Field Notes 6

Midwest BY MARTY ROSS / Kansas City, Missouri, Zone 5

Snow Days

IT WAS BEGINNING to look a lot like Christmas last November when I loaded my little Honda Civic full of evergreen boughs, swags, and wreaths from a local garden shop and got together with my friend Kristopher Dabner—owner of The Greensman (, a garden design business in Kansas City—to do a little garden decorating. Dabner pulled up with five Alberta spruce trees in his pickup truck, and a box of red plastic balls the size of two-dollar grapefruits. While we hung the swags, arranged the spruces in pots, and savored the crisp air, we talked about gardening and about our plans for the winter—which included taking a few days off.

Dabner works through much of the winter. When it’s too cold to dig, his crews build projects in clients’ gardens, or sharpen tools and organize the workshop. There’s usually design work to be done, and reading and paperwork to catch up on. If he can get away in January, Dabner disappears to some-place tropical.

For midwestern garden designers, winter is the season to experience other cultures and to see exotic plants without having to plant them. “This is when I recharge my jets,” says Liza Lightfoot, owner of Avant Gardening & Landscaping ( in McFarland, Wisconsin, near Madison. Lightfoot always packs her camera and a notebook. When she arrives at a new place, she buys field guides at a local bookstore, so she can get to know the plants and understand the environment. This new experience always helps later, when she is making professional decisions about which plants to use in a garden design.

Beth Levy, a landscape designer and owner of Garden Renaissance in Glenview, Illinois, specializes in container gardening. Before the holidays, she’s busy filling pots with gorgeous arrangements of evergreens for her clients. In January, things slow down; Levy spends the time preparing for the classes she teaches at the Chicago Botanic Garden and catching up on gardening catalogs and magazines. “I try to rest,” she says. “I do some yoga.”

Gardeners in Minneapolis often break their hibernation to meet at Phillips Garden ( A few years ago, the 18-year-old garden design business, owned by Ed Burke, turned a rundown old gas station in the Phillips neighborhood into a design studio and retail space. The place had been a crack house, but Burke recognized the building’s potential. “We decided to open a coffee shop and studio to have more of a winter presence,” he says. “You want to keep gardening alive in people’s minds.” The shop sells houseplants, tools, gifts, and local pottery, and Phillips Garden’s nursery sells Christmas trees and evergreen decorations. One of the old garage bays is now a coffee shop; the garden designers work right in the next bay. The pace is slower than in summer, and it’s cozy and warm inside the old garage. Friends and neighbors are always dropping by. “We’ve reclaimed the place,” says Russ Henry, assistant manager, “People used to come here to buy crack, and now they come in and talk plants and politics and whatever else is going on.” H


The Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering, and Technology, a nationally known private library in the heart of Kansas City, maintains another important collection outdoors: an outstanding arboretum on the library’s 14 acres, carefully documented in a field guide and map available at the front desk.

The collection of oak trees is particularly interesting in this urban oasis, but there are also many fine maples, magnolias, beeches, and some of the area’s oldest chestnut trees.

A magnificent collection of tree peonies along the east side of the grounds draws many visitors during their spectacular bloom season, from late April through early May. Linda Hall Library, 5109 Cherry Street, Kansas City, MO, 64110; 816-363-4600;


You don’t have to live in the Kansas City area to take advantage of the excellent selection of trees and shrubs at Arborvillage Farm Nursery, north of Kansas City in Holt, Missouri, but local residents have the pleasure of dealing with the knowledgeable owners, Lanny Rawdon and his son, Derrick, in person. Arborvillage specializes in great woody plants of all kinds; the dense catalog ($1) is full of treasures.

Arborvillage Farm Nursery, 15806 County Road “CC,” P.O. Box 227, Holt, MO 64048; 816-264-3911

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