Gardening in Iowa With Ross

Today we’re visiting Ross Jallo’s garden in Iowa.

wide view of the garden with four raised beds in the centerI started preparing my backyard garden in the fall of 2019. Before that it was just bare weedy lawn, with a concrete slab, two ancient lilacs, and lots of Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica, Zones 5–9). The years 2020 and 2021, as challenging as they were, gave me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a whole lot of gardening done. (I also managed to eradicate all of that knotweed, which I feel should be worthy of a medal.) This third year has been about acquiring experience about what truly works here in this particular garden. It’s one thing to have dreams—indeed, it’s indispensable!—but they must be tempered by the realities of climate, soil, and time constraints. Here are some of the success stories from my garden in eastern Iowa, Zone 5b, with clay-loam soil (pH 7.5).

close up of dark pink and light pink tulipsOne thing I’ve found that completely rewards the time commitment is tulips in pots. Squirrels will dig up any tulips in the ground here—there is a flourishing population of them, thanks to the two huge black walnut trees on the lot—but I’ve found they will leave potted tulips alone if I put a layer of grit on top of the soil. After planting in late October and early November, I store the pots in my unheated garage, which they seem to like just fine. ‘Candy Prince’ and ‘Negrita’ complement each other nicely, and both go with the neighbors’ redbud (Cercis canadensis, Zones 4–8).

close up of Jack-in-the-pulpit surrouded by foamflowersThe most pleasant surprises have happened when I have let nature take its course. Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum, Zones 4–9) must have been growing here long before the neighborhood was established in the 1920s; in May it popped up, unbidden, in the midst of the foamflowers (Tiarella cordifolia, Zones 4–9), and I just loved the effect.

garden with various pink flowersEvery year in May and June I rave about the qualities of phlomis (technically, Phlomoides tuberosa Zones 5–9) to anyone who will listen. Its bubblegum-pink flowers are the perfect foil for alliums and catmint, and best of all, it is a perfect no-maintenance plant for Iowa’s hot, dry summers. It keeps its elegant structure through the rest of the year too.

close up of pink rosesThe one area in which I have refused to be swayed by common sense is growing roses. Very few people are foolhardy enough to try bourbon roses in Iowa, but I couldn’t resist ‘Madame Isaac Pereire’, quite possibly the best-scented rose that there is. This rose is constantly coddled here, and in a very protected position to withstand Iowa winters. It has fairly ugly foliage, and I am lucky if I get more than one flush all year from it. But when it blooms, all is forgiven. Such a rose deserves special treatment!

close up of large planting of purple coneflowerOnce July arrives, there’s no longer any doubt that the Iowa climate will have the final say in gardening matters. Weeks of highs in the 90s, with little rain, means that plants need to be tough. Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’ (Zones 3–8) may be common, but that’s no reason not to use it.

close up bright pink dahlia flowerWith so many dahlia cultivars out there, it’s been bewildering to select just a few varieties for this small garden. But if I had to choose one, it would almost certainly be the heirloom variety ‘Mrs I. De ver Warner’. It is early to start flowering, floriferous, and healthy, and it has long stems that are great for cutting and tubers that overwinter indoors very well.

purple asters beneath golden seed-headsBy fall the garden is winding down, but one of the bright spots is the combination of asters (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies’, Zones 3–8) and northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium, Zones 3–8). For weeks in late September and early October, the pale purple of the asters complements the russet-colored seed heads of the sea oats. One lesson I’m learning is that natives will almost always be more trouble-free than nonnative plants.

If you want to see more from Ross, check out his instagram: @frondophile


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