Stories from Jane’s Garden

Meet my friend Jane. Jane is an extraordinary human being. She brings light and laughter to every room and is quick to make everyone feel welcome. I had the pleasure of meeting Jane last fall through our Master Gardener program training. I felt an instant bond with her as almost everyone probably does. Our passion for gardening has made our paths cross and I look forward to many emails, messages and texts trying to solve the latest plant identification puzzle or sharing the next great gardening resource.

I asked Jane to be my first ever guest blogger and I was blown away by her story. I knew her passion for gardening ran deep but her words paint the picture of what gardening truly means to her. It’s an honor to be able to share this story with you today.

Q: Jane – Tell us a little about your story and your love for gardening.

My love for gardening is genetic—it is a legacy given to me by my beloved Grandma and Mother.  As my dear cousin, a landscape architect, says, “we can’t help it, we were born with dirt under our nails.” Gardening has been both my therapy and my gift to others.  Much preferring to help behind the scenes, I reluctantly answered Melissa’s interview request. I am not a professional nor expert.  I do, however, represent the generations of Iowa gardeners successfully “caretaking” legacy perennials.

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My Grandma, as a little girl, brought peonies, wildflowers, wild roses, and hosta in a covered wagon moving from Vinton to Guthrie Center, Iowa. Additional wildflowers were later dug from what is now Springbrook State Park near Guthrie Center. Of course, it was not then public property!  It brings me peace to see flowers in old black & white photos, then look outside and see them blooming in color today. So, you see, it is these perennials often referred to as “junk, weed, or common” perennials, that fill my heart and gardens with joy.

Truthfully, I have yet to find a hybrid perfection to match the delicate unique flowers of Dutchman’s Breeches or Bluebells of Scotland. What other flower can tell if you love butter, than a vibrant yellow buttercup held under the chin? Who has missed the childhood lessons of making redbud leaves pop, inflated the “frog throat” of a fall sedum, made purple hosta buds loudly pop, made a mint leaf whistle, or passed hot summer days creating hollyhock dolls with a toothpick?  Have you searched for the minister standing in Jack-in-the-Pulpits? Is there a more cherished bouquet in a child’s upstretched hand than spring violets, buttercups, and Wild Sweet William? On a hot summer day, have you mixed the most satisfying “mud and wild onion pie” to bake in the afternoon sun? These essential lessons of childhood are passed on in the “common” legacy gardens of Iowa.

As a newlywed, Mom brought cuttings from Grandma’s garden to her new home in Council Bluffs. Beginning in 1948 through her Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2003, mom nurtured these perennials. In Botany class, we were assigned to fill a binder with 100 wildflowers to scientifically identify. I found 75 different varieties in Mother’s backyard!   I have since moved these woodland treasures twice now to our current home. Over the years many were lost, but thankfully a drive on the Iowa backroads can once again give me glimpses. (Sadly, the new owner felt Roundup would best suit her flower beds for shrubs.)

My gardening “knowledge” comes from 60+ years surrounded by the lay wisdom of women creating spectacular, colorful patchworks of perennials, annuals, and wildflowers.  A lifetime of study combined with several horticulture courses while at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, serve as my gardening “base.” In 2016, I joined this wonderful group of ISU West Pottawattamie County Master Gardeners, to check off a bucket list item. In return, I have received university-based gardening resources, met wonderful new friends, and found new volunteer opportunities. In reality, the more I “learn”, the less I feel I know. I present myself in no way as an expert, and most certainly, none of my heritage plants “should” have survived jostling in covered wagons, car trunks, or dishpan moves. None received the precise doses of nutrients, watering, or mulch yet, hardy like Iowans bloomed anyway.  I represent the gardeners of generations passing along tips and techniques of tending mixed perennial gardens.

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Through gardening, I have learned many lessons. The first lesson which comes to mind is the intricate web between gardening, bird watching, butterflies, insects, pollinators, and ultimately, photography or art. One interest leads to the other in a predictable pattern.  Specific garden “visitors” dictate plantings required.  Plantings predict “visitors” to later arrive. You will always find, in our garden, pots of Italian parsley, dill, and basil for hungry caterpillars. If one piece is missing in this fascinating symbiotic puzzle, long time birds, butterflies, and pollinators disappear. Many long winter months can be endured with one photo capturing the tiny green frog on the Frans Hals daylily or Fritillaries covering ‘Helenium’ Salsa.  It is worth the extra effort in planting.

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Other lessons of quiet joys are taught daily in the garden.  I learned to search for and differentiate Monarch, Yellow Swallowtail, Black Swallowtail caterpillars.  I learned to rejoice for the day the purple garden phlox were fluttering bursts of butterflies.  I learned to enjoy the drone hum of bumble bees with their orange pollen “panniers” while weeding.  I learned to welcome walking sticks, praying mantis, leopard frogs, tree frogs watching my moves as gardening companions.   I learned despite the damage of tomato horn worms, I do enjoy the resulting mesmerizing dance of hummingbird moths.  I learned gardens, like life, require attention, pruning, good food, and sometimes moving.  I learned gardens have good years and bad years—sometimes withering under pest assault and other times displaying glorious, brilliant shows. Most importantly, I learned if the roots are strong, despite attack each will be reborn the next year vibrant and new.  I learned perennials remain, long after gardeners leave, blooming even when no one is watching.  And most important, perennials never envy, complain, and certainly never try to produce blooms like other varieties surrounding them.  Daisies never try to be Irises.  And one can’t expect carrots, when only lettuce seeds were planted.  We do reap what we sow—literally.

