When Michelle Book moved to her secluded, wooded neighborhood in the Park at Southern Hills just over four years ago, she was challenged by some very compact garden spaces in the Park Avenue neighborhood after having enjoyed a vast landscaped garden area at her former home on Foster Drive. 

“I knew I was going to have to think differently about gardening,” recalled Book, president and CEO of Food Bank of Iowa and a board member of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. 

Soon after moving in, Book invited her good friend Kelly Norris, botany director for the Botanical Garden, over to marvel at the 18-inch-tall creeping Charlie that was overflowing the neglected flower boxes. “Over a bottle or two of IPA, we contrived of a very small but impactful garden in this space,” she recalled. “There’s not a lot of square footage here, so we needed to make every inch count.” 

Among her prized plants is a Japanese maple given to her by Janet Leath, who propagated the  tree on her farm in North Carolina and brought it to Iowa with her husband, former Iowa State President Steven Leath. As a ground cover she planted a variegated ajuga that’s not often grown in Iowa but is doing well in the small space. And every spring she brings out a potted Christmas cactus that has traveled with her in every move since she was an ISU student. Book particularly loves the Empress Wu hosta, which when it’s mature will be 6 feet wide and 4 feet tall with 18-inch-wide leaves.

Although her goal was to have a garden that was maintenance-free, “somehow I still find that I can piddle away three or four hours trimming something, transplanting something.” 

Other special features of the garden include a metal trellis given to her by Don Blumenthal, which is made from the steel left over from punching out discs for farm equipment. The garden features a collection of Vietnamese flowerpots she has collected, along with some cast-iron planters that she uses to grow cooking herbs. 

“We thought we would create something very peaceful, so the colors are very calm. It’s mostly about texture,” she said. “We wanted plants that were somewhat deer-resistant, and for the most part I think we were successful. “I like to envision the [backyard] garden as part of that outer landscape so that when I’m sitting in the chair, it actually looks like I could walk into the woods from this woodland garden.”