Debra Prinzing

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Floral design – straight from the field

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

Even the Monarchs were willing to be photographed at the flower farm.

In a glorious Iowa field, I gathered flowers for my bouquets.

One knows she’s in relationship trouble when her own mother and dear friend Susan, who was her maid-of-honor in 1984, call to say, “I haven’t heard from you for a while, so I checked your blog to see what you have been up to.”

Umm. I’ve been on the road a lot lately. Way too much on the road for my liking. Being away from home and traveling for 15 of the 30 days in the month of September was ridiculous, but (I guess) necessary. Anyway, for the first time in three years, I went for a full month without posting an entry on this blog. Yikes!

There were many blog posts composed in my mind as an idea or notion would occur to me. “I should write that down,” I thought. But then, the droning lull of the airplane engine would convince me a quick “up in the air” nap was in order. Or I didn’t have access to the Internet. Or something like a deadline for a volunteer project or even – wow – a paying project . .  or someone else’s needs that were way more pressing came along.

So here we are in October – how apropos. The new leaf is turned. I don’t have to travel again until Oct. 12th and that is a single overnight jaunt for a photo shoot in Bellingham, 100 miles to the north.

Seriously, I should be able to squeeze in some news, insights, ideas, GARDENS, cool FLOWERS, and more between now and then.

The story I want to share here is from September 14-16. After six full and intense days for the annual Garden Writers Association Symposium in Dallas, I jumped on a tiny airplane and flew to Des Moines. I met up with the team I collaborate with at Better Homes & Gardens magazine. Eric Liskey (deputy garden editor), Jane McKeon (associate garden editor) and Scott Johnson (deputy art director) and I were up to our knees in flowers.

A view across the flower fields at Howell's Farm in Iowa. Isn't this just the most perfect cloud-filled sky you've ever seen?

Globe amaranth (Gomphrena sp.)

The flowers – ingredients for a how-to story on creating bouquets from field-grown arrangements – were in all their glory at Howell’s Farm.

Based in Cumming, Iowa (in Madison County – yes, where the bridges are!), Howell’s is a sixth-generation family farm. After decades of raising corn and other agricultural crops, current owners Fred Howell and family began in 1985 to grow everlasting flowers.

Today, the farm is an 800-acre destination for people in search of the best varieties of decorative and seasonal crops. In the spring, summer and fall that means people come for the huge variety of annual and perennial flowers, herbs and grasses for cutting and drying. In the fall, they enjoy the amazing pumpkin patch and a cool corn maze. By the end of the year, in the winter, it’s the Christmas trees as main attraction.

After I landed in Des Moines, Eric and I drove out to Howell’s, about 25 miles outside of Des Moines, on a breezy, but gorgeous afternoon. Scott met us there and the three of us followed Erin Howell, Fred’s daughter, on a walk through the five-acre flower fields. As is my typical reaction whenever I visit a flower-growing operation, I was practically hyperventilating with excitement.

Celosia, plume type - what a great color!

This shows how windy it was as Eric (left) and Scott (right) held the oversized "silk" to cast a shadow for one of the bouquet vignettes.

The variety of flower form, color and vigor in Howell’s crops was dazzling. The setting itself was breathtaking. We talked through our options of ingredients, including what “design lessons” we wanted to illustrate in the story, what sizes and shapes of vases we needed to use, and how to CHOOSE among all the great flowers that seemed to say “pick me, pick me!”

Back at the editorial offices, the three of us huddled with Jane to talk about the floral design projects we wanted to assemble and photograph the following day. This was no small task. Everything has to be mapped out so we could envision how things will look on the pages of Better Homes & Gardens.

The sheets on Scott’s clip-board featured his sketches of mini-magazine pages, complete with thumbnails of vases, blooms and notes to show how a four-page flower arranging story might look. We had to think about a color palette for the vases, taking into consideration the textures and hues of each flower lesson. Then Scott raced out to pick up props from all his secret sources (including tables, stands, vases, pitchers, etc.) and Eric and I took a drive over to his personal garden. We needed a few extra plant ingredients to enhance the designs we had in mind, so Eric obligingly let me cut some lambs’ ears and goldenrod from his borders. What else? Oh! a visit to the mall to pick up a denim shirt for me to wear in the photo shoot.