For these lessons, and more, gardening has been a lifetime comfort, experiment, exercise, and one of my favorite forms of prayer. My philosophy remains that of the famous poem “God’s Garden,” when Dorothy Frances Gurney writes:

“One is nearer to God’s heart in a garden, than anywhere else on earth.”

With my family now gone, these perennials—now over 100 years old—bring me comforting familiar scents, beauty, and “the constant” during years of loss and change. No matter what happens in life, lilies of the valley, peonies, and lilacs bloom at their appointed time. Wildflowers have their season to bloom, which never changes. We know not to expect spring ephemerals to bloom in fall. We cherish each season, but must expect it to fade and search for what will next appear.

Gardening is my link to family past, joys of today, and hope for the future. To quote the Horticulturalist, Phillip Watson,

“I may be alone in my garden. . . but I am never alone.”

Q:  How do you plan out your landscaping? Do you create a master plan or wing it?

A: Garden design, for me, has evolved with changes in soil condition, sun exposure, space, time, and injury. Currently, I have steered toward hardy, drought resistant, low maintenance perennials. I strive for three basic sequential bloom seasons, and tightly packed plantings for weed control. Other than a weekly, short deadheading, the beds have created their own ecosystems and self-sustain. I tend not to follow the planting guides for distance, desiring quick filling in for weed management.  For the butterflies and pollinators, I do restrict pesticides as much as possible. It breaks my heart seeing a praying mantis turn its head the few times I have inadvertently sprayed one with Sevin.  Due to a high water table, river bottom “soil” with a very high acid content, and rabbits, I grow vegetables and annuals in containers.

Q:  What is your favorite plant or flower and why?

A: My favorite plants would have to be according to season, each makes my heart leap a bit seeing their unique blossoms and scent of memory. As a concession to life on a golf course, I include hybrid perennials and annuals to add structure, variety, and continual color. Spring ephemerals happily survive under the deck shade with hosta varieties providing color and cover from the full sun.

Dutchman's Breeches
Dutchman’s Breeches

Spring: I admit living for first sight of crocus, scillia, hyacinths, daffodils, tulips, globe allium, and am slightly obsessed with grape hyacinth bulbs. Spring ephemerals remain my favorites, perhaps because I too fade with the heat and humidity of summer: Dutchman’s Breeches, May Apples, Jack-in–the Pulpits, Buttercups, Lilies of the Valleys, Trillium, Violets, Bleeding Hearts, Wild Sweet William, Peonies, Lilacs, Mom’s “Grape Scented” Iris, and the constant annual joy finding Mom’s Surprise lily (Naked Ladies) leaves. Such wonderful May Baskets and Memorial Day bouquets are created with these treasures.

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Achillea “Strawberry Seduction”

Summer: This season’s joys include bright yellow Butter ‘N Egg flowers, Daylilies staggered from June- September, Iris, Columbine, White & Purple Liatris, Coneflowers, ‘Becky’ and ‘Banana Cream’ Daisies, ‘Glamour Girl’ and ‘David” Summer mildew resistant Phlox, Butterfly Weed, and Penstemons. My favorite additions for 2017 include: ‘Tomato Soup’ Echinacea, ‘Millenium’ Allium, ‘Blue Marvel’ Salvia, ‘Purrsian Blue’ Nepeta, ‘Strawberry Seduction’ Achillea, ‘Blue Fortune’ Agastache, ‘Heatwave’ Agastache, ‘Golden Sphere’ Coreopsis, among others. Currently, my most reliable annuals include ‘Jolt’ Dianthus in pink and red, ‘Night Sky’ Petunia, Calibrachoa of all colors, Angelonia, Hyacinth bean vine, ‘Diamond Frost’ Euphorbia, Coleus, Dragon Wing Begonias. . . all of which proved resistant to our Japanese Beetle invasion

Helenium Salsa
Helenium “Salsa”

Fall: My favorites now include several reblooming iris, daylilies, Helenium ‘Salsa’, Heirloom mums, red burning bush, and long lasting annuals extending gardening many years until Thanksgiving. The start of school is always signaled by Purple Hosta blooms and waving pink swaths of Surprise lilies.

Q:  What is your favorite garden tool?

A:   My Top 5 garden tools remain:
1. Dynatrap – Truly has made our gardening mosquito and moth free
2. Spear Head Spade
3. Garden Hods
4. A.M. Leonard Soil Knife
5. Grandpa’s Weeder

If you have enjoyed Jane’s story please leave a comment for her. I am sure she would appreciate it. Thank you Jane! I value your friendship and gardening advice always.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Rachel S says:

    Loved reading this interview!! You two are most interesting and FUN!!

  2. Debbie Gordon says:

    Wonderfully said, Jane.
    So glad becoming a mg has proven to be a plus in your life!

  3. cheryl says:

    Wonderful story. Thanks for sharing.

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