Garden Tour: Deep Roots | Midwest Living

Garden Tour: Deep Roots

How does an Iowa garden catch the Smithsonian’s eye? With plant stories wrapped around the likes of Johnny Appleseed, Grant Wood and a band of German Pietists.

Wilma Rettig hated gardening as a kid.  That much has changed through the decades, but little else has in her yard in  the eastern Iowa town of South Amana. And that’s a big reason the Smithsonian Institution took notice.

Wilma grew up in her grandparents’ 1900 brick house in one of seven villages comprising the Amana Colonies. Settled in 1855 by German Pietists seeking religious freedom, the Amanas embraced a practical, self-sufficient, communal way of life for nearly 80 years.

Wilma’s mom cooked in one of the colonists’  55 kitchens; her dad served as a farm manager. Although Wilma was born after the colonists disbanded in 1932, she still got in on plenty of gardening as her mom kept up the big plot for their own family. “I remember coming outside to face a table full of big cabbages that had to be cut up,” Wilma says. “As a kid I hated it, but now that the garden is mine, I love it.”

Larry Rettig and his father built this screen house, now covered with sweet autumn clematis and surrounded by daylilies. Larry opts for mostly pastel hues to achieve a peaceful color scheme. ​

The 4,500-square-foot veggie garden sprouts colonist staples like Amana radish, egg lettuce, Ebenezer onion, ground cherry and European black salsify.

 “Amana villages were surrounded by large kitchen gardens that might be three-fourths of a mile long,” says Wilma’s husband, Larry, who also grew up in the colonies. “Individual kitchens—and there were up to 12 of them in each village—had their own plots to raise enough vegetables to feed 35–40 people for a year.”

(Clockwise from top left): Salsify's long black roots are peeled like a carot and simmered, while Amana radishes readily self-sow, making for an effortless second fall harvest; Hyacinth bean scampers up a rustic pergola; a classic Iowa flower, easygrowing tigerliles erupt in fiery blooms; Amana pole beans fade to yellow before harvest.

The couple credit the nearby Cedar Rapids Garden Club with alerting them to the Smithsonian’s search for historically significant Midwest gardens to document in its Archives of American Gardens. “There was a long list of requirements,” Larry says. “We met all the criteria except having a name, which we resolved by calling it Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens.” Now their plot of South Amana soil is in the same collection as works by venerable landscape architects like Jens Jensen and the Olmsted brothers.

“We didn’t set out for that recognition,” Larry says. When the Rettigs moved back after living away for 17 years, they worried that many wonderful plants from the kitchen gardens of communal Amana were only grown in private gardens. “Once those gardeners died, the varieties would die with them,” Larry says. “So we decided to rescue and collect seeds and establish a seed bank.”

 The heirloom varieties offer more flavor and keep better than newer types, Wilma says, noting the Amana radish stores so well that some families traditionally ate it on New Year’s Day.

While Wilma focuses on the vegetable garden, Larry’s interest lies in rare and heirloom ornamentals, many grown in more than 200 containers. He gravitates to the stories behind the plants, such as a potted mother-in-law’s tongue started from the one Grant Wood painted in Woman with Plants and an apple tree propagated from a cutting of an Ohio tree Johnny Appleseed planted.

(Clockwise from top): Old-fashioned phlox and purple coneflower border the meadow garden; Vanilla Strawberry hydrangea, purple gladiolus, daylily ‘Indian Sky’ and heirloom phlox grow near an arbor supporting vining asparagus fern; climbing gloriosa lilies dazzle in the meadow garden.

A philanthropist bequeathed Larry this descendent of a mother-in-law’s tongue painted by Grant Wood. 

“Flowers were considered frivolous in communal Amana, and trees planted were primarily fruit or nut trees,” Larry says. That changed when a famous lithographer moved in and convinced elders he needed a trellis on his home to grow flowers for art. “They reluctantly agreed, noting his lithographs were bringing big bucks into the communal treasury. Everyone else soon followed suit.”

In time, a desire for individual expression trumped communal living. “That way of life is lost,” Larry says. “But we’re hoping this garden can help keep their stories and these seeds alive for years to come.”

Larry and Wilma Rettig

Plants with a Past

Want to add some legendary plants to your garden? These veggies sprouted in pre-1932 Amana plots.

Amana radish “You never know what color, shape or size you’ll get,” Wilma says—red, purple or white, and round or long. It stores extremely well.

Amana string bean This green pole bean is flat as opposed to the common round American bean. “They were often dried and then typically creamed,” Wilma says.

Celeriac Grown for its bulbous root rather than stalks, celeriac’s mild celery flavor enhances  salads and soups.

Ebenezer onion Superior keeping quality made this mild, yellow onion popular in the upper Midwest, where excess Amana crops were sold.

Egg lettuce Communal kitchens typically served this tender, slightly butter-flavor yellow lettuce with hard-boiled egg in the dressing—thus the name. Heat-resistant, it’s slow to develop bitter flavor.

European black salsify Milder than its American counterpart, this salsify is said to have a faint artichoke or asparagus flavor.

Ground cherry A member of the tomatillo family, this prolific self-seeder and American native (below) was quickly adopted by the colonists for pies and jams.

Also known as celery root, celeriac requires ample water to grow. 


Seeds (limited supply)  Book Gardening the Amana Way by Lawrence L. Rettig; $27.50, University of Iowa Press (




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