BH&G staff photographer Blaine Moats wanted the perfect Monarch shot. He actually got dozens of perfect shots because the butterflies were amazingly cooperative.

Yes, there it is: Francesca's House

The next morning arrived bright and early and we met out at Howell’s around 7 a.m. Since Jane and I had designed the first two looks the afternoon before, we had a jump start for the photography. But then, the light seemed pretty good for a portrait, so Scott sent me out to cut flowers while our photographer Blaine Moats shot away.  As I walked between the rows of marigolds, zinnias, sunflowers and milkweed, filling my galvanized French flower buckets with stems, I thought: How lucky can a gal get? It was a joyous experience to just be there, to know that I was getting to create bouquets and arrangements that will be featured in the magazine sometime next summer, and to work with such talented, artistic colleagues.

We were soon distracted by a sight so compelling and awe-inspiring that we simply had to stop working. Well, except for Blaine, who just turned his lens on the scene and began to document it. A harmonic convergence of Monarch butterflies was waking up as the day began to warm. They seemed to want to pose for photos, since even I was able to capture some really sweet butterfly portraits as the winged creatures breakfasted on the nectar of hot pink “Kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate” flowers (aka Polygonum orientale).

Milkweed with Monarchs (Asclepias sp.)

Me again - can't stay away from those blooms!

If that wasn’t thrilling enough, by the time Jane McKeon arrived in the afternoon, I had another amazing sight.

“Look over there,” Jane said, gesturing to a distant and lonely farmhouse. “Do you know that it’s Francesca’s house?” Yes, this was the actual Iowa farmhouse used by Meryl Streep’s character Francesca Johnson in the famous film “Bridges of Madison County.”

Another reason to visit Howell’s Farm is to gaze across rows of flowers and see that setting. I may have to rent the film just to see that house on the screen, and to appreciate Meryl’s Oscar-nominated performance from 1995.

There’s lots more to share but my bouquet designs are embargoed until they show up in the magazine. I can’t wait to show them off to you.

Better Homes & Gardens and me

Thursday, December 17th, 2009
Don't you love this giant red trowel, called "Plantois"?

Don't you love this giant red trowel, called "Plantois"?

On Nov. 30th, I took one of the only direct flights from LAX to Des Moines, Iowa (on Allegiant Air), arriving in the Midwest around 8 p.m.

Susan picked me up at the airport and whisked me off to her cozy home where we sipped wine and reminisced about being in Tuscany together only four weeks earlier.

We indulged in sentimental memories, of course. The week in Italy – in a village called Montisi – was life-affirming, especially because it was to celebrate my big Five-Oh.

Susan on a sunny Tuscan afternoon at La Foce

Susan on a sunny Tuscan afternoon at La Foce



The 10 women who joined me, including Susan, are some of my dearest friends. I would do anything to recapture that week we had together. We’d all love to return as quickly as possible!

The Italy week was an amazing “new beginning” for Susan as she dreamed about her next venture, a culinary destination she plans to open in rural Iowa. Stay tuned for news on “Applehurst Farm,” the project Susan is developing as I write this.

Doug Jimerson and Eric Liskey, BH&G's garden guys

Doug Jimerson and Eric Liskey, BH&G's garden guys

On Tuesday morning, Susan dropped me off at the world headquarters for Meredith Corporation, publisher of Better Homes & Gardens and a million other home, garden, food and lifestyle titles.

I was to spend the day as guest of Doug Jimerson, group editor of all Meredith’s “outdoor” content (books, mags, online) and Eric Liskey, deputy garden editor of Better Homes & Gardens magazine.

It was hard to be businesslike when I kept running into the friends I’ve made and worked with over the years:

They included James Baggett, editor of Country Gardens; Nick Crow, art director of Country Gardens; Jane Austin McKeon, editor of Nature’s Garden magazine and her art director Jarrett Einck; Denny Schrock, a talented editor and past fellow Garden Writers Association board member; Justin Hancock, BHGBH&G web garden editor;  and David Speer, editorial manager. Hugs and high-fives ensued. These are people I would rather be friends with than spend my time hustling for assignments.

