A visit to Debra Knapke’s Northwest Columbus garden is always filled with valuable lessons. Just ask her former Columbus State University horticulture students now in prime green jobs throughout the region.
Jared Hughes, owner of Groovy Plants Ranch in Marengo, recalls a class with Knapke when he naively took home a patch of her prickly pear cactus for his new succulent business. He ended up finding cacti hairs all over the interior of his new truck for days after that. Charlie Richardson, the lead gardener at Highland Youth Garden in the Hilltop, remembers class field trips to Knapke’s garden that helped bring the plants’ scientific names to life.
“Deb is a role model and a breath of fresh air as a female expert and educator in a predominately male-run industry,” says Richardson. “She taught us to find our niche and capitalize on it.”
Today, Knapke is known as the “garden sage” in Central Ohio and she continues to share her personal garden with many others. She uses the space to experiment and learn more as she lectures to gardening groups, writes articles and serves as a featured guest on WOSU’s All Sides with Ann Fisher.
When she and her husband, Tony, purchased their suburban property 37 years ago, they learned the prior owners were big golf fans.
“They liked a lot of lawn,” recalls Debra Knapke of the plot that measured two-thirds of an acre. She eventually replaced much of the lawn with 26 gardening beds including a rock garden, a native garden and collections of hostas, succulents, Japanese maples, conifers, lilies and art. The lush backyard, viewed from the living room window of their ranch home, is also graced with a giant dawn redwood, greenhouse, terrace, earth oven and kitchen garden.
“My garden is an eclectic mix with a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” says Knapke. “There’s something growing, blooming or budding all year long.”
Forever the teacher, she has happily shared 10 valuable gardening lessons.
Herbs Draw Pollinators
Knapke loves growing herbs for their culinary value, but she also treasures them for their pollinator appeal. Bees buzz about her carpet of 15 thyme plants near the front walk. Hummingbirds whir about her sages. Other pollinators drone among the dozens of herbs in her garden. This all comes naturally to her, as Knapke once served as honorary president of the Herb Society of America.
She grows mint, borage, anise hyssop, basil, catmint, chives, dill, fennel, lavender, lemon balm, oregano, rosemary, sage and monarda. While many gardeners prune herbs to produce more leaves to harvest, Knapke encourages some to bloom flowers for the benefit of the pollinators. She also encourages gardeners to avoid pesticides and allow natural predators to keep things in check. “I have my own form of pest control—the birds, insect predators and more,” she says.
Grow Your Food
This may sound like simple advice, but it’s not always easy. Knapke is always finding more places to plant fruits and vegetables in her landscape. While she grows tomatoes and greens in raised beds inside a deer-proof enclosure, she also grows alpine strawberries in containers, currant bushes under a dawn redwood tree, chokeberries in a forest garden and hot peppers in a sunny spot. “The best thing about growing your own food is you know where it comes from,” says Knapke “Plus, there’s something wonderful about eating food you grow yourself.”
Remember the Scent
“When I need a pick-me-up, lavender is my go-to,” says Knapke who wrote her master’s thesis on the fragrant plant. She says it can be somewhat challenging to grow in Central Ohio’s clay soil, because the soil drains so slowly. Lavenders don’t like moisture around their base, so plant it at the highest spot in a garden and amend the soil by adding some that has more nutrients to the ground before planting. Other scented plant favorites include rosemary, geraniums and roses.
Add Garden Art
When Knapke’s mom was diagnosed with cancer, she gave her daughter money to buy something for her garden. Knapke chose a garden sprite reproduced from those on display at Chicago’s Midway Gardens, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright before it opened in 1914 and was demolished in 1929. Knapke now calls the garden sprite her “mom statue.”
“Everything has a story,” says Knapke about her garden art. “That’s what gardens are all about—the gardener’s soul.” Her other storied pieces include stone and iron sculptures she created from carving and iron welding classes.
Mix in Self-Sowers
Self-sowers are plants that drop seeds in a garden before they die, allowing new plants to emerge the next year. “They’re the guests of the garden,” says Knapke who welcomes her self-sowers’ appearances each spring. “They pop up in interesting places and add a bit of surprise to the garden.”
Knapke grows rusty foxglove. Other self-sowers include love-in-the-mist, bread seed poppies, calendula and bronze fennel.
Build a Succulent Collection
“They’re low care and so architectural,” says Knapke. “I just love their shapes.”
Try the rosette-style echeverias, bonsai-like jade plants, haworthias, prickly pear cacti and classic hens and chicks. Succulents thrive on neglect and struggle in too much water. During rainy periods, Knapke suggests covering them for protection from downpours.
Conquer Dry Shade
Planting under thirsty shade trees can be a challenge. For Knapke, only tough shade plants endure under her large silver maple and black walnut trees. Here, she plants barrenwort, Bethlehem sage, spotted dead nettles, brunnera (the ‘Jack Frost’ or ‘Alexander the Great’ varieties), other shade-tolerant coral bells and thick-leaved hostas. She says the key is to water the plants as they get established during the first year, and occasionally during the second year, especially in drought periods.
Multiply Your Hostas
Knapke says hostas are one of the most popular plants in Ohio and are easily divided. She grows 25 different varieties from miniature ‘Popo’ to giant ‘Sagae.’ Her ‘Inniswood’ hosta has been divided four times, creating a couple dozen plants. To divide hostas, Knapke recommends digging them up in spring as the shoots are coming up or just after they bloom. Use a clean, sharp-edged shovel and split them into clusters. Then replant them or share some with a friend.
Add Seasonal Color
Knapke swoons as she admires one of the Japanese maple trees through her front window. In spring, the leaves emerge in bright yellow then fade to pink, orange and red as the season unfolds. She grows a dozen different kinds in her yard.
“I love Japanese maples,” she says. “The key is you have to find the right place to grow them.”
Knapke says they need protection from the blazing afternoon sun and strong northwest winds. Her favorites include ‘Koto No Ito,’ ‘Red Nails,’ ‘Red Emperor,’ ‘Red Star’ and ‘Mikawa Yatsubusa.’
Leave the Seed Heads
Knapke does not cut back her garden in late fall. Instead, she relishes plants’ fading glory. While she might trim a flopper or two, she leaves seed heads for their winter beauty and wildlife benefit. Birds eke out the seeds while insects hide their eggs in stems.
“They add interest to the stark winter landscape,” says Knapke.
Plants with attractive seed heads include alliums, coneflowers, globe thistle and ornamental grasses.
Before leaving the garden, Knapke offers one last piece of advice.
“Anyone who thinks they can control their garden, not a chance,” she says. “We can help edit but as my bumper sticker says, ‘Nature Bats Last.’”