GARDENING IN IOWA

Iowa City couple transforms lot into biodiverse sanctuary

Jayne and Caleb Ryder stand in their garden Sept. 4 in Iowa City. (Andy Abeyta photos/The Gazette)
Jayne and Caleb Ryder stand in their garden Sept. 4 in Iowa City. (Andy Abeyta photos/The Gazette)
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Caleb and Jayne Ryder bought their current home with gardening in mind. They used to drive around as young adults looking at land and property, dreaming of their someday home. When they noticed a home with a large corner lot, a south-facing yard and a gentle slope, they told each other, “That’s our house.”

Caleb, 37, and Jayne, 34, bought that house in the Iowa City subdivision of Mackinaw Village in 2014. Built in 2009, the main floor of the home is just under 1,400 square feet.

But the lot is what really interested them. At 0.36 acres, the lot is large, although hardly what most would consider an ideal yard. The front is flat on either side of the driveway and the sides slope steeply toward the back fence.

The Ryders have transformed the lot into a biodiverse sanctuary of perennial flowers and foliage, about 100 varieties of trees and shrubs and vegetables in raised and border beds.

“It feels like we live in a botanical garden, a professional one, when we sit on our deck and look at everything. A couple of times a week, we walk around the yard and talk about it,” Jayne said.

Trees and shrubs are Caleb’s passion, and he can name every one of the 100 or so varieties. Although most of the trees are smaller or dwarf varieties, his favorite is a bald cypress tree that he imagines dominating their front yard at 70 feet in height someday.

“If I’m staying in Iowa, this is where I’m going to be,” he said.

Jayne is the lead vegetable gardener, but she enjoys almost everything they’ve planted. When asked which plant is her favorite, she said that it depends on the time of year.

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“In the spring, lilac is my go-to,” she said. “I love them all, and I can’t choose. Everything in the yard makes me happy.”

Well, that’s not exactly true.

“I might lose my Iowa citizenship, but I don’t like tomatoes. I think the plants are messy and unruly and disease-prone,” Jayne said.

Still, she has 13 tomato plants in the yard this year.

“I never have good luck with giant tomatoes. I only have good luck with the cherries (cherry tomatoes) and very small sizes. Maybe because I don’t like to eat them, I don’t have good luck growing them,” Jayne said.

Vegetable Gardening

Tomatoes are about the only type of vegetable she doesn’t enjoy growing. Caleb built four long raised beds their first fall in the house, locating the beds next to the driveway for easy access.

“We knew we wanted the vegetables near the house, the kitchen, the sink,” Jayne said. “It saves you time. When I’m cooking dinner and I need some herbs, I can just go outside and grab some. I go grocery shopping in my own yard.”

“We wanted to show the neighborhood what they could do, that growing vegetables doesn’t have to look messy,” Jayne said. “It doesn’t take much space to get a lot of produce.”

In college, Jayne went to Paul’s Discount and bought 99-cent terra-cotta pots and planted veggies. Her dog stole some of her tomatoes. That’s how she got her start as a gardener.

When she and Caleb had their first house, their yard had 15 raised beds. That’s where they learned a lot about growing food, Jayne said.

“It’s a really great way to learn about life cycles, not only of plants but also insects. There are all these things I didn’t know 15 years ago when I started growing plants in pots. You just need to notice and watch,” Jayne said.

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When it comes to her vegetables, Jayne recommended going for variety. She starts planting vegetables — lettuces, peas — in March. By the time most people plant lettuces in April, it’s too warm, she said. “Iowa gets too hot too fast.”

“I grow chard a lot. I grow broccoli. It’s packed in there right now. There’s even a camomile plant,” she said. “I’m growing collard greens for the first time this year. I really like what they’re doing. They seem very happy. I’m growing okra for the first time, too.”

She likes to experiment and not always grow the same variety. Some years she has good luck with garlic and onions, other years she doesn’t. In the specialty seed section, she found a packet of Asian long beans seeds.

“They’re really tasty, and I’ve had much better luck with them than green beans,” Jayne said. “It’s one of my favorite things to eat. It takes really good, the plants look neat, and they don’t really have any pest problems.”

This year, she’s growing all types of peppers: bell, hot and slightly spicy varieties. She grew early spinach and lettuce, radishes, beets, cucumbers. She lets the dill grow wild because it looks beautiful and isn’t too hard to pull out if it reseeds itself too much.

Potatoes aren’t planted every year, but this year she planted more than 50 potato plants around the yard. When the pandemic hit and everything was shutting down, spring was still going to happen no matter what, she said.

“Because of the pandemic, we were very vigilant and wanted to get a lot of food in the ground. We didn’t know what food shortages were coming along,” Jayne said.

