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A Secret Garden
By Carol McGarvey | Photography by Ben Lochard
home :: home & garden :: featured gardens

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Ann Proctor’s outdoor garden room in Des Moines is a treat for the senses.

There are special rooms inside the house, and then there are outdoor rooms that really have no walls but plantings and no roof but the canopy of a wonderful old oak tree. Such is the case with Ann Proctor’s special outdoor space, a labor of love for 37 years.

A welcoming front yard with treasures such as Grandma Alice’s hostas and a side yard with perennial sweet peas and brugmansia in pots are all that passersby are privy to, but it’s the backyard that makes visitors say “wow.” Yellow hibiscus in pots carry the eye to a stand of yellow-flowered dill.

Over time, as various trees such as a pink dogwood, an oak, and a cherry tree have died, Ann filled in with other plantings and took the garden to a new direction. “The yard was overgrown when we moved here, and slowly, it took shape. Originally, there also were raspberries and lots of feral cats and snakes.” The changes helped create a new and evolving look.

Brick walkways

From the front of the house down the south side of it, she herself built a brick walkway, which then widens to a patio underfoot. “I would go out to Brody Brothers and buy groups of bricks in the 35-cent and other piles. If no one was there, I would leave my money for the bricks I purchased.”

Now she has staggered the blooming times of her plantings so that she has continuous color throughout the growing season.

The “room” gets dimension and height from a deck off the house and from meandering paths leading to small areas.

For special events, such as brunches and coffees, Ann sets up colorful small tables, which she sets with vintage silverware and Lenox china in the patterns Rutledge and Harwood. A sentimentalist, she holds up a china plate and acknowledges she would have loved to have had it as her wedding china, but it was so expensive. “Now I find it at sales, and it’s fun to purchase,” she says. The same is true for International and Gorham sterling. She also often uses colorful Quimper pottery, which has a festive folk art feel.

Special touches

To dress the tables, she uses her large collection of silver bud vases and picks tiny flower sprays to fill them. For a touch of whimsy, she sets each spot with a glass chicken, also collected over time. While many remember using those for special candies at Easter, Ann has a special purpose. “Of course, I fill them with chicken salad for luncheons,” she says with a smile.

One special area has a designated sign of certification. It’s a Monarch Butterfly Way Station, certified by the University of Kansas. The space is chock-full of coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, milkweed, and bee balm.

A special favorite is ‘Roguchi’, a delicately flowered type of climbing clematis, also known as ‘Purple Spider’. A number of other clematis add height to the garden. Other plantings, such as bougainvillea, clivia, stephanotis, honeysuckle topiaries, and ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum add interest around the grounds. Plus, to define the walkways, 104 boxwood bushes add a bit of formal flair.

Ann’s gardening journey began when her husband, David, an attorney, used to travel so much. “It really was a way to keep busy while he was gone,” she admits. The couple has two grown children and one grandson. Ann was trained as a nurse.

Garden getaway

A favorite spot is a small one-room structure that originally was Ann’s potting shed. Now it is her garden room, complete with a desk, TV, shelves of garden books, and garden-themed details, such as dragonfly pillows. She calls it “my getaway office. I love to spend time there.”

Throughout the garden are pieces of garden art, including wire sculptures, statuary, and eight frilly Victorian plant stands.

In winter, some plantings go into Ann’s basement greenhouse.

The gardens have been on two tours in the past couple years, the Secret Gardens of Waterbury and the Polk County Master Gardeners tour, Extraordinary Gardens by Ordinary People.

“One thing I’ve learned about gardening is that it’s important to share it with others, from tours to plants,” Ann says. She loves that a neighbor behind her house lets her plant in his backyard. “Some of my plants just do better in his sun. I get to plant more, and he gets a garden, too.”

When Ann’s hands aren’t busy in the garden, they are creative with her other favorite pastime, doing needlepoint. It’s no surprise that many of her projects have garden and flower themes.

Ann and David have decided that it’s time to downsize to a townhome. So, with bittersweet feelings, she will be leaving her special garden. Her feelings: “I can’t believe I did all this, and I hope the next owner loves it as much as I do.”


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