Artists in the Heartland

An Iowa garden yields a crop of beauty text and photography by STARR OCKENGA

In designing the beds in her garden, Karen Strohbeen strives for a layered effect as well as a “weaving” that merges foreground and distance. Left: The Box Garden is both a “laboratory” for testing new plants and a carefully orchestrated seasonal display area.

When the garden’s beds are as close together as these two, Karen uses color—in this case the purples of the salvias, Siberian irises, and catmint—to link them visually. Right: Bill Luchsinger and Karen Strohbeen during the filiming of their PBS series, The Perennial Garden with Karen Strohbeen.

IN 1982, ACTING ON A TIP THAT A SECLUDED PARCEL OF LAND WAS GOING ON THE MARKET, Karen Strohbeen and Bill Luchsinger passed through a sleepy hamlet in south-central Iowa. Its grassy square was home to swing sets, picnic tables, and a simple bell tower. The largest local business was Ham’s Sharpening Service. Karen and Bill drove to the dead end of a gravel road on the far side of town, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake.

A one-story house and a cluster of outbuildings, painted iron red, were sited on a knoll. Looking across a three-acre spring-fed pond to the undulating landscape beyond, Karen and Bill feasted on the view: clouds reflected in crystal-clear water; a wide, gentle slope leading to the pond’s edge; meadows lush with wildflowers; ribbons of trees, planted by farmers as windbreaks. A mature herb garden, designed and lovingly cared for by the owners, grew by the side of the house. “I like it,” Bill said. Karen agreed.

The couple, both successful artists, had sought a location where their passion for gardening could flourish, where, as Bill says, they could grow older and never move again. They spent portions of each year in Brooklyn, New York, as many up-and-coming artists do. But, Iowans by birth and temperament, they eventually returned to their home state, settling for the first few years in the western part of the state.

THE GARDEN’S ORIGINS

They had met at Drake University’s art school in Des Moines. Karen and Bill came from gardening backgrounds, and both cite their grandfathers as influences. Gardening became an increasingly powerful force in their lives. A deep connection exists between the imagery on the walls of their house and the garden pictures framed by its windows: prints, sculptures, ceramics, drawings, paintings, videos, and an ambitious perennial garden. “For me,” says Karen, “gardening is making art outdoors. All the same principles apply.”

Working together, Karen and Bill, who have made pieces of sculpture with a joint signature, accumulated plants, expertise, and equipment. The Winterset place came with 80 acres of rich farmland that answered their need for expansion. For the first five years they maintained, and enjoyed, the existing herb garden “out of respect,” as Karen recalls. Gradually, however, their ideas for experimentation dictated changes, and they embarked on an innovative plant study program. They removed the original brick paths and in their place installed 54 four-foot-square raised boxes made of treated pine four-by-fours spaced two feet apart. “We never plant anything we plan to eat in boxes made of treated lumber,” Bill observes. “This garden is strictly for testing perennials.”

THE BOX GARDEN

Karen divides the growing season—and the location of beds—in four color-coded demarcations: late winter to early spring (blue); late spring to early summer (green); summer (yellow); and fall (red). Karen never plants two summer boxes or two fall boxes adjacent to each other in the Box Garden. Using a mathematical system devised by Bill, Karen organizes the arrangement so that one season’s box flowers into the next, creating a colorful patchwork pattern throughout the grid. Always the artist, she insists that the experimental nature of this garden not detract from its beauty or limit its color combinations. She says, “We are thinking about time, space, color, line, texture, making pictures within the four-foot frames.” In each bed Karen tests a group of plants with similar cultural needs and overlapping bloom periods. Just as significant, however, is how well each plant gets along with its bedfellows.

Karen thinks about the size that each mature plant will demand aboveground. For example, a low-mounding plant and a tall, narrow plant do not inhabit the same air space and can be planted quite close to each other without becoming crowded. The plant’s habit underground, she stresses, is just as important. A plant with a long taproot can occupy approximately the same space as one with a shallow root clump.

Early summer in the Lily Garden, with peonies, hostas, and a white-flowered form of Salvia sclarea.

Allium ‘Globemaster” underscores the verticality of the rustic tuteurs, while lady’s-mantle and a golden Berberis thunbergii cultivar add visual sparkle.

Row of Colors, a garden-inspired giclee painting by Karen Strohbeen.

Karen admits, “I am looking for exciting plant combinations.” While a box might primarily contain summer-performing perennials, she might also insert spring-flowering plants, like Oriental poppies. The box would have a splash of electric orange or salmon pink in spring, and the foliage of the summer bloomers would camouflage the hole left by the poppies as they go dormant.

Certain categories of plants automatically take assigned positions, as on an athletic team. Grasses go into autumn boxes, where they provide interest all summer, before peaking and blooming in the fall. Conifers are planted in the late-winter and early-spring boxes, as they provide form and structure when the rest of the garden sleeps and as it wakens in the spring.

