2010

One wouldn’t think it should be particularly difficult to create and maintain a beautiful garden in the upper Midwest, but one would be wrong. It IS difficult. What plants can tolerate temperature extremes from -37 F to 105F? Bone chilling cold, ice, wet snow, fog, high winds, thunderstorms, torrential rains, and unbelievable summer humidity? Blazing sun, to days on end of cloud cover; you just never know what you’re going to get with the weather up here. And yet…

Sometimes it just snows and snows in Iowa. It’s beautiful too, and I love it.

Prairie flowers are tough and beautiful, and they just don’t care about difficult weather conditions. And Iowa’s woodland flowers are just as tough, provided they have a woodland environment and aren’t foolishly planted in the hot blazing sun. But what of the others—the exotics, the domestics, the unusual cultivars, the tropicals? Well, they can also be grown here as long as they have a wintering place inside. In the summer I have Spanish Moss out back, along with bromeliads of several types, begonias, Wandering Jew, passionflower, Mandeville vine, hibiscus, and even a banana tree. In fact, I have a gigantic Elephant Ear taro that comes up every year beside my goldfish pond; the top freezes out but the roots manage to survive underground on the south side of the house adjacent to the goldfish pond, which I heat and cover for the winter. These Tropicals absolutely love the humidity, heat, and rain of Iowa’s summers and can really thrive if thoughtfully placed. Sometimes I plunk them right into the garden soil, other times I leave them in the pot and bury the pot, and for those I really want to keep, a big ceramic pot holds them in a place of honor somewhere mixed in with the coneflowers, bergamot, lilies, hastas, hybrid rhododendrons, and all the other things that just live no matter what. I’ve been occasionally bemused by the survival of geraniums and annual salvia, buried by the fall leaves and a thick coat of snow for insulation, new leaves poking out tentatively in May from what I thought was a dead stem. So, you just never know. And I sometimes wonder, for those plants which flower and go to seed in my garden, could there be a chance mutation or adaptation that allows the offspring to somehow be more resistant to adverse weather conditions? Every spring hundreds of Impatiens come up all over the garden from seed wintered over from last year’s annuals – they’re tougher than you might think.

A carefully tended Iowa garden in July.

A couple of years ago I went to the Chelsea Flower Show in London, something I had always wanted to do. The show was amazing, as the Brits DO like their flowers; but the most amazing garden we saw was a Purple Garden. The designer picked only plants and trees with purple coloration for it, like Purple Beech, Purple Smoke Bush, Purple Weeping Birch; and then filled in with all sorts of annuals and perennials of various purple shades underneath.

So…..we decided to make one in our small back yard when we got home, knowing that it would take a lot of thought. We picked a small area off the patio where we placed as the main focus a Copper Beech tree – a lighter toned version of the Purple Beech; one doesn’t see many Beech trees in Iowa, but they do perfectly well here; ours was purchased at Iowa City Landscaping, along with a Tri-Color Beech which has done extremely well also. On the other end we placed a Dwarf Blue Spruce, figuring it was purple enough, and then began experimenting. Coleus proved to be a good choice, along with some varieties of New Guinea Impatiens. A clump of Little Blue Stem grass added more blue contrast, along with Purple Fountain Grass, Wandering Jew, some Begonia hybrids, Black Taro, and Coral Bells. We found a Purple Joe Pye Weed that proved to be not so purple, so had to get rid of it. Eventually we found a “black” Elderberry bush which has proven to be perfect, along with an annual purple Basil which self-seeds all over the place, and purple sweet potato vines. In the Fall I placed various bulbs to get early color, as The Purple Garden tends to mature in mid July.

The Purple Garden, September 2009. With pumpkins added.

Every year The Purple Garden is different, and every year it is the last thing to really catch the eye, but it adds tremendous interest and depth to what would otherwise be a much less interesting sea of green in the typical mid-summer Iowa garden— blooming Coneflowers, Black-Eyed Susans, Bee Balm, and Phlox notwithstanding!

A different view of The Purple Garden. The coleus are beautiful, though the purple undersides of the leaves showed only when they fluttered in a breeze.

Here’s the 2010 version of the purple garden.

I think the reason the purple garden works so well is that purple foliage creates such a fantastic backdrop or foreground for other things going on in the garden. Try it sometime and think of it as an ever-changing piece of artwork. It’s a great palette upon which to experiment and be creative. In 2011 I’ll be doing away with it though, because I’m now tired of it. 🙂 I will have patches of purple in various places in the background, along with tons of tulips. The Purple Garden will be, I think, a sea of red Salvia and wandering Jew instead.

Now, here’s another cool idea I came up with in the summer of 2010. It all started with my son’s wedding in the back garden, and I was trying to find a way to separate the driveway from the patio where the ceremony would occur. I had already planted an Autumn Clematis on the main fence, then added some trellises for them to climb over to, but they didn’t provide quite enough screening effect to suit me by the time the wedding was about to happen. So…. I asked the florist to find a red synthetic gossamer fabric that would be light and inexpensive and resist the effects of rain and sun; she just happened to have such a thing on hand. I wove it through the trellis with her help and trailed it on through the Impatiens in the garden, and now look at this! It is really beautiful, and a marvelous idea for all summer. I will try it again next year with a different color of fabric. It is a neat and easy idea to apply anyplace you need a splash of color and/or some privacy!

Another interesting idea is a poison garden. Ha! Gotcha! It’s really a medicinal or herbal garden, but it COULD be a poison garden – a veritable witch’s brew! There is a great book called Wicked Plants that is a must for those interested in what sorts of plants contain harmful compounds. Most of these compounds were the original sources of a number of modern-day medications used regularly in hospitals and pharmacies. The problem is, of course, that any unsuspecting person can accidentally poison themselves with such plants. The funny thing is that as I read the book, I realized that nearly EVERYTHING in my ornamental garden was already poisonous! The Rhododendrons, Azaleas, and Daphne are particularly dangerous, along with the Digitalis, all parts of the Lilies, and the Tulip Bulbs, for starters. And it gets worse! Monkshood, a very common flower in Iowa gardens is terribly dangerous, as is Castor Bean and Trumpet Flower (a form of the Jimson Weed). Anyway, you get the idea. It’s not a bad idea to know these things.

From → The Garden

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