As we all know and have witnessed, gardening has its highs and lows, its ups and downs. To achieve the highs we tend to rely on our favorite garden standbys such as tulips, hostas, yarrow, geraniums and mums. They ensure that our gardens will be filled with foliage and flower from spring to autumn. As for the lows, we accept them as part of the natural order of things.
Yet, some gardeners willingly plunge ahead with experimental ideas in the never-ending quest to enhance the beauty of the garden. They venture into unique ways of working with plants, welcome the experience of growing temperamental specimens and continually look forward to trying new things.
The result is a garden like the one grown by Jim and Laura Owens. The garden has had its ups and downs over the years -- some flowers blooming better one year than the next.
Even now it has its highs and lows -- literally.
Various sections of the garden are cultivated at ground level in neat flower beds encouraging visitors to amble alongside their gentle curves. Parts of the garden grow at eye level in containers placed around a wooden deck next to the house. Flowers and vines also thrive overhead, suspended in pots attached to a pergola or climbing up fence posts. Finally, another garden area, about 8-feet below the main garden spot, completes the ups and downs of the Owens' garden.
Dependable yet daring
Located on a small city lot on a short street, their garden is one of beauty, charm and interest, a mirror image of the gardeners themselves. While their garden is a blend of ups and downs, their gardening style a mixture of dependable and daring.
``Would you believe my husband is going to espalier an apple tree?'' asked Laura. ``It will take about five years. He's optimistic, isn't he?'' she quipped. The intended espalier now merely looks like a three foot stick poking up between a row of boxwood shrubs at the front of the house. At the right corner, the contortions of a Harry Lauder curly hazelnut catch the eye. The unusual corylus specimen twists and curls like the walking stick used by the popular singer and entertainer of the early 1900s.
A sunny flower bed at the left of the driveway is bordered on one side by a decorative picket fence.
``That came from our house on 21st Street,'' Jim said. Reportedly, it was present during the time of Quantrill's raid on Lawrence. ``We weren't though,'' he joked.
The bed shows off the large pink peonies in full bloom, the delicate white flowers of snow-in-summer and blue blossoms of scabiosa. A striking clump of Japanese iris are just beginning their deep purple bloom at the garden's back edge. At its center, seedling Black-eyed-Susans are making their way up a wooden structure.
``This is a new experiment,'' Laura explained. ``We've tried tomatoes and morning glories (without success.)'' Colorful pansies remain happy during the relative cool of spring's beginning. ``We'll replace them when the weather heats up,'' she said. ``Too bad they don't last.''
Suited for shade
Three large maple trees shade a curved bed on the right side of the front yard. ``As the trees got bigger, I've had to readjust my planting,'' admitted Laura. The challenge came in knowing what to plant under such shady conditions as well as selecting plants that could compete with the trees' root systems. Now, hostas, coral bells and impatiens thrive in the dim light.
At one edge of the bed a large mound of snow-in-summer encircles a fence post. ``In the early days, when they settled the state, someone got the idea of drilling rock to make fence posts since wood was so scarce,'' Jim explained. Faint drill markings are visible in the post. The light color of the rock post contrasts well with the shade behind it.
Two white cast iron urns, filled with flowers, stand erect near the front of the house. The Owens have moved the urns as they have moved. ``They go with us,'' Jim declared.
Containers and corners
We made our way to the back garden by passing through a wonderful deck, part of which is shaded by a mature wisteria vine, its fragrance and flower petals being carried on the wind.
Numerous containers filled with bright begonias take up residence on the deck. A strawberry jar holds several strawberry plants, one of which is ripe with three juicy red berries. A showy tree lantana and an unusual pencil cactus compete for visitors' attention. A mandevilla vine cascades from a pot in the corner. ``The hotter it is, the more it flowers,'' Laura claimed.
``It's kind of a hobby for the two of us,'' she went on. ``He does the pots and the watering. I do the low stuff and deciding where to put things.''
From the deck we stepped into the backyard. Garden beds encircle a small patch of grass. The fences that enclose the space feature clematis vines climbing at each post. We followed a stone path past a sizable rose garden. Several roses bloomed, fragrant and perfectly shaped. Their vigorous health is due to Jim's attention. ``Jim does the spraying,'' Laura acknowledged.
A small water garden, a fairy rose and several neatly planted annuals decorate the border as the stone path makes its way to another pool. The second pond is fashioned from a circular stainless steel structure and is surrounded by fragrant alyssum and verbena. Campanula, sweet William and ground cover fill in empty spaces.
Across the space at the end of the grass, a decorative iron fence marks the edge of a garden hidden below eye level. Only the tree tops of two birch and a pine growing in it are visible from our vantage point on the main level. The rest of this hidden garden is seen only after descending several stone steps.
Stepping into this hidden garden is an experience in green solitude. Guests are surrounded by lush plants and become oblivious to the surrounding city life. Abundant strands of green vinca hide the fading remains of spring bulbs. Climbing roses are making a start up both sides of an arbor. Sprawling hostas fan out at the far end. We paused for a welcome respite in this quiet space before returning to the main level and the last leg of our tour around the other side of the house.
A sturdy wooden pergola with clematis vines reaching upward along each post and hanging baskets filled with annuals adorn the walkway. Tall green ferns are held back by a simple fence. Once we reached the garage Jim showed me his secrets for gardening success -- bags of potting soil for the container plants and a balanced fertilizer for the garden plants.
Yet, knowledgeable is not how the two of them started. As a young and, by their own admission, naive couple, Jim and Laura bought a greenhouse and floral shop in 1946, upon returning to Lawrence shortly after graduating from college. ``We didn't know anything about the floral business,'' Jim confessed. They had assumed they could make a go of it based on their enthusiasm and hard work.
``Two growers (who worked at the greenhouse) agreed to stay on. They saved us, while I concentrated on the retail part.'' The two of them kept the greenhouse, what is now Sunrise Garden Center, for 13 years before selling it to Fred Pence. Interestingly, their daughter, Laura Schulte, now owns it.
By now we had come full circle on our tour. Before I left I noticed another tiny garden. High above, near the center peak of the house, a window box blooms with pink and white geraniums, trailing vines moving in the breeze. ``I have to water that standing on the divan,'' said Jim.
Yes, the Owens' garden truly does have its highs and lows. At the end of my visit, as if to punctuate the up and down nature of gardening, Laura said, rather philosophically, ``Gardens do yield surprises and disappointments.''
Jim simply answered, ``That's life, isn't it?''
-- Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. You can send e-mail to her at gardenspot