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Past and present, gardening increases in Council Bluffs

Past and present, gardening increases in Council Bluffs

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Beth Cody, born and raised in Ames, has lived in the Iowa City area for more than 25 years, and has been an avid amateur gardener on her five-acre rural property for the past decade. She lives in a 95-year-old farmhouse in Amish country with her husband, two children and 700 garden books. A graduate of the University of Iowa and Brandeis University in economics, she makes a living as a small business owner when she is not out in her garden, thinking about her garden or reading garden books.

There’s been a dramatic increase in gardening during the past few months. It’s happened across the nation, throughout Iowa and locally in Council Bluffs.

I’ve read a number of articles about people turning to their gardens during social distancing and staying at home, and local garden centers have had their busiest spring ever. Sherbondy’s says sales were up by 60% this spring — by far the highest they’ve ever been in their 48 years of operations.

This makes perfect sense with people spending healthy amounts of time outside in the sunshine, growing a bit of fresh food, planting flowers for beauty and comfort, watching the life-affirming miracle of seeds transforming into plants — it’s what we need during stressful times.

And I’m not surprised at all that it’s happening in Iowa. My research over the past five years about the history of Iowa gardening shows that Iowans — and Council Bluffs area residents in particular — have long had a close bond with the soil.

There’s a reason our state slogan used to be “A Place to Grow.” We Iowans have been avid gardeners, influential garden writers and horticultural entrepreneurs, from the earliest days of settlement to the present.

From Iowa’s nineteenth-century settlers with their fashionable Victorian gardens; to turn-of-the-century flower gardens; to Victory Gardens in the First and Second World Wars; through postwar lawn and shrubs and growing environmental awareness in the 1970s — Iowans have always gardened.

I myself became interested in gardening after I stumbled across a book filled with images of beautiful gardens in England. Unlike most gardeners, I came to gardening through garden books, not the other way around, and I now have over 700 of them.

I especially love books with vintage garden photos. There’s something compelling about these nostalgic images of gardens and gardeners long gone, preserved only in photographs.

But garden history books never include anything about Iowa gardens.

So out of curiosity, I began to search for vintage images of Iowa gardens, visiting more than a dozen libraries, historical archives and museums across the state; searching online digital collections and eBay.

I located images of hundreds of lovely gardens created by passionate Iowa gardeners: illustrations from as early as the 1860s; Victorian-era garden photos; turn-of-the-century postcard images; and magazine photos from the “Roaring Twenties” through the mid-century modern period. Grand estate gardens, suburban gardens, flower-filled farmsteads. And I researched the lives of the gardeners who made them.

Council Bluffs and its surrounding region have had many enthusiastic gardeners, from the earliest days of its frontier history through the modern day. I’ve found early illustrations, postcard images and magazine photos of beautiful gardens located in or near Council Bluffs.

And southwest Iowa was a literal hotbed of commercial greenhouse nurseries and seed companies, such as J.F. Wilcox, De Giorgi Brothers, Younkerman Seed Co. and the F.W. Meneray Crescent Nursery Company.

Council Bluffs had an active garden club as early as 1927, and the Council Bluffs Public Library holds a wonderful scrapbook of their activities and their gardens, showing that even during the dark days of the Great Depression, Council Bluffs residents were enthusiastic about gardening and sharing their gardens.

There’s something comforting in our own uncertain times about looking at vintage garden images. Our great-grandparents had to deal with world wars, epidemics and economic depressions, grasshopper plagues, droughts and some of the worst winters ever recorded. That they were able to make such beautiful gardens despite these disasters — it’s truly inspiring.

It’s ultimately reassuring, because it shows us that Iowans persevere. We get through these hard times, we feed ourselves and the rest of the world, and we still manage to create beauty around us.

— Beth Cody, born and raised in Ames, has lived in the Iowa City area for more than 25 years, and has been an avid amateur gardener on her five-acre rural property for the past decade. She lives in a 95-year-old farmhouse in Amish country with her husband, two children and 700 garden books. A graduate of the University of Iowa and Brandeis University in economics, she makes a living as a small business owner when she is not out in her garden, thinking about her garden or reading garden books.

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