During these uncertain times of social distancing and staying at home, Iowans are turning to their gardens in record numbers.

Whether planting productive gardens for food security or planting flowers for beauty and solace, home improvement centers across the nation and throughout Iowa have seen a jump in garden product sales this spring, and local Master Gardener hotlines are fielding an increase in gardening questions.

In a time of health and food worries, many Iowans instinctively understand that growing food is a good idea, spending time outside in the sunshine is healthy, and seeing the miracle of seeds becoming plants and the beauty of flowers helps us mentally.


But gardening enthusiasm isn’t unusual for Iowans, who’ve had a close bond with the soil since the establishment of our state, according to rural Johnson County resident Beth Cody, author of a new book about the history of Iowa gardening, “Iowa Gardens of the Past: Lost and Historic Gardens of Iowa, 1850-1980.”

The book is filled with hundreds of vintage images of Iowa gardens and seed catalog art and takes a look at the history of residents’ love affair with their gardens.

“Iowans have long been avid gardeners — and even influential garden writers and horticultural entrepreneurs,” she said. “Today’s Iowans are simply returning to their roots.”

A generational hobby

Nineteenth century Iowans adopted the Victorian fashion for ornamenting their yards, first with trees and shrubs and later, with newly discovered tropical flowers, in addition to orchards and large vegetable gardens to feed themselves.

By the 1920s, Iowa seed company entrepreneurs like Earl May and Henry Field influenced how people across the nation gardened through the millions of catalogs they sent to customers. Their radio stations also broadcast to thousands of listeners.

During World War II, Iowans outdid themselves in Victory Gardening. An incredible 70% of households grew them, equating to more than 475,000 gardens totaling 90,000 acres — a fifth of an acre in average size.

After the war, Iowa’s garden clubs peaked in membership, with more than 200 clubs across the state by 1960.

Growing environmental awareness in the 1970s led to a return to Grandmother’s Garden. Vegetable gardening, as well as interest in day lilies and other flowers that easily grow in Iowa gardens required fewer pesticides.

Today, Iowa’s Master Gardener volunteer program, established in 1979, has one of the highest rates of participation in the nation, according to Cody’s research.

Researching Iowa gardens

Cody spent five years researching Iowa’s gardening history and looking for vintage garden photos in libraries and archives across the state, online collections and eBay.

She found lovely gardens in every corner of Iowa, from grand estates to flower-filled farmsteads. This produced illustrations from as early as the 1860s, Victorian-era garden photos, turn-of-the-century postcard images, magazine photos of gardens from the Roaring Twenties through the mid-century modern period and nostalgic Iowa seed catalog art from the 1870s to 1970s.

A link with the past

During uncertain times, there is something comforting about seeing vintage garden pictures, Cody said.

“Our great-grandparents had to deal with world wars, epidemics and economic depressions,” she said. “They knew real hardship. And that they were able to make such beautiful gardens, despite these disasters — and also with grasshopper plagues, droughts and some of the worst winters ever recorded. It’s truly inspiring.

“It’s ultimately reassuring, because it shows us that Iowans persevere. We get through these hard times, we feed ourselves and the rest of the world, and we still manage to create beauty around us.”

“Iowa Gardens of the Past: Lost and Historic Gardens of Iowa, 1850-1980” is available at IowaGardens.com.