A food shortage is definitely not on their list of worries this year.

“There’s food growing all over the yard,” she said. “You just tuck them in and hope the deer don’t find them.”

Biodiversity Creates Beauty

Growing vegetables was just the beginning of the yard’s transformation. The rest of the lot has border gardens with a wide variety of trees, shrubs, perennial flowers and foliage, vegetables and herbs.

“We’re really using all the contours and the shape of the lot,” Caleb said.

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To lend some height along the many yards of white 6-foot vinyl fencing, they’ve planted a grass that grows up to 14 feet each fall, miscanthus giganteus. They leave it up all winter, then use as mulch in their raised and border beds. The grass, native to Asia, is grown as a biofuel. Come spring, Caleb gets out a sturdy pair of loppers to cut the hard stalks, which they use as a type of mulch.

“I cut it back probably two-thirds of them every year, so they don’t take over the entire lot,” Caleb said.

Some of their love of gardening comes from their parents. Jayne learned how to plant tomatoes and pick grapes as a kid, but her family wasn’t really gardeners. But Caleb’s parents and grandparents love gardening.

“His mom was good at gardening and design. She had amazing gardens throughout his life. She built her own creek through the property. She had a little apple orchard. She had skills,” Jayne said.

Jayne and Caleb added plants that appeal to them. In the early years of their garden, Caleb would often come home with a pallet of plants, some in imperfect condition.

“A plant would come home, and we’d say, ‘Where do we want to put it?’” Jayne said. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Sometimes the deer or rabbits would eat the plants before they got planted. Other times Jayne would forget to water them.

“Not everything makes it,” she said.

They’ve picked up free plants left along the curb and purchased $5 hydrangeas that looked like a dead stick. The flowering shrubs survived and look great.

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When it comes to perennial flowers, they steer toward sedum, iris, hosta, allium, bee balm, milkweed, yucca, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) and springtime bulbs. They like echinacea (coneflower) and other plants native to Iowa that will grow well here. There are several varieties of poppies, cosmos, cannas and hydrangeas.

“At this point, things have kind of gone wild and are taking over the area,” Jayne said. “It’s good because we don’t have to weed as much.”

Caleb said the diversity of plants helps keep the yard nearly free of insect and disease problems.

They’ve also found that happy plants tend to seed themselves to other parts of the yard.

Then there are the plants she swears she planted a few years ago that didn’t grow until this year. “We’ve got a bleeding heart this year. The last time I planted a bleeding heart was three years ago,” Jayne said.

Sometimes they move a plant and try again. They had planted a redbud tree in the wrong spot: the light conditions were all wrong. It was still a pretty young tree, so they dug it up. Now it’s tall and gorgeous.

I looked up what it needed,” Jayne said. “That solves a lot of problems. Figure out what the plant wants before you plant it in the ground.”

They mostly have a live and let live attitude toward weeds. Some, like wild wood sorrel, they let grow as ground cover. Another that might be a type of mullein is left to grow as if it were a planned aspect of the flower bed design.

They do a lot of the yard work on weekends when they can take a break from the company they own, Clean Sweep. Because the garden beds take up much of what was once lawn, Caleb gets his mowing done in about 30 minutes.

While the mowing has gotten faster, harvesting food hasn’t. Late in the season, Jayne spends up to a half-day picking and washing food. Everything gets dehydrated, frozen, shared with friends or taken to a food bank.

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“I know why farmers used to have six or 10 kids,” she said.

Tips For Creating Raised-Bed Gardens

Caleb and Jayne Ryder have built four raised beds for vegetables in their Iowa City home’s front yard and offer these tips for a successful raised-bed garden.

Prepare the ground

Jayne suggests digging up sod before installing raised beds to keep grass and weeds from growing up into the vegetables. If you do that there is no need for landscaping fabric underneath.

Length and width

The Ryders built their raised beds about 12 feet long and 3 feet wide. Jayne advises gardeners new to raised beds to start with one small bed. If all goes well, build more. Make the beds narrow enough to access the middle from all sides. Jayne advises against building shallow beds with low sides. Instead, buy wide boards or use two narrower beds to create some height.

Use Good Soil

Raised beds must be filled with the right kind of soil to create ideal conditions for vegetables. In the first year of the raised beds, they made a rookie mistake, using only fill dirt in poor condition. As a result, their vegetables were stunted in growth. That fall, they cleaned up a friend’s oak leaves and added them to the beds. They also got load after load of free or low-cost compost and spent a couple hundred dollars to rent a truck and get fill dirt. Every year, they add a little more to keep the soil rich with nutrients.

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