A Twist of Fate
A natural disaster paved the way for this resourceful couple to plant a colorful retreat. Just how colorful? Try 20,000 annuals! Here's how they did it...
By Kathleen Zimmer-Anderson, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Helene Dykstra knows one thing for sure. "My husband, Bill, has gardening in his blood. He grew up on a farm and just needs to grow things," she says with a laugh. "As soon as we bought our property, 29 years ago, we started planting things."
When their five children were small, the couple concentrated on raising vegetables to feed the family and sell at the local farmers market in Blomkest, Minnesota. The kids all pitched in and helped with sowing, weeding and harvesting.
As the children began leaving home, Bill and Helene cut back on the veggie patch and began putting flower beds in around the house. These modest efforts eventually blossomed into an all-consuming passion—but it took a home renovation project and a natural disaster to get the Dykstras really going.
"We added a four-season porch onto the house for our handicapped daughter, Sara, complete with a fireplace," relates Helene. "Our son Bob finished it off with fieldstone, an abundant natural resource here on the prairie.
"It looked so pretty, we gathered more rocks, and he and Bill used them to create a waterfall with a stream that flows into a small pond near the porch. Surrounding this new feature with flowers came next, and we spread out our gardening efforts from there."
Winds of Change
About the same time, a small tornado hit the area and ripped through an old grove of trees adjacent to Bill and Helene's home, creating an open space that needed attention. Bill and Helene took advantage of the new meadow and began planting in earnest.
"We filled the area with flowers and developed wide, wheelchair-accessible paths using crushed granite, which packs together well and forms an almost-solid surface," Helene says. "We used fieldstone to line some of the beds and form rock walls and planters.
"The grove's look is more natural compared to the structured, formal flower beds near the house. We've accessorized the area with birdhouses and feeders, benches and a gazebo. We also left a few logs and stumps from the trees the tornado blew down."
There are lush perennials beds, featuring prairie grasses, sedum, blue salvia, purple coneflowers, rudbeckia and more. But most of the flowers planted around the Dykstras' property are annuals - a whopping 20,000 at last count, ranging from lantanas and "Wave" petunias to cleome, diascia, 40 different varieties of coleus and a winding ribbon of begonias that twines around an old tree trunk.
"I just love the annuals we grow. They offer the best color and expand so quickly," says Helene. "We have a lot of space to fill!"
Each August, Bill orders about 20,000 to 30,000 annual seedlings called plugs, which are delivered at the beginning of March and housed in the two greenhouses on the property. He cares for the seedlings indoors until the weather warms enough for him to start hardening them off outside.
Then this farmer's son starts to work the land by hand. He turns over each flower bed with a pitchfork and transplants half of the annuals using a simple trowel when the threat of frost has passed.
"Bill does the planting all by himself, and it takes him about 3 weeks, working in the evenings and on weekends. Did I mention that he has a full-time job, too? Spring is a busy time for my husband," Helene says. "Bill sells the rest of the annuals, and the proceeds cover the cost of our gardens each year."
Once the annuals are in the ground, Helene jumps into the fray. "Bill and I weed together, and we have to start almost right away in order to keep everything nice and neat," she points out.
"We don't use any herbicides or motorized tools to weed and maintain the gardens. Those things might make the chores easier, but we've found that if we stay on top of the weeds, they never get out of control and we wind up with plenty of time to enjoy our efforts."
Plenty of other folks appreciate the Dykstras' gardens, too. The couple figures that hundreds of people tour their property each year, including garden clubs and residents from area nursing homes.
A Good Cause
Helene hosts tea parties for special groups, and she and Bill have held open houses as fund-raisers for local charities, too. "We never charge admission, although we do accept free-will donations that are then given to nonprofit groups in our area," she notes.
"Although we will do a small amount of advertising for open houses, most people find out about our gardens by word of mouth. We're thrilled when guests like that drop by. It makes our work extra rewarding."
There is a select group Bill and Helene especially look forward to seeing each year. "Our five grandchildren love to visit and investigate," says Helene, smiling. "Not only do they like to wander along the winding paths, pick flowers and ask questions—they also don't mind helping Bill and me rake and clean things up each fall."
In addition to pulling all the spent plant material, Bill and Helene burn the perennial beds each year. "Although we read that we should do it every other year or so, the flower beds are so packed with faded plants that it's simply easier to use fire to clear them out," Helene relates. "Our annual controlled burns haven't hurt the perennials at all. In fact, those plants seem to come back stronger the next year."
The biggest trick Bill and Helene have learned over the years is to not overthink a project. "My best advice is to just try it," says Helene.
"If the plant you want to grow doesn't work, you can always replace it with something else, or if you don't like the hardscaping you've started, you can alter it. But if you don't try in the first place, you'll never know what the project will turn out to be.
"It's actually quite a relief to put a plan into action rather than stew about it. And nothing takes my mind off other worries than a good weeding session in the garden," she adds.
"I'm the first one to admit that our gardening hobby has gotten a bit out of control. But it's a great activity that Bill and I can do together—and that's one of the best benefits, as far as I'm concerned."