DeWITT, Iowa — Janis Harbison loves shopping for purses, buying as many as 10 at a time. It isn’t that she needs more bags for her personal belongings, though. These purses are for her garden. She fills them with bright blooming annual flowers, mostly impatiens, and sets them around her yard in DeWitt.
Other unusual flower “pots” include: shoes, a grille, a coal bucket, her mom’s Maytag wringer washing machine, golf bags, pots and pans, and a treadle sewing machine.
For her, finding and filling these interesting pieces — many with a story behind them — is all part of the creative process of gardening.
Last month, Janis won first place in the “most unusual container” category of the container garden contest at the Clinton County Fair in DeWitt. Her entry: Her dad’s bib overalls attached to a wood hanger with pink impatiens blooming from the pockets and trouser hems. In the three years of the contest, judges have seen a lot of different containers, but overalls were a first.
Today, her entry is on the clothesline in the backyard she tends with her husband Wayne. Enclosed by a 6-foot-high vinyl fence, the yard is a quiet, private, nobody-here-but-us haven where they can putter together after work — she as a caseworker for the Department of Human Services in Davenport and he as a welder for the John Deere Dubuque Works.
“I feel closest to God in church and in my backyard,” she said.
The vinyl fence provides a backdrop for flowers, shrubs and grasses on all three sides, and the plantings are edged in front with pavers arranged in sweeping curves. The middle of the yard is dominated by a tall silver maple that shades the entire area and creates a feeling of serenity.
The garden did not spring up overnight, though. When Janis bought the house 19 years ago, she looked at the yard and said to herself, “This could be nice someday.”
She worked on it a little at a time, beginning with the hiring of landscapers to replace the railroad tie edging and, bit by bit, create the curved planting beds edged in pavers or landscape block.
Wayne joined her when they married seven years ago, and that’s also about the time they began getting creative with containers.
“I have the ideas and he makes them work,” Janis says.
Many of the items came from family, and several were purchased at Wayne’s mother’s auction in 2011. They’re still thinking of uses for a wooden ironing board, two wood sleds, a Radio Flyer coaster wagon, wooden peach crates and several chairs.
In addition to working on containers together, the couple shares watering duties, about an hour in the front and back each night, especially in this ultra-dry year.
They get their love of plants and gardening naturally. Janis grew up with women who loved flowers and Wayne used to farm.
While containers dominate the backyard, the signature look of their front yard is eye-catching red geraniums, planted all along the foundation, in hanging pots and in beds around their flagpole.
One year Janis planted pink geraniums for something different and she actually received a note from someone asking her to go back to red.
Although the yard is a sanctuary — a kind of secret garden — the couple loves opening it up for guests. They have an annual Fourth of July party and host regular church gatherings. They’ve also hosted two bridal showers and her class reunion, and this year they’re gearing up for Wayne’s 60th birthday celebration.
Lucky guests receive a planted purse as a parting gift.