Beth Cody didn’t always have a passion for gardens, but she remembers well how it started.
“I came across a book of beautiful gardens in England,” she said. “Now, whenever I come across a used gardening book, I buy it. I came to gardening through books.”
She started collecting them and now has around 700 hundred garden books, full of photographs documenting beautiful and historic gardens around the world.
“I like reading garden history books; I have quite a few of them at home. I noticed there never seemed to be anything about Iowa in them,” she said.
So she decided to write a book of her own.
“I started to look around to see if I could find any vintage pictures of Iowa gardens. I started finding them and became curious about the people who made them and their lives,” she said.
Research at historical societies, libraries and online archives followed. She self-published the book, “Iowa Gardens of the Past — Lost & Historic Gardens of Iowa: 1850-1980” in early May. The 320 page hard copy is full of both black and white and full color photos and illustrations of historic gardens, along with descriptions of the people who planted them. She also documents the histories of different Iowa-based seed companies.
“Each chapter in the book is not just about gardening, it’s also about what’s happening in Iowa.
The time period definitely influenced what people were able to do in their gardens and what they wanted to do in their gardens,” she said.
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She starts with frontier gardens and gardens in Iowa’s early towns, including at the residence of George Greene, one of the founders of Cedar Rapids, then goes on through the decades up to the 1980s. In between she covers the garden clubs that sprang up in the 1920s, victory gardens of World War II and the transition to more modern gardens. She also has a section on the gardens at Brucemore mansion in Cedar Rapids.
She said she hopes the book can help keep gardening traditions alive for future generations.
“It’s very rare for a garden to survive much past the death of the owner. Conserving gardens wasn’t common until recently,” she said.
One of her favorite periods of gardening was the 1920s and the 1930s, when many garden clubs were formed and many people didn’t let the Great Depression slow down their gardening.
“I liked a lot of the gardens from the 1930s; there were just so many, some were on really grand estates. The 1920s and 30s both were big gardening periods, as we came out of the First World War … People became really enthusiastic gardeners,” she said.
Cody volunteers with Iowa City gardening nonprofit Project GREEN and blogs about her own garden in rural Johnson County south of Iowa City at gardenfancy.blogspot.com. When she’s not in the garden she runs her small business, A-1 Uniforms in Coralville.
Her book is available to purchase online at iowagardens.com, and she hopes to have it available in area bookstores and libraries as coronavirus pandemic shut downs start easing.
She said it’s a coincidence the book came out just as a surge of increased interest in gardening has swept the state, related to the pandemic. That interest doesn’t surprise her; she said gardening can bring a sense of peace and control.
“I think during the shutdowns and staying at home, there’s something about getting back to these practices our grandparents and great grandparents were doing that appeals to people,” she said. “And it is healthy to be outside and in the sunshine. Watching a seed come to life is really a miraculous thing … Just growing a few flowers is helpful in terms of mental health. Being surrounded by beautiful things is a necessity.”
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