Takes Root in Your Own Backyard
Story and photography by Kelly D. Norris
Gardening in Iowa isn’t for the faint of heart, something I’ve learned with erring trowel since I started poking around in the dirt with my grandma as a little kid. Ravaged by ice storms in January, thawed in March, melted in July, and blown away in a tumult of cornstalks and dust by October, a garden in this state weathers it all, literally.
Against such odds, Iowa gardeners deserve collections of plants that are both beautiful and resilient: horticultural artworks that sing the praises of the seasons; regionally appropriate workhorses that perform admirably in Zones 4 and 5 without fuss or fertilizer.
By choosing plants that are truly zoneworthy — those that don’t merely survive but thrive in our environmental conditions — Iowa gardeners can cultivate gardens rich in ecological goodness, a sustainable idea in all seasons.
With respect for that seasonal clock, the natural timepiece of the landscape, I’ve cultivated my passion for plants. I’ve wandered wild lands in pursuit of forgotten flora, the natives that lurk in remnants of their former landscapes waiting to be rediscovered. It’s in these wild places that the drumbeat of the zone thumps the loudest. Gardening is a celebration of place.
Gardening is also a celebration of diversity. Our gardens can revel in plants from faraway but climatically similar places. In this spirit, at the intersection of locality and variety, I’ve happened upon more than a few favorites as I’ve created a visual timepiece in my southwest Iowa garden, passionately pursuing the seasons one essential plant at a time.
The waking days of an Iowa spring announce themselves in droves of ephemeral wildflowers — the diminutive blooms of spring beauty, liverwort and meadow rue. Like seasonal decorations that get trucked out from storage, briefly displayed, then shuffled away as the calendar turns, the first stirrings in the garden — though brief — deserve celebration.
Of these seasonal motifs and adornment, my woodland garden would look noticeably different absent snowy mounds of double bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis ‘Multiplex’). Named for the morphinelike substance exuded from its rhizomes, bloodroot makes an easy groundcover for shady areas, slowly spreading to form a carpet of pristine flowers that herald spring.
The double form called ‘Multiplex’ trumps any of the rest. Plant collectors have long coveted their clumps of ‘Multiplex’, hoarding them behind tall trees in the back of shady areas — floral moonshine — for fear plant envy might lead to theft. Though it clumps at a moderate pace, it’s hardly slow enough to warrant obscurity.
The ephemerals of spring aren’t limited to woodlands and shade gardens. Wander west to Iowa’s Loess Hills in the early days of April, scour their grassy slopes, and you’ll inevitably find droves of prairie crocus (Pulsatilla patens) hovering at the base of grasses. These short-lived flowers have sung the earliest notes of spring for as long as the tallgrass prairies have existed, thriving in a season when little else stirs.
Despite their invincible spirit, prairie crocus don’t grow in nearly as many Iowa gardens as they should, though they and their natural companion prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) look just as handsome in rock, scree, and prairie gardens as in their native condition. Planted in full sun, they’ll thrive and reseed for many years in variations of frosted purple.
Spring is party time in Iowa, when gardens often look their best. Those celebrations happen in the form of familiar, seasonally emblematic plants such as columbine. In the underappreciated department hangs a portrait of Aquilegia canadensis ‘Corbett’, the butter yellow form of the familiar and charmingly weedy wild columbine that so many of us treasure — and curse — with fondness.
The story goes that two brothers, Andrew and Larry Clemens, were out doing what adventurous boys do along railroad tracks near Corbett, Maryland. They discovered a dwarf, compact, yellow-flowering columbine, knowing well enough that columbines were not normally this color. They transplanted one to their mother’s garden and enjoyed it for a few seasons before it disappeared.
Out and about in another spring, Andrew rediscovered the plant in the wild, collected seeds, and distributed them to neighbors to keep the plant and the story alive. One of those neighbors was a nurseryman who successfully propagated and introduced ‘Corbett’ to horticulture in 1992, almost 25 years after the plant was originally discovered.
I think of the brothers every spring that I enjoy ‘Corbett’ among the dwarf irises in my front garden. Though I lovingly curse its wild-type forebear, I have to confess that I’m a bona fide columbine-a-holic. I love their promiscuity, their variation, and those enchanting nodding flowers that initially captured my fascination as a child wandering along gravel roads near my boyhood home. ‘Corbett’ bewitches me so, a perfectly charming miniature of its larger cousins.