THE MAIN GARDEN

When a combination pleases the couple, it is ready to debut in the main garden, a series of grandly proportioned island beds that occupy the 200-foot slope between the buildings and the pond. “I would never suggest that people create island beds,” says Bill. “Generally, they don’t complement suburban settings, where they are so often used. But here they seem to repeat the contours of the surrounding landscape. Their shapes were our response to what we see when we lift our eyes.”

The half-dozen beds cover two acres, curving around one another like embracing lovers. Each island is raised two feet higher along its entire central axis; this additional height gives the bed a startling new dimension, and drainage is dramatically improved.

Iowa is known for its excellent soil, which is often referred to as black gold. Bill reports that 25 percent of the world’s Class A soil is in Iowa. However, because it is so rich and fine, compaction and drainage can be problematic. Therefore, in preparing the soil for a new garden, a program that takes a year, Karen and Bill always use the same formula: one-third garden soil, one-third coarse sand, and one-third organic matter such as manure or compost, all of which Bill tills together until well mixed.

THE HOUSE BEDS AND LILY GARDEN

Removing the stump of a dead tree triggered plans for the House Beds. Bill proposed three irregularly shaped beds nested within one another and enveloping the south end of the house. Floribunda and English roses offer fragrance and a long season of bloom. Clematis xdurandii with abundant purple-blue flowers thrive in congregations of rustic tuteurs, some as tall as 14 feet. Blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Glauca Globosa’) on standards, positioned like oversize lollipops, add a touch of humor. The beds are underplanted with spring bulbs and alliums, especially A. ‘Globemaster’, selected because its dying foliage is less offensive than that of some of its relatives.

The Lily Garden—named for its array of Asiatic, regal, Oriental, and species lilies—fills two beds that lie back to back. Plants, in their varied forms, can be architecture. “But they are not enough,” says Karen, “especially in winter and early spring.” Conifers and grasses add texture and height in a garden with no physical walls. A staggered line of Alberta spruce trees (Picea glauca ‘Conica’), with their pointed caps, march through the bed, providing contrast to balls of arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Hetz Midget’) or Pinus strobus ‘Nana’.

GARDEN MAINTENANCE

Since all these beds are expansive in scale—one is 25 by 75 feet—Karen and Bill have created a system of narrow dirt paths that are hidden from view. One rule is cast in stone: they never step directly on the prepared earth. If they have to walk into a planted area, they first place a small board a little bigger than a work boot on the ground and step on it.

Bill says, “The plants are our mulch. They provide a cover that is cool and clean and low in maintenance.” And indeed very little soil is visible. In the rare spot where it can be seen, the earth is an advertisement for the perfect planting medium. “Ideally,” Bill says, “we feed the soil once a year by spreading an inch to an inch and a half of compost over the top.”

The only other soil cover used in the garden is sawdust from the local sawmill. Paths in the Box Garden are softened with a thick layer. Karen observes, “We always want to use local materials, and sawdust is something we can get easily. It makes walking in that garden very quiet, almost contemplative.” Sawdust is also used as an edging material around the gardens. Encroaching grass is given crisp definition with an electric edger, and sawdust is laid on the revealed earth. Plants don’t like sawdust, but neither do weeds. The result is a clean, unobtrusive, narrow border of rosy sawdust around all the beds, a practical and aesthetic solution to a perpetual challenge.

Soft blue-gray specimens of Picea glauca ‘Conica” echo the rounded flower heads of Allium ‘Globemaster’.

Sharp color contrasts bring this section of the Lily Garden to life, with Pinus mugo ‘Nana” and golden Berberis thunbergii, deep violet Salvia xsylvestris ‘Mainacht’, vermilion Asiatic lilies, scarlet Papaver orientale ‘Turkenlouis’, and Clematis xdurandii trained on a tuteur.

When designing a garden on this scale, future maintenance is always a consideration. “Think about being able to get mowers through the grassy paths,” Karen advises. “The two-foot-wide paths in the Box Garden are just wide enough to accommodate the wheelbarrows.” Plants that require the most care, like roses, are planted closest to the house. More independent plants and spring-flowering bulbs live farther away. The spring chores might be lessened if Karen cut back perennials in the fall, but she leaves them standing. The debris serves as protection in a winter with little snow cover. In the USDA Zone 4 climate, with winter temperatures dropping to -30°F, the plants need insulated blankets over their heads.

In recognition of their accomplishments, in 2000 PBS signed with Karen and Bill to create The Perennial Gardener with Karen Strohbeen. Karen was the talent, and Bill was the video artist. (Many PBS affiliates are still broadcasting reruns of the series; check local listings.)

“We were trying to share what we do with other gardeners,” Karen says. “By explaining the nitty-gritty, we hoped to make the process of gardening accessible. And the other gardeners we visited were dirt gardeners, like us. Our goal was to celebrate the act of gardening.”

From the book Eden on Their Minds by Starr Ockenga. ©2001 by Starr Ockenga. Published by arrangement with Clarkson Potter.

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