BY KAREN WEIR-JIMERSON / Woodward, Iowa, USDA Zone 5
TO DO IN THE GARDEN
Start summer-blooming bulbs like cannas indoors. Place bulbs in peat moss or vermiculite and water lightly. Transplant sprouted bulbs into pots once the threat of frost has safely passed.
Stake tall perennials now before they are toppled by spring winds. Add supports for tall plants like delphiniums and foxgloves, and for floppy plants like baptisias and peonies.
Once rhubarb plants start to bolt, remove the flower heads and add them to bouquets with lilacs, peonies, and other spring bloomers.
Toujours Des Moines
I took a trip to the south of France several years ago and fell in love. Lush shrubs of lavender, fragrant sprays of rosemary, umbels of white oleander, open-faced sunflowers, and sculptural cypress trees—I loved it all. When I returned home, I looked across my prairie garden with a backdrop of corn and soybean fields and had a vision of what could be. Was it possible to plant a Mediterranean garden in my midwestern backyard?
I started with a gray gravel path that led to a pergola-covered seating area. Flanking it with two flats of lavender plants (I selected the more hardy English lavenders) created the look I wanted. That summer, the small plants flourished in the Iowa sun and I mulched them heavily in the fall. But our cold and nearly snowless winter did them in. In spring, there stood my lifeless lavender allee, lined up like soldiers in a final farewell salute to my dream of gardening beyond my zone.
Being a pragmatic gardener, I conceded that the cornfields of Iowa and the sunflower fields of Provence are worlds and zones apart, and I set out to replicate the colors, textures, and scents of the south of France instead.
Color is the most prominent feature in Provence. Startling fields of yellow sunflowers, stacked white stone walls, and cloudless azure skies are the reasons van Gogh, Cezanne, and other artists found this landscape so very paintable. Blue and yellow are the defining colors of the region, so I concentrated on adding hardy flowers in these hues to my garden. Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) offered long-lasting towers of sunny yellow flowers. The palm-size blue flowers of Clematis ‘Jackmanii’ opened in early summer. Clumps of star-flowered Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’ filled the borders with brilliance. Verbena bonariensis provided a haze of purple-blue flowers all summer long.
I discovered that catmint (Nepeta spp.) is a great Zone 5 alternative to its relative, lavender. (They are both members of the Lamiaceae, the mint family.) With its graygreen leaves and clusters of violet-blue blooms, hardy catmint also offers a dry, lemony scent. Planted closely together on either side of the gravel path, my nepeta edging started blooming in late spring and offered color on and off throughout the summer. Its attractive, floppy flower stems spilled onto the pathway with a carefree beauty that even lavender might envy.
Nothing transports you down memory lane faster than scent and taste, so I enlisted the sensory travel agents, lavender and rosemary, in my seating area. Planted in containers, they are close enough to tousle, snip, and taste, yet portable enough to whisk indoors once the weather cools down. I was pleased to find another Mediterranean beauty, oleander, widely available in garden centers in my area, so I potted up both shrub and standard versions in terra-cotta containers. They, too, come indoors for the winter.
For intimacy in my seating area, a row of columnar ‘Emerald Green’ arborvitaes (Thuja occidentalis) is my arboreal stand-in for cypress. Although they are far greener and chubbier than cypress, they offer a textural equivalent. They are regal impersonators until the corn on the other side reaches 15 feet tall and its pollen-laden yellow tassels peek over the tops of the shrubs.
When I sit back and breathe in the overall effect of my zone-bending efforts, I’m satisfied. Iowa isn’t Arles, but on a warm evening with a decent red wine in hand, a sprinkling of bright stars in the dark sky above, who can worry about latitudinal superiority? H
Nepeta ‘Blue Wonder’
There’s just so much to recommend Nepeta xfaassenii ‘Blue Wonder’ for midwestern gardens: it’s drought tolerant, produces lavender-blue flowers nearly all summer (especially when sheared back after the first bloom), grows almost anywhere (USDA Zones 3–10), and the foliage is attractive and textural. For a taller cultivar, try ‘Six Hills Giant’. Sources, page 96.