It’s important to remember that the noteworthy plants in nature’s living room aren’t necessarily flamboyant and sassy. A zoneworthy plant can be, say, a recliner, maybe a votive candle. One such subtle but essential shade fixture I enjoy in mid-May is dwarf Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum humile). Ever running around the garden floor in search of a neighbor to cuddle next to, dwarf Solomon’s seal never grows more than six or eight inches (at least the majority of forms available in garden centers). Little fluted stems with white, teardrop-shape flowers pop up in May here in Iowa and join a woodland crowd in full swing — violets, bleeding hearts, and epimediums, to name a few.
Culturally, it’s a cinch. Drop Solomon’s seal roots into some decent humus, cool in the shade, and you’re on your way to enjoying these votive candles of the woodland garden.
In a world of fuzzy plumes, sharp spikes, and dangling pendants, grasses rule the stage — the main characters of a multiseason show that often begins in the early days of summer. On the list of grasses I couldn’t garden without (and it’s a mighty long list), somewhere near the top is prairie Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) with a footnote that says “including all other Koeleria.”
Native throughout most of North America, Koeleria is probably growing in a patch near you. The form growing in my garden has bluer foliage than most, though even the typical forms have remarkably clean-colored leaves. From dense tufts in late spring and throughout summer, the flower heads erupt like sky-bound fireworks in tawny and tan.
Depressingly, though all too common with zoneworthy plants, this species is remarkably unavailable in the trade beyond the commercial seed suppliers who raise most of their crop for ecological restorations. The species germinates readily under moist, warm conditions, and those with a greenhouse or means of propagating from seed will find that the grass is easily propagated. The plants in my garden were raised from seed I collected and sowed myself, a rewarding process that I continue to enjoy seasons after I first installed them in their prairie garden home.
If spring is the most celebrated season in the Iowa garden, summer is perhaps the most colorful, blazing from sunrise to sunset in bold swaths. But one color that doesn’t blaze and isn’t celebrated nearly enough is silver. In the garden, Fremont’s evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa ssp. fremontii) rues a silver day, flirting with its garden companions from emergence in May to disappearance in late fall.
This silver-leaved form of Missouri evening primrose serves up yellow flowers, sunny and tastefully lemony, on the eve of high summer — an eloquent way of saying that these flowers show up when it’s blisteringly hot out. With deep taproots, they’re permanent once in place and not exactly amenable to division or transplanting.
Though I don’t have any specimens worth naming, I enjoy the undercurrent of pewter that moves through my rock garden each time the wind rustles through their foliage (and, thankfully for once, not due to powdery mildew). There are several nice forms and selections of this showy Great Plains native available with names like ‘Shimmer’, ‘Silver Wings’, and ‘Comanche Campfire’.
Chrysanthemums are, in my opinion, one of the least zoneworthy groups of plants commonly sold at our garden centers. Yes, I’m one of those categorical mum haters. There, I said it. I know, you probably buy two or 20 every year at the grocery store, bed them out with your scarecrows, and crow about them with pride at neighborhood fall socials. Bah.
I want a mum that’s everything but mum. I want a hardy, hot garden heavyweight that earns its keep season after season like Chrysanthemum x rubellum ‘Will’s Wonderful’. An heirloom variety of murky origins, it’s a surefire winner for those long depressed by the bushy, boxy things in plastic pots masquerading as mums.
Culturally, it’s a little different animal than most mums — you don’t have to pinch it (if you do, you may never see it bloom), and it deserves a home somewhere in the middle of the border. The leaves have an excellent pewter cast to them, and it’s absolutely the last plant in my garden to bloom, not including aberrant reblooming irises. If the woodland ephemerals are New Year’s Day brunch, ‘Will’s Wonderful’ is the party on New Year’s Eve.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include some proper succulents in this zoneworthy parade, though it may seem odd to include one in autumn. Succulents are all the rage these days. They’re hip, retro throwbacks to the houseplant craze, embraced outdoors for their striking textures and rugged dependability.
One that I happily embrace is dunce’s cap (Orostachys boehmeri). Though it’s hardly native, dunce’s cap (photo at top) thrives in my Iowa garden with an air of effortlessness. A monocarp (meaning it lives long enough to flower, set seed, and pass on), it gladly reseeds to ensure that a stable colony graces the garden scene on an annual basis with its Seussical flowers, seafaring foliage, and radially symmetrical rosettes.
I don’t think I would garden without it now. At home in a trough or any location with ample drainage, a sunny exposure, and adoring fans, this petite chap, though doomed to wear his dunce hat, takes the cake for botanical entertainment. I recommend planting it abundantly.