A few years ago a book was published by Timber Press — "Design in the Plant Collector's Garden: From Chaos to Beauty" — that was geared to helping folks turn mere collections of plants into gardens. The danger of being a connoisseur of, say, garden conifers, is that it's very easy to have lots of land, lots of wonderful plants and still wind up without a garden.
To be honest, that was my fear about our recent trip to Iowa with the Wisconsin Hardy Plant Society. I envisioned seeing amazing plants — which I did — but less than inspirational gardens, which was far from the case. Regardless of the size, shape or location of each garden, the owners had created personal spaces that expressed their passion in individual ways.
If there was one thing that was consistent from garden to garden, it was the use of contrast. The contrast of turf grass against planted areas, of deciduous trees and shrubs against evergreens. Even the conifers themselves offered contrasts of color, texture, form and size.
Though conifers were the specialty of these gardens, none of the gardeners limited themselves only to that genre, so there were alpines, herbs, perennials, and ornamental grasses as well. And everywhere there were trough gardens whose size, shape and plantings can only be termed inspirational. These gardens included lots of personal details: the Iowa mascot, buried cars, miniature buildings, full size sheds, gates, gazebos, shared and secret spaces.
When visiting gardens, Mark and I tend to look for the "Big Idea": the concept that defines a garden. Here's our picks for the big ideas we found in the six private gardens we visited.
SHE SAID: Gary Whittenbaugh's Fran Mara Garden (Oelwein, Iowa) proved that lack of space needn't mean lack of diversity or lack of plants. Every inch was crammed full and not just with miniatures. But a system of paths and edging kept everything looking crisp as well as giving order and direction to the garden.
HE SAID: What I found especially interesting about Gary's garden were the ways he projected his garden into the neighboring spaces, both literally and by suggestion. By breaking up the actual property line he was able to avoid much of the claustrophobia that one experiences in many small heavily cultivated urban gardens.
Diane Dave (Independence, Iowa) offered the fascinating array of conifers found in all the gardens we visited on this trip. And she had a great gazebo (from a kit). But what I noticed in particular were the hard materials used to create paths and steps in this multi-level garden. Diane also had the best rock of the trip, this patinated piece plunked in the front garden.
HE SAID: I loved the contrast between the open, minimal design of the approach to the house and the way the "garden" wrapped around the house itself. Aside from a small bed at the road, which suggests what lies in wait at the end of the walk, Diane resisted the temptation to add "interest" to the large space between the road and the house. Linda and I even questioned the wisdom of that small bed, figuring let it all be a surprise.
Perhaps it's not surprising that Dennis Hermsen's garden (Farley, Iowa) contained some of the standout conifer combinations and contrasts of the trip. After all, he is a propagator with a big nursery on site (yes, I succumbed and bought a Picea orientalis 'Barnes'). The Hermsen garden also offered us the ability to see mature specimens as well as how these plants stand up to the forces of nature — especially wind — on the open prairie.
Purple barberries function as sentinels in a bed of yellow "Mother Lode" juniper backed by a weeping white pine.
HE SAID: Demonstration gardens at a nursery are didactic by definition, but Dennis clearly made an effort to make each of his island beds a unique composition. That being said, I still preferred the more complex plantings near the house. I am far from being a connoisseur of garden conifers, but from the reactions of others on the trip I gathered that his is a very important private collection.
Jeff and Lora Rathje's garden (Long Grove, Iowa) was all about layers, from the tree canopy to people-sized structures to ground covers. All of it tied together with turf grass. But not just grass; this was a lawn nicely designed into the garden to make it fit in with its suburban neighbors. This was clearly a plantsman's garden (Jeff is also a nurseryman) but it was about restraint and editing as well.
HE SAID: I probably felt most "at home" in this garden because of the wonderful way they used paths to define the garden space. I can imagine Jeff and Lora, much like Linda and I, taking their daily stroll through all the open and hidden regions of the garden — a beautiful private universe.
Randy Dykstra's garden — along with his on-site Heartland Nursery (Fulton, Iowa) — featured a personal palette of plants as well as garden sculptures created by Dykstra. Like Whittenbaugh's garden, the property was packed but there were open areas of breathing space as well.
HE SAID: Randy has some spectacular plants, but it was his use of found and made objects that pleased my aesthetic sense the most. From the Mustang hood to the Japanese lantern on a stone pillar, he was able to add objects that were quirky without being overly intrusive. I thought this subtle water source was a particularly nice example of his use of natural materials.
Dave Horst's garden was all about scale, how to incorporate everything from a miniature rock garden plant to mature conifers in a space with some very disconcerting elements. How do you compete with the Mississippi River and ominous black railroad tank cars?
HE SAID: I thought that Dave's site was clearly the most challenging of those we visited on our tour: a steeply sloped property of open turf backed by a straight line of dense trees, all facing a jarring mixture of big nature and big industry. His is probably the youngest garden we saw, but it already shows great promise. I was especially struck by the way Dave has been able to tie new elements to the existing ones. It would be easy, I think, to have elements appear to "float" in this fascinating space.