After 40 years of dispensing gardening advice in magazines and newspapers, Jan Riggenbach will be giving some personal pointers to Chicago-area readers.
At 11 a.m. on Saturday, March 15, the Omaha resident will be the first of dozens of speakers to take the podium over the nine-day run of the Chicago Flower & Garden Show at Navy Pier.
Riggenbach, who focuses on the tough conditions faced by Midwest gardeners, for many years had room to indulge and experiment on 30 acres. She since downsized and is still learning what works and what doesn't on smaller lots.
"Big Ideas for Smaller Gardens" is the topic of her seminar. Striving for more impact, more fun and less work is the idea.
"This is a reflection of what I am doing with my own new city garden," says Riggenbach. Her book "Your Midwest Garden: An Owner's Manual," a compilation of columns and other information, was published last year.
In visits with gardeners around the Midwest, Riggenbach said she has encountered many who are faced with less garden space and limited energy and/or time. So have show organizers.
"Seventy percent of our attendees come from the suburbs but a fair amount of people ask, 'What can we do in a small space?'" said Tony Abruscato, show director and president of Flower Show Productions.
"Jan's not hard to find in the gardening community. With her new book coming out and things she's done over the course of her career, she was somebody exciting for us," to have as part of the show, he added.
Riggenbach says she will share her "less can be more" discoveries.
"It's my garden style. Now my attention has turned to having the biggest impact with the easiest plants," she said.
"I've discovered it's also on the minds of a lot of other people. They may have a lack of space or they may have a lack of time but everybody wants the biggest impact with the least effort."
Some examples include:
• Pint-size shrubs, such as Little devil ninebark and Little Lime hydrangea, require little pruning and don't require a lot of space.
• Avoid perennials that spread aggressively such as ladybells and spotted bellflower.
• Favor trouble-free varieties like coral bells, that can take the heat.
• Depend on slow-growing perennials such as gas plant and goat's beard that last long and don't need dividing.
• Increase food production by growing vegetables in permanent raised beds and by landscaping with berry-producing shrubs and other edible plants.
• Plant a diverse mix so a disease or pest won't take out a large segment of the landscape. "It's so easy to fall into the trap of loving a ton of one kind of plant," Riggenbach says.
• Celebrate our Midwest heritage by landscaping with ornamental prairie grasses an other native plants.
"I had a lot of plans but I also was surprised that everything didn't work out the way I thought it would," she said. "It's kind of an ongoing effort to get the right plant in the right place."
In keeping with the "Do Green, Do Good" theme of the show, Riggenbach said she will emphasize environmentally friendly practices. Planting native wildflowers, such as boneset, golden alexander and asters, for example, will attract pollinators and beneficial insects.
Riggenbach also advocates conserving water via rain gardens and rain barrels and careful plant selection. Eliminating tilling, mowing and edging can conserve fossil fuels, she added.
Besides the daily seminars, the show includes a stage and several mini-classroms that will feature live gardening demonstrations and how-to tips on shrub pruning, dividing perennials and other topics. Organizers say there will be more than 150 educational workshops and seminars.
The 170,000-square-foot venue also will feature 26 display gardens to include 70 varieties of tulips and 20 varieties of hyacinths, for example, Abruscato said.
"We're in there so long," he said of the duration of the show, "my seasonal allergies kick in."
Speaking of the season, the winter that won't end bodes well for plants here, according to Riggenbach.
"Having the persistent snow cover is a lot better for plants than not having one," she said.
"It's an insulating blanket. I would say your area is set up for a very good spring."