Through careful planning, Iowa City woman’s garden blooms from early spring to late fall

By Dorothy de Souza Guedes, correspondent

A  towering hydrangea nearly a dozen years old stands tall at the corner of Janis and Rip Russell’s front porch; lime green spring blooms turned a warm, rosy mauve late in summer.

It is surprisingly quiet for a home near the residential heart of Iowa City except for occasional shrieks and chatter from Dickens, a large cockatoo. He’s holding court inside the house, waiting for Janis — she’s his person — to take him upstairs for the evening.

Dozens of identical, side-by-side perennial grass plants soften the chain-link fence along the Russells’ driveway. It’s a short walk around back to the patio that opens up to the surprise of a glorious urban oasis.

The back garden is brilliant with color in early September, even though Janis doesn’t plant anything special for fall. Three- and 4-foot annuals such as sturdy zinnias, plumes of celosia and climbing petunia complement perennial globes of gomphrena and spikes of salvia and veronica that bloom well into fall.

Janis plans for constantly blooming beauty and cut bouquets rather than food.

“It’s kind of like being a conductor of an orchestra,” she said.

The music begins as tulips, daffodils and grape hyacinth poke through sun-warmed soil and happily announce that spring has arrived. Those early blooms quietly give way to bushy, fragrant peonies. Then the first of the 40 varieties of climbing clematis vines — the clay soil is perfect for clematis — begin to flower, late-blooming daffodils, too.

The first flush of roses burst into color and fragrance as peonies begin to fade and other varieties of clematis climb high, then bloom. Soon the glorious scent of Asiatic lilies wafts through the garden, the flowers lasting for two weeks on their sturdy stalks even when cut for bouquets.

A chorus of 200 daylilies begins as roses continue to bloom in the background. As those flowers fade, annuals strategically placed to cover flowerless foliage grow to their full height and burst into color that lasts for months.


The seasons-long color begins with weeks of fall planning, wildly scribbled notes filling page after page in Janis’ garden notebook.

Planning a Garden

Throughout the spring and summer, Janis had noted what bloomed when and how well the plants grew and bloomed.

“I want to remember all of this come next spring. That’s why I write it down,” Russell said.

She looks at the colors and decides what she wants to change for the following year. For example, her tentative plan for 2021 includes less yellow near the patio due to “overachieving” plants. She hasn’t decided what to plant in their place.

She’ll probably rearrange the zinnia area behind the garage and find a new orange seed. She bought zinnia seeds from a new company, and the color, although pretty, wasn’t true to the label.

“When I plan any colors, I want my color there,” she said.

Sometimes, she’ll cut a bouquet and walk around the yard, eyeballing it, deciding which color or shape will work. Or she’ll put the bouquet on a chair and step away to see if the color will look right with the plants already there.

Colors are important because she plans for cut-flower bouquets. She takes flowers to a dozen reception desks at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, including Radiology, where she and Rip both work.

The garden is Janis’ domain; Rip spends his off-work hours acting in local theater productions. He mows the lawn and will pitch in when Janis is physically unable to do something, but he doesn’t enjoy gardening. Janis is OK with that.

“If somebody doesn’t enjoy gardening, you shouldn’t let them do it,” she said.


The memos in the garden notebook are all hers. The notebook’s pages are a mess with “scribbles everywhere” — vertical, horizontal, and along the margins.

“I spend most of the winter trying to read what I wrote,” she said.

She rearranges mentally then scribbles some more. Winter is also for browsing seed and plant catalogs to get ideas for replacement perennials or new annual seeds to try. Then she creates a final version of her written plan.

When asked about her gardening budget, she admitted she has none: That’s what working overtime is for, and I work a lot of overtime, she said.

Spring Planting

The next stage is deciding what she’ll buy locally versus online. Although she does support her favorite local businesses, Janis strives to spend very little time in garden centers. It’s difficult for her to say no to pretty plants that end up changing her plan — and adding planting time.

“I’ll find something new and think, ‘Oh my God, I have to have that,’” she said.

