CEDAR RAPIDS — There’s a lot of flower and vegetable gardening that you can do with a standard city lot of 50-by-140 feet. If you don’t think so, just take a look at Cindy and Tom Fagan’s home on Fourth Avenue SE near Bever Park.
Cindy is the family gardener. She has everything from a clay pot holding the ever-so-popular “fairy garden” (a tiny version of a real garden, in a small container), to a 3-foot “big bluestem” grass that can grow to 5 and 6 feet. This is to say nothing of her tall true lilies and a height-defying border hibiscus with blossoms the size of plates, these in warm pink with nail-polish red centers.
Counting the backyard, the borders at the sides of the house, and the front yard, Cindy also has a hydrangea tree, a small curly willow bush (it’s tall with curly foliage), Siberian iris, blue delphiniums, naked ladies (the only thing blushing is their blush pink blossoms), clematis, coneflowers — “I love coneflowers,” Cindy says — hosta, geraniums, salvia, petunias, lavender, peonies and a “butterfly bush,” so named because — you guessed it — it attracts butterflies.
A master gardener, Cindy also has four raised vegetable beds at the side of the house, where she grows rhubarb, asparagus, basil, tomatoes, peppers, lettuces and sweet potatoes.
“I’ve gardened all my life,” she says. “I gardened with my mother when I was little. She had a big vegetable garden and flowers, too. She had a restaurant in our small town of Wesley in northern Iowa. She grew tomatoes and onions for the restaurant … and she canned, too.”
The backyard is the main summer hub of activity at the Fagan household, though. And the focal point is the brick patio, centered at the rear by a pedestal that holds the bowl of a fountain spilling over with “raspberry sorbet” petunias.
Standing at the front of the patio, you see a blizzard of the delicate pink petunias edged in crimson falling this way and that. The fence behind them is covered with thick climbing ivy.
A do-it-yourselfer, Cindy laid the bricks for the patio and walkway. Particularly fond of blue and pink, she’s sprinkled those colors all about the premises in one form or another, from flowers to ceramic balls. At each corner of the patio is a dark blue Adirondack chair behind which is a cobalt blue bottle on a pole, holding citronella oil to ward away the insects.
In the center of the patio is a fire pit, also constructed by Fagan. This is something the whole family — and extended family — enjoy immensely, she says.
Her husband, Tom Fagan, is one of nine siblings from a longtime Cedar Rapids family. Seven siblings live in and around the city.
“A lot of them are runners and run in the Freedom Festival race on the Fourth,” relates Cindy Fagan, whose family doesn’t live around here. “The night before, we have the ‘team meal.’ We have spaghetti here and everybody brings something to eat. We have the fire and just hang out.”
Her garden isn’t just a place to gather, it is her chance to relax.
“ ... Gardening brings my blood pressure down,” she says. “All day long I’m racing around and I get home and can putz around in the garden; it’s a great feeling.”
Fagan is a school nurse at three elementary schools in the Cedar Rapids Community School District. In the summer she teaches a gardening class in Hiawatha for day care students and neighborhood kids and cares for nine raised beds. She also volunteers at Camp Wapsie, maintaining the flower beds and grounds.
At home she spends several hours a week in the garden in the spring and just an hour or two a week in the summer, most of it weeding and watering.
Her favorite part of gardening is “just the serenity of working with the flowers and the dirt. It calms me, gives me a connected feeling to the earth. It’s a good feeling to be in the dirt but a good feeling to come in the house, scrub your nails, get all clean — and relax.”
Fagan had to switch gears from a shade garden to a sunny garden when the couple lost a large maple that had shaded the whole backyard. They kept the stump as a memory and she’s “decorated” it with a blue ceramic pot with Monet petunias and white Diamond Frost.
Polishing off the effect on the stump is an asymmetrical arrangement of rocks, “my rock sculpture,” Fagan says, smiling.
Her goal with the tree gone was to make the space more useful, hence the patio/fire pit idea. And the “fairy garden?” Some are expansive, but this one is contained — and charming. It’s in a regular-size clay pot and holds “woolly thyme” (thyme that has little hairs on it); a creeper with tiny pink flowers, joined by an Alpine strawberry plant that has larger leaves (comparatively speaking). Alpines grow tiny strawberries in white, yellow or red.
Finishing off the scene is a 3-inch blue birdhouse and a couple of 1-inch green/white polka-dot mushrooms, with some miniature gray polished stones nestled in the greenery.
Attracting hummingbirds by the walkway is the beauteous tropical plumbago, which has pale blue bushy blossoms — a delight for a blue flower lover. Adjacent to it is the sweet autumn clematis, which, when in bloom in late summer, is a bevy of lightly fragrant white blossoms. There’s also a John Paul II — white with an oh-so-delicate pink rib on the petals that was bred by (understandably) a Polish monk — variety by the Fagans’ deck.
Tom Fagan is the deputy treasurer for Linn County. The couple have three adult children and none so far, alas, have caught the gardening bug from their mother.
But one of these nights, when they’re sitting around the fire pit, they might spot the hanging basket with the lush raspberry sorbet petunias, or cast an admiring glance at a snow white lily or rest their gaze on the lovely petals of the blue plumbago and think: “Now, wouldn’t that be nice to plant.”