I’ve had the honor of attending three of Jan Riggenbach’s lectures in the last few years. A regular contributor for the Omaha World Herald, author of Your Midwest Garden and all out garden-guru, she continues to impress with her breath of knowledge.
Last year, I heard her speak at the West Pottawattamie Master Gardener’s Spring Garden Conference. Her presentation focused on “Show-Off Plants for Every Month.” For example, in the month of April, she advises to look for large white trillium, rue anemone, cape daisy, guinea-hen flower and blue shadow forthergilla in our landscapes.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Jan for the purpose of this blog. So, without further ado.. we will dig into the questions.
Q: Jan – Tell us a little about your story and your love for gardening.
I had my own small garden plot by age 7. Even though I didn’t really know what I was doing, I had some early successes that helped make gardening my lifelong passion.
Q: Have you always lived in the Midwest?
My early garden efforts were in Missouri. The first 10 years of my married life were spent in arid New Mexico where we couldn’t afford the water needed for a successful garden. When we moved back to the Midwest, I was thrilled to get back to growing plants of all kinds. After a few years with a city garden in Omaha, our space was too small for my garden plants, my husband’s trees, AND my kids’ playground, so we moved to an acreage in southwest Iowa where we lived and planted for almost 40 years.
Q: What inspired to become an author in the gardening space?
My husband Don is the trained writer in the family, while I was a biologist with a gardening hobby. Don used to bring garden questions home to me from his work partners. It was in the seventies when there was a back-to-the-land movement and many people were trying to garden for the first time. He convinced me there was a need for a syndicated newspaper column tailored for Midwest gardeners. I wrote some samples and mailed them off to newspapers and right away had some contracts. At the time, I had three young children and it was an ideal job where I could work from home. I never dreamed it would be so much fun that I’d still be writing that column (“Midwest Gardening”) 45 years later. My column appears weekly in the Omaha World-Herald, Chicago Daily Herald, Sioux City Journal, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Peoria Journal Star, and Fort Dodge Messenger. I also spent 22 years as feature writer and garden columnist for Midwest Living magazine.
Q: How many books have you published and what are their titles? Where else can we find your work?
I am the author of “Midwest Gardener’s Handbook” and “Your Midwest Garden: An Owner’s Manual.” I also coauthored “Ortho’s All About Perennials” and was the plant writer for “HGTV Landscape Makeovers.” In addition, I wrote chapters for books published by Sunset Books and Meredith Books.
Q: How do you plan out your landscaping, do you create a master plan or wing it?
I think I’m like the majority of gardeners, who find a plant they just have to have and then find a place to plant it. I also enjoy researching to find plants to fit particular sites. Thanks to the excavation and subsequent grading when we built our new city house, for example, I now have some tough sites like the shady spot with clay soil where water stands, and a hot, sunbaked berm with sandy soil. Numerous walnut trees that produce their toxic juglone are another interesting challenge that requires some research and planning.
Q: I’ve heard you speak about vines in the past, what are your favorite vine mixes for your trellis?
Two vines intermixing are always better than one, so something is always happening on your fence or trellis. A clematis with a climbing rose is a classic combo. My favorite at my new house is the apricot climbing rose Above and Beyond planted with the Kinztley’s Ghost honeysuckle, which has yellow flowers followed by long-lasting, silver bracts.
Q: I’m into cut flowers, what are your top five flowers for a cutting garden?
My favorite filler for bouquets is the blue-leaf arctic willow, which grew bigger than predicted and so must be regularly pruned anyway. Its branches are beautiful and long-lasting. I often let dill self-seed so I have plenty of its airy flowers for bouquets. A few other favorites: cleome, Gravetye Giant summer snowflake, coneflowers, and irises of all kinds.
Q: What are a few good perennials for beginner gardeners?
Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’
Phlox paniculata ‘Bright Eyes’
Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Denim ‘n Lace’
Nepeta faassenii ‘Cat’s Meow’
Q: What is your favorite perennial to divide and share with friends?
Prairie smoke. This native is early to bloom, followed by attractive and long-lasting seed heads. It makes a wonderful living groundcover between other perennials.
Q: Do you keep a garden journal?
I use a 3-ring binder, with a section for each type of plant (woody plants, vegetables, flowers, fruits, etc.) where I record every plant. The most important section, though, is “Plans.” There I keep running lists of all the plants I want to add. Sometimes it takes a while to find them. I also write down techniques I want to try and jobs that I need to remember to do in the proper season.
Q: How can someone get in touch with you?
Best bet is through my website: www.midwestgardening.com
A huge thank you Jan for agreeing to do this wonderful interview for The Blooming Farmhouse.
Meet Jan Riggenbach in person at the West Pottawattamie Spring Garden Conference on Saturday, March 30, 2019. Find more information and a link to register here.
I am a proud owner of a copy of Your Midwest Garden and also purchased the book for my grandma to enjoy as well. In the book she discusses annuals, perennials, wildflowers, bulbs, shrubs, vines, vegetables, fruits and herbs for midwest gardeners. It is definitely a must-have for any Midwest gardener.
Have you been reading Jan’s articles in the paper for years? Show Jan some love in the comments!