She and a fellow gardener hold each other accountable: when he found himself loading up flat after flat of pretty, but unplanned-for plants, he called her from a garden center. Put down the flats and step away from the plants, she told him. He’d do the same for her.

Even with her detailed notebook, planting takes “a massive amount of work” — weeks each spring. She uses two or three weeks of vacation time. She starts many of the annuals from seed, planting extras and putting only the heartiest and healthiest into the soil outdoors.

“Things won’t stop growing just because you don’t have time to deal with them,” she said.

Sometimes, she panics, then reminds herself that the garden will still look wonderful, no matter what.


She’d love to recruit a novice gardener to assist her with gardening tasks in exchange for absorbing knowledge and receiving unwanted or ready-to-divide plants. But for now, the garden is hers to work and plan.

Long-Term Plan For Hardscapes

Her planting beds complement and enhance the hardscapes — retaining walls, stone steps, patio, pond and gazebo — built more than 20 years ago.

The structure of the garden is such that even when nothing is blooming, it still looks nice, Janis said.

The Russells have lived in the house since 1992. When they moved in, the yard was all grass. There was an unsteady retaining wall at the back. The grass on the upper level was difficult to mow.

The Russells discussed a long-term plan to move the retaining wall, remove the grass above it, and create a patio. Janis dreamed of a gazebo and a little pond. She thought she could design the garden on her own, but struggled. They hired a landscape designer.

“We told her what we wanted, and she came up with the plan,” Janis said. “She worked in a lot of details.”

Although the Russells wanted to execute the hardscapes plan over 10 years, the designer suggested they do it all at once. That way the soil would only be damaged by heavy equipment once. They agreed, and the hardscapes project — retaining wall, patio, gazebo and pond — were installed in 1998.

The design gives the illusion of a much larger and wider grassy area in the middle of the backyard by keeping that area broad before narrowing and curving it to give a vanishing point, Janis said.

“I really like the design of this. (The designer) did an excellent job,” Janis said. “I couldn’t have come up with this.”


With the hardscapes in place, Janis was free to transform with plants. Every year is a bit different as she experiments. She’s been through countless shrubs that were way too big, or she didn’t like how they looked or performed. She planted about 40 roses when they first moved into the house. Then Japanese beetles moved in.

“I’ve got about seven roses left,” she said.

She planted a juniper next to the gazebo and learned the hard way that it takes 20 hours to prune. But the juniper is pretty, so she’ll keep it.

“Nobody told me you couldn’t shear it,” she said. Each piece must be cut on an angle. “It’s like trying to cut somebody’s hair one strand at a time.”

Over the years, she’s learned that rather than planting horizontally — tall in the back, then medium, with short in the front — to grow vertically along the edge of the yard. Vertical plantings make it easier to run the colors together, ditto for the pastel lime green of celosia Sylphid. Blue and purple salvia blooming throughout the summer anchor her garden beds.

“It’s gone through a lot of incarnations,” she said. “It’s like rearranging the furniture; only it takes longer, and you have to wait a year to see what the results are.”

Tips For Keeping a Goldfish Pond In Iowa

Janis and Rip Russell’s goldfish pond was built by professionals in 1998 when professional landscapers created the garden hardscape in their Iowa City backyard. At first, Janis was surprised by the amount of maintenance the pond required. But after a tornado hit the neighborhood in 2006, she neglected the pond and learned that it thrived anyway.

A successful human-made pond in Iowa City’s climate zone requires water plants, fish, a water filter, a winter heater and a depth of at least 3 1/2 feet.

In the Iowa City climate zone, depth is important to help fish overwinter. Fish won’t survive an Iowa winter without a heater that keeps a small area open for proper oxygen exchange.

The Russells originally stocked koi, but when the heater failed, the koi died. Janis bought goldfish once, and her pond has been stocked for the last 22 years by generations of those original goldfish, she said.


Basic maintenance involves a fall clean out of dead plants. A water filter changed every two weeks or so. Fish eat the algae, so there’s no need for chemicals.

“I don’t feed the fish. They eat the algae,” she said.

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