Garden Tour: A Living Canvas | Midwest Living

Garden Tour: A Living Canvas

Val Ortberg’s 2-acre Iowa lot is a work of art—an exceptional study in contrast, color and form.
  • Budding artist

    Taking in Val and Kelly Ortberg’s gardens is like viewing a series of landscape paintings. The front porch, rose-laden arbor and wildflower meadow evoke the loose brushstrokes of a Monet watercolor; the tidy rows of arborvitae and clipped boxwood recall an oil by Grant Wood. Yet this is a living canvas, and the collective is a sublime oasis for family, friends, birds, butterflies and bees.

  • Fragrant roses

    An arbor covered with John Davis roses makes the path to a side patio irresistible. An abundance of blooms forces walkers to turn sideways to pass through. 

  • Starting line

    Even before Val, her husband, Kelly, and their two daughters moved into the 1903 Cedar Rapids home, she envisioned spaces inspired by her passion for plants and vintage architectural finds. Background came first with a row of tall, columnar evergreens spaced far enough apart to leave the yard open while creating the illusion of an enclosure.

    Pictured: Val borrowed landscape from existing mature trees to add depth to her gardens.

  • Layered perspective

    Val stands amid hollyhocks purportedly from Monet’s garden in Giverny, France, that were gifted to her at a garage sale. She shares the collecting spirit of her grandma, an Avon rep who picked up seeds along her route. 

  • Clip art

    By outlining each garden with boxwood, Val lets the formal lines of the low shrubbery provide contrast and structure to an assortment of plantings, including herbs, vegetables and flowers. “You don’t need a formal garden to include clipped hedges,” Val says. “They work just as well in a casual space, plus they provide some winter interest.”

  • Vantage points

    Salvaged architecture gathered from numerous antiquing trips and garage sales completes each garden. Here, a metal roof finial centers four herb beds.

  • Painted pentas

    Long-blooming pentas attract butterflies. “I plant for birds, bees and butterflies,” Val says. “They complete the picture.”

  • Picture perfect

    The English conservatory rescued from teardown serves as both a greenhouse and sunroom getaway at the rear of the property. “I love how its vintage character brings a sense of time and peacefulness to the gardens,” Val says. “Plus, it looks pretty picturesque back there.” 

  • Pick a palette

    “I like all kinds of plants, so it’s easy for me to go overboard quickly,” Val says. “I’ve learned to edit my palette to pinks, purples and whites. Those colors give me the peaceful feel I want. And the limited palette keeps me focused when I buy.”

  • Splatter planting

    In the exuberant meadowlike garden, Val ignores common advice to plant in threes or fives and instead scatters more than 30 kinds of annuals and perennials into the mix. Some grow in swaths; others emerge as individual specimens. Below are eight of her favorite varieties.

    1. Hyssop Easy-care, long-blooming, attracts butterflies and hummingbirds

    2. Coneflower Easy-care native with long-lasting blooms

    3. Bee balm Prairie native, magnet for butterflies and bees

    4. Globe thistle Large steel-blue spheres, drought-tolerant, perennial

    5. Blue salvia Profuse summer-long blooms, drought-tolerant

    6. Blazing star Ideal for hot, sunny spots; attracts pollinators

    7. Shasta daisy Carefree with large, abundant blooms

    8. Balloon flower Tolerates partial shade, fantastic cut flower

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