Doug and Eric and I brainstormed about possible ways I can get more involved in BH&G’s editorial pages. Then we met up with Gayle Goodson Butler, editor-in-chief of the mothership!

Wow – what a great experience. Gayle, Doug, Eric and I had a delicious lunch during which we tossed around story ideas and discussed outdoor living trends. It looks like I will join the BH&G family as a contributing editor for gardening and outdoor content in 2010. I couldn’t be more excited!!!

I'm posing with BH&G garden editor Eric Liskey

I'm posing with BH&G garden editor Eric Liskey

I also posed with Doug Jimerson, Meredith's Group Editor for Garden & Outdoor Living

I also posed with Doug Jimerson, Meredith's Group Editor for Garden & Outdoor Living









After lunch, we took a tour of the Meredith “campus,” which includes an incredible, larger-than-life sculpture of a trowel called “PLANTOIS.” The pop-art style of this sculpture reminded me of the 19-foot eraser at the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, called “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X.”  Turns out, BH&G’s trowel was also designed by Claes Oldenborg .

A site plan of BH&G's gorgeous test garden

A site plan of BH&G's gorgeous test garden

Doug and Eric also showed me Better Homes & Gardens’  Test Garden, a beautiful walled oasis in the heart of the corporate campus. Here’s a plan of the garden (right) and a company description of how it is used:

It is an outdoor studio for our photographers, a venue for corporate entertaining, and a meeting and lunch spot for employees. While inner-city, the garden is landscaped in the style of someone’s backyard. Or, actually, several someones’ backyard. Because anywhere you take a look in our garden, if you turn ever so slightly, you will have a whole new vista. Because anywhere you take a look in our garden, if you turn ever so slightly, you will have a whole new vista. And so will our cameras, as we set about photographing how-to sequences and plant portraits, and documenting the performance of new plants. In all, there are 22 distinct areas in the Test Garden.

Yes, a rose was still in bloom on Dec. 1st

Yes, a rose was still in bloom on Dec. 1st

Mind you, this was on Dec. 1st in Des Moines, USDA Zone 5 or something like that. But several roses were still in bloom and the garden looked almost ready for its dormant winter phase, with lots of fresh mulch spread around, grasses and perennials cut back and everything tidy.

I was particularly drawn to the green shed, of course. I found out from David Speer that the plans for this potting shed are a free benefit of joining BH&G’s new Garden Club.

I do love this green potting shed with gabled roofline

I do love this green potting shed with gabled roofline




For $9.95, you get the shed plans and other cool resources. Check out how to sign up here.  

If you find yourself in Des Moines, you can schedule a tour with garden manager Sandra Gerdes on Fridays from noon to 2 p.m., May through October. The garden is located at 1716 Locust Street, Des Moines, IA 50312. The phone number is 515-284-3994.

Here are more pics of the beautiful Test Garden:

By the way, the original test garden is on Doug Jimerson’s farm outside Des Moines. I got to visit that evening and join him and Karen Weir Jimerson, his writer-wife, for a delicious dinner.

Okay, doesn’t it make you feel better to know that the guy who heads up all of Meredith’s garden/outdoor living content is basically a gentleman farmer? In addition to their lovely farm and century-old farmhouse, Doug and Karen tend to six dogs, at least six cats (I lost count), a flock of sheep, a huge family of chickens and roosters, donkeys and horses. Before dinner, Doug gave me a tour of the Jimerson Farm in the waning daylight. I thought about how much I could love living on a farm in Iowa. Never mind. I’m just going to visit Susan and Jerry when Applehurst Farm gets up and running.

As for BH&G, my first contributions won’t appear until May 2010, but you can be assured that lots of creative storytelling will occur between now and then.

I’m excited – and grateful – for this cool opportunity!

Let’s see what 2010 brings!!!

A Post Script. I flew home from Des Moines on Dec. 2nd. While I was there, the weather was beautiful, with brilliant blue skies, sunshine and balmy (for Iowa) low 50-degree temperatures. One week later. . . yes, only one week later, my friends were buried in 16 inches of snowfall that practically shut down Des Moines. I heard that something like only 17 out of 60 flights were allowed to depart from the Des Moines Airport.

Whew. I totally lucked out. Thank you to the weather gods!