Planted in a metal dishpan in heavy soil with no drainage and limited light, the tomato seeds shouldn't have done well. But a little girl's window sill experiment thrived in spite of those mistakes and neighbors scrambled for extras.
That accidental success kick started Jan Riggenbach's passion for gardening and framed what has become her life's work. For nearly 40 years as a magazine and newspaper columnist, the Nebraska resident has offered clear observations and practical tips specifically focused on gardening in the Midwest, where plants need to be tough and adaptable to weather extremes.
They haven't met in person, but after nearly 2,000 weekly columns in local newspapers, including the Daily Herald, readers have come to know Riggenbach well. However, gardening fans who have been clipping and saving for years began to complain -- they couldn't find the advice they needed when they needed it. So Riggenbach has fulfilled a long-standing promise with the new book "Your Midwest Garden: An Owner's Manual" a compilation of updated columns with charts and an index for easy reference published by the University of Nebraska Press.
"People have been asking for it quite a long time," said Riggenbach, whose column is geared to gardeners in 12 Midwest states.
In the 1970s, Riggenbach lived in Omaha, Neb., and filled her typical city lot with plenty of plants. Her experience became well known and she routinely fielded questions her husband brought home from co-workers. At the time, there was a resurgence in locally grown food. Was there a bigger audience for her advice?
"His first idea was I should do a newsletter but I didn't like that," Riggenbach said.
Instead, she sent out a month of sample columns to several newspapers and then went on vacation. When she returned, there were responses from four publications and a self-syndicated column was launched. At its peak, "Midwest Gardening" was carried in 25 newspapers.
At the time, the family shifted gears and moved to a 30-acre spread in southwest Iowa in a town called Glenwood, where they stayed for 38 years.
"I'm really kind of a generalist. In the country, I grew all our fruits and vegetables," she said.
Riggenbach said much of the advice she found in her research didn't apply to the Midwest, however.
"I only wanted to offer it to areas that had the same conditions," she said of the column. She also learned that telling a good story, like asking a local farmer about using spoiled hay for mulch, was as valuable as the information it conveyed.
"That's what really appeals to people more than telling them the rules of gardening. It's more enjoyable to read," she said.
"I let my readers teach me to write. If I got a lot of feedback from a column, I knew I'd done something right."
Last summer, the family moved back to Omaha. At just under an acre, the lot is still sizable but just a fraction of what she had become used to.
"I could grow anything I wanted there," she said of her former home. "Now, I'm fine-tuning to get the best of the best, I hope."
We asked Riggenbach to share some thoughts on the move and other advice for Midwest gardeners.
Q. Through the years, what have you found to be the biggest mistake Midwest gardeners tend to make?
A. Lacking courage to try. Gardening isn't nearly as difficult as some people seem to think -- and besides, you can bury your mistakes in the compost pile and quickly forget them. There's a tremendous sense of satisfaction when things go right.
Q. Do you see any particular difficulties or advantages coming for gardeners this spring based on conditions this past winter?
A. Every year is different and I don't believe anyone really knows what is going to happen from one year to the next. One spring following a severe drought, I was asked to give a program on how to cope with dry weather. I titled my presentation "Dry, Dry Again." On my way to the program, it rained so hard I could barely keep my vehicle on the Interstate. I've never forgotten how quickly things can change. The best bet is to plant adaptable plants that can take all the extremes. Some of my favorites include sedums (both creeping types and tall varieties), boltonia, blue oat grass, dense blazing star, and flowering onions.
Q. What are some of the more durable and colorful flowers we can enjoy in the Midwest?
A. The big three are peonies, day lilies and irises, but there are many, many others. Gas plant for sun and goatsbeard for shade, for example, are two superb perennials that are slow to establish but then are there for the long haul and never need to be divided.
Q. What's unique about the Midwest garden?
A. We have a lot going for us here. Our soils tend to be deep and rich, without all the rocks found in New England. Our winters are cold enough that we can easily grow favorites like lilacs and tulips, which are next to impossible in the South. Cold weather also means we have fewer insect pests than in warmer regions. On the other hand, our weather extremes mean that our plants have to be very adaptable to take both intense heat and bitter cold, soggy soil and severe droughts. Fortunately, many plants are up to the task, particularly Midwest natives such as purple coneflower, blue false indigo, purple prairie clover, white woodland aster, Solomon's seal, bergamot, and switch grass.
Q. What are the challenges for you starting over on a smaller plot of land? Are you changing what you're growing?
A, In the decades of planting a wide variety of plants on our former acreage, I came to really appreciate the diversity. Not only are all the different shades of green and varying textures beautiful but diversity also makes common sense.
For example, we all know what happened when elms were overplanted in cities across the Midwest, then wiped out by Dutch elm disease. Unfortunately, Midwesterners didn't learn their lesson and replaced the elms with too many ashes, now threatened by the emerald ash borer. I always tell people to look at what trees and shrubs are growing in their neighborhood, then plant something else. Trying to pack all the diversity I want into a city lot is a challenge, but luckily there are now a host of pint-size shrubs such as Gold Tide forsythia and Little Devil ninebark available. And skinny trees like Slender Silhouette sweet gum and Cupressina Norway spruce also help me pack more variety into limited space.
I'm happy to leave behind aggressive perennials such as ladybells, yellow archangel (except the well-behaved variety named Herman's Pride), spotted bellflowers, and gooseneck loosestrife. Turf is out, too, to leave more room for more interesting plants that also happen to be easier to maintain. I'll no longer be able to grow a year's supply of space hogs like sweet corn and potatoes like I did when my vegetable garden was an acre, but I still plan to raise a lot of crops in my seven new 4 by 8-foot raised beds. By landscaping with blueberry, aronia, currant, and gooseberry shrubs, plus strawberries for a ground cover in a sunny spot, I'll be able to produce a lot of fruit in limited space.
Q. What perennials did you take with you?
A. I'd been preparing for a move for the last two years, so whenever I divided perennials or dug out extra seedlings, I squirreled them away in small pots in a nursery bed. By the time we moved, I had about 200 different kinds, including more than a dozen different sedums, Sweet Joanne penstemon, spike gayfeather, reblooming irises, Millennium and Pink Planet alliums, Firewitch dianthus, timber phlox, celandine poppy, Virginia bluebells, several kinds of perennial geraniums, Lenten rose, foamflower, bottle gentian, Nora Leigh garden phlox, plumbago, Alabama Sunrise foamy bells, and a collection of barrenworts. It's easy and fun to start over with perennials but it's hard to be patient while waiting for slow-growing dwarf conifers to attain the size of the ones I left behind.