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E-Garden Almanac: June 2008

E-Garden Almanac

The E-Garden Almanac is the push-button, real human journal of Kelly D. Norris. All errors, grammatic grievances, and opinions are that of the author. Kelly is a freelance writer and Master Gardener from southwest Iowa. His passion and obsession with horticulture, plants, and gardening embodies nearly every function of his life. The E-Garden Almanac serves as the web extension of his columns, articles, and lectures.
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Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Plant to Thrive: Opuntia humifusa

These days I become more and more adament about our need to garden with plants that will thrive, not simply survive. My love for natives resonates with such a commitment but I'm far from a purist.

But I've got one native this summer that's blowing my socks off. It's our native Eastern prickly pear cactus, found on the slopes of the Loess Hills in the western burrough of the state. My clump came from my aunt who has tended a small colony at back of her house for as long as I've been alive. It's garnered near weed status in her garden, hence the gift to me several years back when I expressed interest in growing a few myself. I was elated. A cactus that was perfectly hardy outdoors! As it turns there are a number of Opuntias that are hardy including O. fragilis and O. polyacantha. I'm growing all three now.
But it's the Eastern prickly pear cactus that has caught my favor, especially this summer when the clump has matured to a half dozen or more pads. Each is loaded with 3-5 buds and open with the sun each morning. Our form is reminiscent of lemon meringue, a clear glistening yellow that glows in the early evening just as the flowers begin to close. I'll shut up and let the photo say the rest. Now run out at find some! Despite it's marvelous qualities, this cactus is relatively sparse in the trade, not at all unlike most natives I suppose. But here are a few sources that I've found:

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Planting Passion: Part II

This week's travels began on Wednesday, June 18. I was accompanied by mom and grandma on an escapade to northeast Iowa to interview volunteers at the Dubuque Arboretum & Botanical Gardens and Dr. Eugene Coffman of Ridge Road Nursery. I've come to not expect things in life and fortunately, this trip exceeded any that I might have had.

We spent Wednesday night with iris friends Tom and Rita Gormley in Dubuque. Fellowship well into the early morning hours of Thursday caused me to reflect again on why I was pursuing this project. This book is about the interactions gardeners have that preserve the strands of our own humanity, the bonds that unite us as people of a similar cause. In our information hungry age, it is all too easy to become disconnected from the civility of human relationships.

Thursday morning began at the arboretum. I was frisked away on a golf cart by Jack Frick, President of the Dubuque Arboretum & Botanical Gardens and toured the complex interviewing I think every volunteer on site that morning. What a delightful bunch of people all with an unselfish dedication to bettering the public garden sited at Dubuque's Marshall Park. I am indebted to all who took a few minutes out of their busy day to speak with me about their convictions and passions. It was moving to know that this public garden, the only solely volunteer operated public garden in the country, is stewarded by such a knowledgeable and compassionate stead of garden shepherds. Visit them here.

Jack's tour of volunteers did not end with those in the garden though. He insisted that I speak with Jim Schwarz, hosta guru and co-founder of the arboretum. A phone call later I was on my way to Jim's residence, a hosta haven located just a mile from the arboretum, realizing that a story this good needed a chapter of its own. Arriving at Jim's home on Robin Hood Drive it was readily apparent that a plantsman lived there. Hostas burgeoned from the side yard only to reveal three acres of more hostas! Shade nets covered propagation beds of 2,700 cultivars, almost 70% of all those available! And I thought I had logistical issues with 1,500 cultivars of irises. Jim's been breeding too and has developed an entire line based on the Robin Hood Drive his home is located on. Mom, grandma, and I enjoy hostas but are by no means collectors. Yet after a visit to this place anyone would be moved to get "just a few more". We made lists. 'Praying Hands' (which Jim so kindly gave to us) and 'Gunther's Prize' were two favorites.

After leaving Jim's we had dinner with some family at Denny's Lux Cafe, a local hole in the wall that serves a tasty turkey club. After winding through downtown Dubuque and out to Highway 20, we piloted the van towards Ridge Road Nursery, just south of the city center and beyond the Luxemborg village of St. Catherine. Right off a paved road, Ridge Road Nursery is located at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Eugene Coffman, founders of the nursery now operated daily by Chris Frommelt. What fine people! "Doc" and Chris cordially welcomed us to their operation, showed us around, and treated us like aristocrats. Our conversation began on the sun porch high in the trees. I felt like someone visiting Swiss family Robinson's tree shack on a desolate island. The view was superb, stealing a vignette of the Mississippi and surrounding trees in the distance. After covering the basic history, two plantsmen delved into "plant speak", an aspect of the conversation that was probably not all that interesting to mom and grandma. My introduction to "Doc" Coffman was through his Viburnum sieboldii 'Wavecrest', an excellent and highly distinctive selection unfortunately lacking in the trade. He was kind enough to ensure that I had one to take home at the end of our trip. Other plants we exchanged words of intrigue, notes of elation, and bits of knowledge about included Magnolia sieboldii 'Colossus' (pictured) and his dwarf selection of Gymnocladus dioicus, the Kentucky coffeetree (it's like 2' tall, no kidding).

I left saying "this is why I do this" feeling affirmation in my work, in the people I'd interviewed, and in the generosity of the gardening spirit once again. Memories of these personally special moments will live on in plants like hosta 'Praying Hands' and viburnum 'Wavecrest', plants I'll pass every day and gardeners I'll know everyday thanks to their passionate commitment to spreading the goodliness of growing green things.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Planting Passion: The Story of Why Gardener's Garden

And so begins my new book, just yesterday in fact. I've begun my summer-long journey across Iowa to find out the answer to the question "Why do gardener's garden?" Iowa gardeners are as passionate a lot as any green thumbs with a connection to the land that's uniquely agrarian, chiefly due to our way of life. In knowing some of these folks throughout my life, I've found myself in their gardens and in them. Gardening after all is communal.

My travels began yesterday in Ames and took me first to Oelwein's Fran Mara Garden, the home of Gary Whittenbaugh and his brother Tom. This collection of conifers is heralded by others, and me, as one of the best in the state and the Upper Midwest. A phenomenal 300 cultivars are jam packed onto a 70 x 150 lot which has slowly annexed small portions of both neighbors lots. Gardening isn't a choice here. It's a way of life! Gary and Tom cannot be pressed to pick favorites and Gary wittingly surmises that his favorite happens to be whichever one he's standing in front of at the moment. Though not biased to any one in particular, some solicit more commentary than others.

I left Gary's garden to visit three others, all developed by his hands and brilliant knack for creative placement. He's as much an artist as he is a horticulturist but then horticulture is really just a blend of art and science, isn't it?

Today my best friend Lindsey accompanied to me Clinton where we met with Francie Hill and Frances Bickelhaupt (known to her staff as "Mrs. B") at their namesake Bickelhaupt Arboretum. This is my second visit to this terrific public garden in four years and I'm just as impressed now as I was then. The weather was cool and a shy bit misty, perfect weather for enjoying an impressive collection of conifers for which the Arboretum is known. The commitment to public success with gardening radiated at every corner. EVERY plant had a label (and all I looked at where perfectly correct, a surpisingly novel advancement as far as public gardens can go), EVERY plant was well-groomed, and EVERY plant embued the garden with its unique candor and personality, something this plant collector gets ooey about when just recalling it. God I'm a plant nerd!
Tomorrow it's off to Wanda Lunn's garden in Cedar Rapids...lilies, irises, and so much more are in store. I anticipate it with puerile fascination!