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Tour features pollinator-friendly gardens in Eastern Iowa

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When Vicki Keegan’s husband died suddenly 22 years ago, gardening became her therapy. She started small, with just a few plants, and she hasn’t stopped since.

“I started with just a little patch of hostas, and it just kind of kept growing,” she said.

Now her backyard features an expanse of flower and vegetable beds, shady trees and water features — three ponds, a stream and two waterfalls.

The public will have a chance to step into her private oasis July 9, during the Linn County Master Gardeners 2016 Garden Walk. The walk features four area gardens, including Keegan’s. Proceeds will go back into Master Gardeners educational programming.

The Linn County Master Gardeners have dedicated 2016 to planting for pollinators, with programs and partnerships encouraging homeowners, businesses and civic institutions to support landscapes that help bees and butterflies thrive. Every garden on this year’s tour is pollinator-friendly.

Keegan’s extensive flower beds are crowded with blooms that attract butterflies and bees, and she is planning to convert 7.5 acres at the back of her property into a pollinator habitat — a mix of wildflowers and native grasses.

When she and her husband moved to these 11 acres on Milburn Road on Cedar Rapids’ northwest side 40 years ago, they were on a dirt road in the country — now the road is paved, and Keegan is surrounded by neighbors.

She hasn’t let go of her rural roots, however — she keeps an extensive patch of sweet corn growing behind her vegetable garden.

Raspberries, grapes, rhubarb, asparagus, squash, zucchini, spinach, tomatoes, beans and other produce fill several garden beds. Fruit trees produce apples, peaches and pears.

Elsewhere, purple and yellow flowers are everywhere. A carpet of yellow blooms on sedum, while tall alliums show off purple spheres. Purple Russian sage, yellow coreopsis, bright yellow Irish eyes black eyed Susans and purple lamb’s ear are just a few of the flowers scattered throughout the flower beds. Lilies, daisies, bee balm and coneflowers fill in patches. A giant hydrangea, taller than Keegan, has fragrant, delicate white blossoms.

“If I see something I think I like, I’ll try to find a place for it,” she said.

A small stream runs through the garden, leading to a gurgling waterfall over a pond where about a dozen koi swim. Her son, son-in-law and friends dug the stream for her.

Another water feature, a small pond, features spreading lotus plants. The giant green leaves collect perfect spheres of water in their centers and soon will send up picturesque yellow and pink flowers.

Whimsical pieces of art are tucked throughout the garden, like a wooden porch swing transformed into a succulent planter, hanging from a large linden tree.

In one corner of the yard, Keegan converted her children’s former playhouse into a small garden house, complete with a tiny porch, rocking chairs and art she has picked up over the years. She also does stained glass work, and mosaics she made decorate the door and hang over the porch railing.

“She did something with every little corner,” said garden walk chairwoman Diane Stevens. “It’s like a park setting out here.”

Keegan, 68, said she spends several hours a day maintaining her gardens, especially since retiring from nursing five years ago. Three years ago she became a Master Gardener.

“I just love to be outside. I’m an outdoorsman. There’s something about digging in the dirt,” she said. “I’m not a person who enjoys sitting and watching TV. I’d rather be out here, from dawn to dusk.”

If you go

What: Linn County Master Gardeners 2016 Garden Walk

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, rain or shine

Cost: $5 per adult or $10 per family. Start the tour at any of the gardens.

Where: Noelridge Park Garden, 4900 Council St. NE, Cedar Rapids; North Garden, 4821 Millbrook Court NE, Cedar Rapids; Mahlke Prairie, 5791 Dr. NE, Cedar Rapids; Keegan Garden, 7110 Milburn Rd., Cedar Rapids

Information: extension.iastate.edu/linn/news/2016-garden-walk

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