CEDAR RAPIDS — The lawn seems to embody serenity, the tranquil grounds stretching out before you in an emerald green vista. Every blade of grass looks as if it has been cut with manicure scissors, so meticulous is it. With three giant oaks and numerous tall pines shading the 16th Avenue property on the city’s southwest side, it is a cool, refreshing sight on a warm summer day.
Relaxing on a flagstone patio overlooking the green oasis are owners Everett and “Willie” Kroeze (pronounced cruise), experts in lawn care and the former owners of the longtime Cedar Rapids business, Holland Orchard.
The husband and wife team, 78- and 77-years-old respectively, retired and closed the business in 2007. But they stayed in their home on the site, and now rent out 55 acres of the 60 they own, keeping about 1.5 acres for their remarkable yard.
The couple emigrated from Holland in 1958.
“My dad was a landscapist along with two of my brothers…. I grew up in it, and it grows into you,” says the 6-foot 1-inch broad-shouldered Everett.
A self-admitted workaholic, he did the designing of the lawn, planted the trees when the pin oaks were mere spindles of promise, gathered rocks and boulders and strategically placed them about, sometimes in clusters, sometimes in splendid isolation. And the patio — the spacious flagstone patio he laid himself.
Then he and Willie planted the flowers that dot the utopian landscape, providing splashes of color here and there, some dainty ones spilling out of huge pots in this place or that, others erupting from the earth in borders, or as courtiers to bushes or boulders.
What joy does it give him?
“I like the beauty of the lawn … its privacy … and doing the actual upkeep, so that it always looks beautiful,” says Everett, with the trim, blond Willie nodding her head in avid agreement. “When I landscaped it,” he continues, “I always made sure there was a good view from anywhere you looked.”
Then, with a quiet laugh he adds: “I love stones and boulders. I must have a semi-load of boulders out here.” Kroeze is especially fond of “sponge” rocks, so called because they resemble a sponge, with many large and small pores.
If there’s a lawn in the city that comes close to being perfect, this is it. Kroeze attributes his penchant for being particular to his Dutch upbringing and to his service in the military. He recalls that inspections were rigorous and the officers rigid in their requirements for perfection. Says Kroeze: “Things like that stick with you.”
“He’s definitely more particular than I am,” chimes in Willie (short for ‘Willibrodia,’ her given name.) “They call him ‘Mr. Clean’… he’s been known to walk out of a restaurant if it doesn’t look clean to him.”
The hallmark of the yard is the couple’s — and especially Everett’s — pride and joy, the windmill. It’s a 7.5-foot version of a Dutch windmill. When a breeze or good wind comes along, its blades go a’whirring. The windmill is a pristine white, with a red box concealing the gears, and green trim finishing it off.
The reason it’s Kroeze’s pride and joy? Besides its being a symbol of his homeland, he proudly says “I made it all myself. With no blueprint.”
One of the yard’s most charming touches is a large black pot suspended yoke-like between the outsized wheels of what was once a farm wagon. The antique equipment was used to haul potatoes from a farmer’s potato patch to the pig lot to feed the pigs. Kroeze found the wagon and had a blacksmith make a new cast iron pot for it.
Now the coal-black pot spills over with bright red geraniums and dainty flowers of different hues. It’s accented on the ground by a craggy rock and a variegated dogwood euonymous bush set on a bed of lava rock. The combination creates a scene fit for a scenic postcard.
The former orchard owner chose low flowers and shrubbery by the patio so as not to obstruct the view of the rest of the garden. Showcasing this plan is a flat shrub, a “dwarf bird’s nest spruce,” so called because the depression in the center resembles a bird’s nest.
The couple have, in addition to the giant cast iron pot on the wagon, a variety of pots around the yard – but no plastic. Everett is adamant about that. “I like to work antiques into the yard. Plastic pots don’t do anything for me.”
One’s eyes are continually drawn to the huge trees that provide such cool shade for the lawn. The soaring beauties were planted 40 to 50 years ago by Kroeze himself.
Considering all the shade, what else would Kroeze have but shade-tolerant hosta? One oblong garden sports a beautiful elephant ear type that’s about 3 feet across. Kroeze’s big loves can also be seen here: sponge rocks, a boulder or two, an antique cast iron pot with blooming begonias, a cluster of small rocks centered with the spreading hens-and-chicks, an ancient weathered sundial, and for some color, an ornamental pepper plant.
Everett and Willie each come from a family of nine siblings and appreciate the tight bonds of family. “We had nothing,’ reflects Willie Kroeze about growing up in Holland, “but we had everything.” They’re proud of their own two children, a son who’s a landscape architect and a daughter who’s a substitute teacher, both in Illinois.
In 1963, the couple bought what was the old Richter Orchard and renamed it Holland Orchard. Their Dutch-born skill, hard work and innate honesty made the business thrive and it became renowned through the years. They sold their prize apples beside cider, jams, jellies, bread and cake mixes on the premises, and even Christmas trees. They won numerous Best Cider in the State awards from the then Iowa Fruit Growers Association.
Now the whole kit and kaboodle: house, gardens, the 60 acres, are in the path of the future Highway 100. Life as they know it will be gone for the Kroezes.
If it were 1958 again, would they still come to the United States?
“We’re glad we came to the States,” says Kroeze. “It’s the best country on Earth. You can do a lot for yourself. It’s the land of opportunity.”
And for them, it’s also the Garden of Eden.