Reporting from Iowa

    Summer in Vander Veer Botanic Park
    Summer in Vander Veer Botanical Park

    Guest Rant by Linda Larson, A Traveling Gardener

    This just in: Iowa has beautiful gardens and parks, with grand trees, roses, hostas, and lakes. Despite the frenzy of Iowa’s political caucuses, happy people are ice skating on the pond in Vander Veer Botanical Park and Conservatory in Davenport.

    They will walk to the pond down the Grand Allee of trees designed by Swedish immigrant and landscape designer Olof Benson in 1890. Local residents at the time were inspired by NYC’s Central Park and embraced the idea of public green space as a symbol of a successful democracy.  A grand park with places for all citizens to gather with friends and families was a shared value of the East Coast and the Midwest. Iowa residents believed this was something they wanted in their community. The importance of education for botanic knowledge of new plants and the science of how to grow them was widely supported. “Cordial international relations have always been important between botanic gardens,” (Botanic Gardens, Sarah Rutherford) and this was especially true in the 19th century when the grand botany discoveries were developing in all nations.


    Politics, gardening, agriculture and plants have always been closely linked. In Andrea Wolf’s book, Founding Gardeners she writes “The founding fathers’ passion for nature, plants, gardens and agriculture is woven deeply into the fabric of America and aligned with their political thought, both reflecting and influencing it. And James Madison quipped, ‘They were worshippers of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture.'”

    DSC_0008In Des Moines, the home of Meredith Publishing Corporation since 1922, a giant red garden trowel sculpture stands outside their headquarters. Publisher of Better Homes & Gardens magazine, this Iowa business has been inspiring beautiful gardens and homes all across the country. Their test garden is just down the street, the site of many photo shoots providing ideas and education for readers of the fourth most widely read U.S. magazine for years.

    Vander Veer Botanical Park is beautiful in all four seasons. The Conservatory stages a changing floral display, with poinsettias during the winter and Easter lilies in spring. As winter melts away, the bare branches of hundreds of trees leaf out with spring green. The central stone fountain sends its spray into the air and in the evenings the water is lit by a changing display of colors. Planted in the fall, some 30,000 bulbs emerge in spring as shoots of green opening into daffodils, hyacinths and snowdrops. Summer blossoms with roses in the sunshine and hostas in the shade.  Concerts in the music pavilion continue a long tradition of live music in the park. Other improvements over the years include a plant zoo with topiary animals, and a children’s sculpture garden.

    The Grand Allee of 1890 was revitalized by local citizens and corporations in 2001 demonstrating a continuing commitment to the importance of this 33-acre park at the beginning of a new century in a technology driven world.

    Grand allee in Vander Veer Botanical Garden
    Grand allee in Vander Veer Botanical Park

    The other four-season element of beauty are the citizens who come to the park all year round. Winter ice skating, spring flowers, summer concerts, and autumn’s falling leaves bring people to the park. All types of people, smiling, exchanging greetings, expressing wonder and delight in nature. They come to enjoy the plants, trees, open space and comfortable benches. They bring their children to watch the squirrels run, feed the ducks, see the birds and smell the flowers.  Nature and its wonders transcend party politics and yet parks and gardens are not a prominent point of discussion. Environmental issues are so divisive, thoughtful discussion is trivialized.

    Thomas Jefferson was a farmer, gardener and plant enthusiast before he became President and he “longed for nature as a refuge from the wrangling of politics” (Wolf, Founding Gardeners). Politics, policy and governing are essential parts of life, but plants and gardens are essential to all life. The recent news from Iowa has been all about politics. A question that hasn’t come up in the debate but is worth asking, “What national parks, state parks, or public gardens have you visited?  When do you stand in awe of nature?” It would help to know how a candidate values nature, trees and flowers before we cast our vote. Our history tells us our democracy values these things.

    Linda Larson is an advocate for the importance of public green space and the value of nature in our lives, writing as “A Traveling Gardener and gardening in Mesa, AZ for over 30 years. She’s visited hundreds of gardens around the world and will be speaking at the Northwest Flower Show and the San Francisco Flower Show this spring.


    1. I do hope that Vander Veer Park was indeed established as “A grand park with places for all citizens to gather with friends and families” and not just a proper setting for Gilded Age business barons to showcase their horses, wives and finery, though the date of establishment suggests the latter. So many of the finest gardens created worldwide have been the whim of emperors, maharajahs and grand poobahs of all stripes. That, of course, doesn’t stop me from drooling over all of them.
      I love the trowel sculpture. It has been my lifelong mission to re-educate gardeners in the proper use of that perfect tool, and to heap scorn on attempts to improve it by cushioning, curving and contorting it’s essential straight line design. Most insufficiently aged users tend to handle it like a child’s sand shovel or flour scoop. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It is wielded, on your knees, like the kitchen knife in the shower scene in “Psycho”, plunged into the soil with the concave surface facing you, then pulled toward you creating a cavity in the ground behind the blade. Insert your plant, withdraw the trowel, invert it so that the handle points downward, and firm the soil with both your trowel hand and free hand. This can be repeated thousands of times in a day with little wasted effort. Please do not let me catch you misusing it. I might well rip it from your hand and fling it into the shrubbery.

    2. Lived in Davenport for a number of years growing up, and spent time at Vander Veer park, loving the gardens and the fish pond. Didn’t start ice skating until I was an adult, but one winter memory was walking on the pond, and seeing the gold fish under the ice. I thought they were frozen in there until one moved, slowly!

    3. Thank you so much for the lovely article about our wonderful Vander Veer park. I live only a 5 minute walk in the park and am so thrilled to be able to enjoy it on almost a daily basis. It is a wonderful place.
      One of the things I’ve enjoyed most is that each summer the park chooses a theme and builds the summer landscape to reflect that. This past year it was The Enchanted Park, with fairies, trolls and a topiary dragon, complete with lair and eggs, nesting on a huge fallen stump. they have also done “Clue,” with a scavenger hunt around the park to solve a mystery, and Candy Land, a big favorite. We also watch movies outside and have free concerts in the park right beside the Grand Allee.
      Hope you come soon and visit. Thanks again for a great write up. I’ll be sharing a link on my Facebook page for the park, “A Walk in Vander Veer Park”.
      Gail P. Smith
      Davenport, Iowa


    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here