Driftless Home and Garden: ‘Because it’s pretty’ Nick Wallin’s quest for floral perfection

The vast variety of flowers that grace the front yard of Nick Wallin’s Home in Calmar include ‘Endless Summer’ hydrangeas, ‘Limelight’ hydrangeas, Black-eyed Susan, Goldenrod, ditch phlox, ‘Starry Starry Night’ hibiscus and various lilies. Shown in full bloom last year, Wallin transformed an overgrown yard when they purchased the house into a oasis of blue-ribbon flowers.

By Zach Jensen,

The vast variety of flowers that grace the front yard of Nick Wallin’s Home in Calmar include ‘Endless Summer’ hydrangeas, ‘Limelight’ hydrangeas, Black-eyed Susan, Goldenrod, ditch phlox, ‘Starry Starry Night’ hibiscus and various lilies. Shown in full bloom last year, Wallin transformed an overgrown yard when they purchased the house into a oasis of blue-ribbon flowers.

In 2017, Nick Wallin’s daily attire consisted of fine suits and dress shoes. He and his partner, Gary Barness, lived in a new house in Aurora, Colo., and they had what many would consider a good life, but for Nick, something just wasn’t quite right. Their life together wasn’t pretty enough, and so in 2018 the couple set out to remedy that deficit when they purchased their new home at 107 W. North Street in Calmar, which includes nearly two acres of yard, which Nick was determined to make pretty.

“It’s a big deal,” said Nick, who has earned Best of Show in the Winneshiek County Fair’s Flower Show for the last three years in a row. “I’d never planted anything before we moved here from Colorado, and when we first moved in, the yard mostly had peonies and Phlox and anything else that would grow in a ditch. So, I thought that if we’re going to live here and have these giant gardens, then I should start ripping stuff out and put more stuff in that’s a little more special.”

Nick said he and Gary, who’ve been together for 17 years and who’ve raised two children together, would come to northeast Iowa every year during the holidays, because Gary is originally from Ossian. 

“We would always come here for the holidays, and I loved it, because Denver is a nightmare,” he said. “It’s so expensive and crazy. My commute was (90 minutes) to go 27 miles to work, and we lived on a toll road. We’d had enough. It was time to get out of the city. It’s so quiet here, and I wanted a yard, because our yard in Colorado was like a postage stamp. Like, you could stick your hand out the door and hit the house next to you.

“It’s just pretty here,” Nick continued. “Colorado isn’t pretty. People think the mountains are beautiful, but that’s if you go to the mountains. If you’re not in the mountains, the rest of Colorado is mostly flat. We lived right outside of Parker, which looks like Kansas, and Denver’s just a big dirty city. It’s just not pretty, and I like Calmar. It’s little and weird.”

“I never thought I would live in Calmar,” added Gary, “but we knew we wanted a large, old, historical home and the opportunity presented itself in Calmar. We can honestly say that it was the best decision we have ever made.”

Nick recalled that when he and Gary were considering moving to northeast Iowa, they worked with realtor Jamie Folkedahl of Kelly Real Estate to find the perfect home.

“I told him that I wanted old, weird and haunted, and I think he thought we were crazy,” said Nick with a chuckle. “I liked this house the best because of the yard. And, I knew I would be working at Seed Savers, so I had to learn how to garden.”

In Denver, Colo., Nick worked as the community relations director for the Developmental Disabilities Resource Center in Lakewood, and Gary worked as a project manager for a custom kitchen company. Before moving to Calmar, Nick accepted the position of Creative Director at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah. Upon first moving to the area, Gary originally worked for JW Kitchens of Decorah but since then, he has joined Nick at Seed Savers — now working as the company’s business and sales director.

But, although Nick wanted a pretty yard, when he first moved to Calmar, he had no experience with making one. In fact, before coming to Iowa, not only had Nick never done significant manual labor, but he’d also not ever owned a pair of tennis shoes.

“The whole yard was overgrown, and I wasn’t a gardener at all, so I learned, and Heidi Hackman from Seed Savers taught me,” he said. “She helped me figure out all the tools and how to start seeds. She’s just ridiculously talented, smart and helpful, and she taught me how to garden.”

Nick also watched videos online and began ordering seeds and flowers he liked, while also reading books like “The Seed Garden”, which is sold by Seed Savers, and “Perfect Plant, Perfect Place: The Surest Way to Select the Right Outdoor and Indoor Plants” by Roy Lancaster.

“That first season, I ordered, like, 70 hydrangeas and just went for it,” said Nick. “That was the first big planting I did, and I think half of them are still alive. I kill stuff all the time. It looks really pretty in pictures, but I’m not good at this. I bought 125 lily bulbs, and I didn’t realize that they multiply. So, now there are masses of lilies everywhere. It was horrifying. I made so many mistakes. But, now, I have a little plot of land and a massive horde of flowers, which is what I wanted.”

