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Secret gardens: Iowa City Northside tour highlights hostas, shade gardens

'I like order and beauty. That's what motivates me'

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IOWA CITY — Follow Linn Street in Iowa City as far north as it will go and step into the garden behind Jan Alan’s home, and you will enter a cool, shaded world of foot paths winding through expansive hostas.

This is one of the small hidden realms on an upcoming Project GREEN Garden Tour: “Northside Secret Gardens.” The tour features 12 gardens spread over a few blocks at the end of Linn Street and the adjoining Bella Vista Place. Ticket sales will benefit non-profit Project GREEN, which works on beautification projects throughout the city.

Alan, 77, and gardener Timothy Roundtree-Bey, 48, manage four of these Northside gardens, on her property and her neighbor’s. When she moved to this house in 2007, the backyard was a mess. The house is at the top of a hill overlooking Dubuque Street and the Iowa River. On the steeply-sloped ground behind the house down to Dubuque Street, a veritable jungle was full of poison ivy, garlic mustard, brier patches and trash — people had been illegally dumping there for years.

Seven years ago, Alan decided it was time to take the hill back. She hired Roundtree-Bey, who has worked steadily alongside her since then to tame the jungle, one section at a time. The weeds and scraggly trees have slowly given way to carefully landscaped shade gardens.

“It looked like Tarzan lived here,” Roundtree-Bey said. “Now it’s like looking into heaven.”

Wooden steppingstones, which he built from pieces of downed trees, make a path through the rows and rows of hostas. He also built wooden arches and stairs up and down the hill.

Alan’s hosta collection includes an Empress Wu hosta, which can grow to 7 feet tall. Hers isn’t that tall yet, but the giant elephant ear leaves hint at its potential.

“I suspect in this yard we’ll be able to sit under it,” she said.

She also has guacamole hostas, with distinctive crinkled leaves, sum and substance hostas and many more.

“I don’t know how many kinds,” she said. “A whole bunch.”

Some were gifts, some she purchased from nurseries, and some she traded for with other gardeners.

A gold fish pond gently trickles near the top of the yard, and flowers and plants are tucked everywhere — hydrangeas and roses, foxgloves, lilies of the valley, Jack in the pulpits, dianthus, peonies and more. In the front yard, a fairy garden nestles under a white honey suckle bush. Several garden cats laze on her porch or hide under ferns, while Alan’s dog Christmas trots at her heels before flopping in the grass for a nap.

The effort hasn’t been easy, but Roundtree-Bey said it has been rewarding.

“We looked at the potential of it and said, ‘It could be beautiful,’” he said. “I do Argentine tango, and that has taught me to just work on one thing at a time, and little by little you improve. This is like a lesson in life — you do a little at a time.”

He has previously worked in construction and as a psychology intern at a hospital. Both pursuits sent him home stressed and tense every day.

“Gardening doesn’t make me feel like that,” he said. “You can work all day and even feel better. It’s like the feeling you get when you’re caring for someone. It gives back.”

Alan was never a gardener before taking this on. Her career was in psychotherapy, and she now makes jewelry. But when a neighbor suggested the potential in her yard, she thought, why not?

“A neighbor said, ‘That would be a good hosta garden down there,’ and I said, ‘That nettle-infested dump?’ She said, ‘Yes!’” Alan laughed. So she started reading about gardening and getting tips from neighbors, and the plan for the garden began to take shape. With Roundtree-Bey’s help, that plan has become reality.

“I like order and beauty. That’s what motivates me,” she said. “I could see something the way it was supposed to be.”

If you go

What: “Northside Secret Gardens” Project GREEN Garden Tour

When: 3 to 8 p.m. Saturday ► (6/25) ◄ , rain or shine

Cost: $5; 16 and under free

Where: 222 Brown St., 815 N. Linn St., 817 N. Linn St., 819 N. Linn St., 821 N. Linn St., 5 Bella Vista Place, 10 Bella Vista Place, 12 Bella Vista Place, 4 Bella Vista Place, 1 Bella Vista Place, 2 Bella Vista Place, 818 N. Linn St.

Information: projectgreen.org/gardentour.htm

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