The Transplanted Gardener: scent from above

Photo courtesy of Craig Summers Black
After the death of a longtime friend and mentor, Sharon Barak took solace in her garden – and changed careers.

Not all transplanted gardeners strike the tent and move cross-country. Some just move their focus.

For dedicated gardeners like Sharon Barak, yardwork isn’t hard work. “I do like digging in the dirt,” she says. “The physical part of it. The feels and the smells.”

But much of the time that she’s digging and weeding in her rural Iowa garden, Ms. Barak feels miles, and years, away.

“I’m really into fragrance in the garden,” she says. “When you smell something, it transports you to a different time and different places.”

For you, that time machine might be smell of crayons or peanut butter. Maybe freshly baked apple pie. For Barak, it is the sweet scent of old-time garden phlox.

“When I smell that, all of a sudden I’m 9 or 10," she says. "I’m in my girlfriend’s backyard playing, and we’re nibbling on the florets. They’re sweet at the end.”

But some memories are not so sweet. Barak’s life took a turn when her boss – and friend – at work was murdered. “We were the same age. You realize you don’t know – you realize your mortality,” she says. “It was never the same afterward.”

So Barak quit the corporate world, went to hort school at the local land-grant university, and started a nursery at her home near Van Meter, Iowa, in 1989.

“I started falling in love with all the antique flowers, especially the perennials. I saw this big world of plants that weren’t available here. I had to buy by mail. So I started this,” she says, nodding toward the outdoor garden shop that shares the property with her home garden.

“But now I’m beginning to embrace some of these new things – all the new huecheras. The new colors are very exciting. And the new irises that rebloom in the fall. These new hardy ever-blooming roses – you have to mention those. And the Griffith Buck roses – ahhh … Oh, and those new dark-foliaged cimicifugas. There are a lot of good foliage plants now. They look good all the time, even when they’re not in bloom.”

Sometimes, she says, the new! improved! plants really are better than the heirlooms.

“I’m willing to kick the old to the curb at times,” she says.

What, primarily, is she thinking of?

Oddly, garden phlox.

“New varieties of phlox are mildew-resistant,” she says, “Like David, the tall white. And then there is Laura, which is purple with a white center. And Ending Blue …”

And suddenly she is 9 again, sugar drops on her lips.

Another Transplanted Gardener: An Iowa doctor quits the hospital grind and becomes a possessed gardener.

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