“It’s funny because he never gardened in Colorado,” said Gary. “Our gardening consisted of lots of flowerpots full of annuals each summer, which I always planted. Nick generally mowed the yard.” 

Nick, who now works from home, estimated that he has approximately 300 different varieties of plants and flowers spread over their 1.76-acre yard, but he couldn’t do it without Gary’s help.

“I am in charge of the lawn maintenance twice a week,” Gary said. “Nick usually takes a week off in the spring to do bulk plantings. For the past several years, his mom has joined him to assist with that, and they have a great time working together. He also is the official weeder, a task that I seldom enjoy or do. If I can’t find him, he’s usually somewhere in the yard sitting on a flattened cardboard box, pulling a tarp-full of weeds. Fall is a joint effort on cleanup which usually takes several weekends to cut down and haul away the peony beds and wrap things up for winter.”

“Every year, I just keep adding stuff,” Nick said, laughing. “And, every day, I go out and walk around the yard and take pictures of things; checking to see what’s working and what’s not working and what needs more light. I dig things up and move them, and I kill stuff. I think people feel really bad about killing plants, but I kill plants all the time. If I plant something, and it’s atrociously ugly, I’m going to rip it out. It’s just a disaster.”

But, as with most people, Nick is his own worst critic, and his yard is anything but a disaster. While learning how to garden may have been chaotic, the result is two acres of prettiness in all directions, when the yard is in full bloom.

“I’m getting better about planning,” Nick admitted. “I don’t want it to look proper, but I also don’t want it to look country. So, I’m trying to find a way to make it look kept but not pretentious or fussy. People tend to do either very structured, traditional gardening, or they take a fistful of seeds and throw it and hope for the best. I’m trying to find something in the middle.

“A lot of the things I have are perennials, and perennials are really hard, because I buy them, and I get very excited and plant them,” he continued. “But, then, they really don’t do anything right away. So, I plant more stuff. Like, out front, I can’t imagine what that’s going to look like this year, because I’ve planted rose bushes and Salvia and hydrangeas and peonies. It’s way too much of everything. I’m trying to edit, but that’s just not my personality. It’s difficult for me to not want to plant everything. It’s a lot of crazy.”

Nick also said that gardening is also very therapeutic, adding that he hasn’t needed to see a therapist since moving to Calmar and starting his new hobby.

“You take seeds, and you plant them in your little planter things,” Nick explained with a chuckle. “Like, I have the little, reusable silicone seed starting trays. And, I have a radiator on the sun porch. So, I start the seeds and set them on the radiator, and they get warm underneath, and I add a sun lamp, and they sprout. It’s like a mini greenhouse out there. Why does everyone not do this? I just think it’s fascinating. And, then you have flowers everywhere, which sounds crazy, and it does look crazy at times. 

“It’s simple,” he continued. “I have no education in growing anything, and now I grow tomatoes and everything. Last year, I grew a big pumpkin patch, and this year, I’m doing a big cut-flower garden, because my friend is getting married, and she wants a cut-flower bar, where you make your own bouquet, at her bridal shower. I’m growing 60 different varieties for that.”

While Nick does order some seeds and plants online, he said he relies heavily on the Andera Greenhouse in Spillville.

“He’s fantastic, and he’ll get you anything you want,” he said. “If you want to talk to someone who knows all about gardening, that’s him. If I’m looking for something weird, or if I can’t find something, he always has it.”

The 44-year-old Colorado Springs native said he’s hoping this year’s flowerbeds will be more structured than in years past.

“Along the pathway, I planted 60 boxwood, so I’m trying to do ball boxwoods,” he said. “But, then, in between them is starry night hibiscus, which is this very flowy purple and white thing, and the leaves on it are actually black. And, I just started mulching this year, because it always seemed weird to me to mulch. But, it does help, and I want the part by the house to look a little fancier. Plus, I bought these really expensive David Austin rose bushes, which are imported from England that really do well here, because there’s so much humidity. So those I’m trying to baby, and I did put mulch around them. It’s definitely an obsession.”

Nick also said his wardrobe has changed since he started gardening as well. He said that aside from funerals, he hasn’t worn a suit since 2018, and today he even owns a Carhart coat and hat … all in an effort to make his life with Gary … prettier.

“I just like flowers, because they’re pretty,” Nick said, laughing. “I don’t have a good reason. Isn’t that dumb? I don’t have a grand plan. I just keep doing it, because it’s pretty.”

More photos in the April 9 Driftless Journal. 


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