March 20

From the “garden” of Jan Riggenbach


RiggenbachJan Riggenbach is the author of
 Midwest Gardener’s Handbook and a longtime garden columnist and feature writer for Midwest Living magazine. Her recent release, Your Midwest Garden is a guide to the flowers, shrubs, vegetables, fruits, and other plants that thrive and make beautiful Midwest gardens. Below she tells us her “Gardner Story.”

For years I’ve
heard from readers who have a shoebox full of my garden columns clipped from
the newspaper. Over and over, I heard the same complaint: “I can never find the
column I’m looking for when I need it.”

I promised
I would gather the columns into a book. This year, in Your Garden: An Owner’s
Manual
, it finally happened. I laughingly tell readers that the index is the
most important part of the book because now they can find what they’re looking
for.

I’ve read
and reviewed a lot of garden books over the years, but the ones I keep are the
reference books that I turn to again and again. To help make my own book a
useful reference, I added plant lists so you could see at a glance, for
example, which perennials to plant for fall bloom or what annuals will thrive
in the shade. In the appendix, I added a month-by-month garden chore list, fine-tuned
for Midwest gardens.

My
audiences gasp when I tell them it took me almost 40 years to write this book,
but it’s true. In that time, I’ve written nearly 2,000 columns from which this
book was distilled.

You could
even say the book took me a lifetime to write. I was only seven when I started
a package of tomato seeds in a metal dishpan. Not knowing any better, I did
everything wrong. The pan had no drainage holes, I used heavy garden soil, I didn’t
thin the seedlings for good air circulation, and I gave them no supplemental light
beyond the window where I put the pan. But the plants thrived in spite of me
and were so healthy that neighbors begged to buy the extras.

That early
success set me on a pathway of garden enjoyment and later to a career as a
garden cheerleader, encouraging others to get enjoyment from gardening. Just do
what I do: bury your mistakes in the compost pile and celebrate the successes.

My readers
taught me how to write. Looking back, I see that the first couple of years my
columns were much too formal. Now is the time to do this or do that, I’d write.
One time, though, long before the practice of mulching had become commonplace,
I told the story about stopping to see what it would cost to buy the square
bales of spoiled hay in a farmer’s field so I could use it for mulch.
Incredulous that anyone would see any value in spoiled hay, the farmer’s mouth
twitched as he tried to surpass his laugh before finally saying, “I reckon it
would be free.”

It was the
easiest column I’d ever written but I got many more comments than ever before.
That’s when I knew: people love stories. So all these years since, I’ve just
kept doing what I love most: working in my garden, and then telling my readers the
stories about what I’m doing.

– Jan Riggenbach