Stop. Smell the flowers

Decorah couple turns their front yard into English-inspired garden

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August 18, 2014 | 2:52 pm

DECORAH — In England, it’s common to say — when one is going out into the yard — that you are going into the garden.

In the case of Mike and Mary Lou Cotton, who live far from the British Isles in Decorah, this turn of phrase is more than appropriate and entirely accurate.

At 406 West Broadway, Mike and Mary Lou literally walk out their front door into a garden.

It was a trip to England that inspired Mary Lou to convince her husband to transform their entire front yard from grass to flowers.

A wrought iron table, chairs and love seat on the porch face the front garden, transforming the space into an outdoor room. It is the perfect place for morning coffee, lunch and supper. Early Girl and Cherry Tomato plants wind around the porch railing, so close Mike can pluck them from the vines for a snack from the comfort of his chair.

A birdbath brings colorful songbirds near and the flowers also attract hummingbirds and butterflies.

Mike spends every morning hoeing weeds before they have a chance to grow.

“I was on the road all week driving a truck before I retired,” Mike said, so this morning ritual of weeding in the garden is relaxing for him, not a tedious chore at all.

As a truckdriver, Mike was in Wisconsin Monday through Friday. On vacations, he and Mary Lou traveled to Hawaii, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Vallarta. Recently, they returned from a trip through Nebraska, South Dakota, Nevada, Arizona and California.

They’ve traveled a lot. Iowa is best, Mike is sure of it.

This is where he and Mary Lou raised their four children here and this is where they are enjoying their grandchildren. Mary Lou has not yet retired. On Oct. 23, the Cottons will celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary.

“I have always enjoyed this state,” Mike said. “I enjoy the four seasons and the scenery — especially here in the Decorah area. I do a lot of fishing and I get up by the bluffs and like the scenery along the Upper Iowa River.”

Morning or evening, you might find Mike fishing trying to surpass that last 25-inch walleye or 17-pound catfish.

Because the English landscape has historically been one with plenty of rain, the look of an English garden is very green, with a lot of flowers. This summer Iowa weather has followed suite, creating a patchwork of color.

Mike and Mary Lou’s front garden comes alive in early spring with the sweet scent of crocuses, daffodils and tulips, blue bells, bloodroot and Dutchman’s breeches. These are followed by peonies, irises, moss roses, snow on the mountain, daisies, salvia, dahlias, hollyhocks, clematis and sedum.

There is also a heritage rose the Cottons love because it is so very fragrant.

That rose is also a nostalgic one for Mike.

“I grew up on a farm near Waterloo and we had two yellow heritage roses,” he said.

Because 10 of his rose bushes didn’t survive the recent cold winter, Mike wants to plants more. But he will wait until he finds just the right ones next spring.

He likes the hybrid teas but will choose a variety of roses, especially fragrant ones that Mary Lou enjoys. He will fill in bare spots from the lost roses with the dozens of new tulips, daffodils and crocuses ordered for fall planting.

Mike fertilizes the garden in the spring and uses compost.

“The soil drains very well,” he said. “It’s perfect for the flowers.”

Impatiens of all colors, geraniums and hostas hug the sidewalk. Another low growing plant: hens and chickens.

The garden also has an eye-catching weeping pussy willow and a fragrant lilac.

On this small city lot, flowers flank the entire space on either side of the sidewalk leading up to the house. Even the grass between the sidewalk and the street has been removed and filled with flowers.

And, among it all, a reminder in the form of a red stop sign from Mike and Mary Lou to visitors and passers-by to stop and smell the roses.

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