August 2, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Watch out for Jan Riggenbach’s green thumb. Gardening has been her passion since age 7.

She started writing a gardening column in 1974. That column, which she still writes weekly, is now syndicated in 12 newspapers, including the Omaha World-Herald, Chicago Daily Herald, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She also wrote a gardening column for Midwest Living magazine for 22 years.

Her husband, writer Don Riggenbach, talked her into writing the newspaper column in the early 1970s. “He worked for Northwestern Bell public relations and came home with garden questions from people he worked with,” she says.

She writes books. Her most recent from the University of Nebraska Press is Your Midwest Garden: An Owner’s Manual. She has collaborated on various books and as a plant writer for HGTV Landscape books, too.

Riggenbach also has helped people with horticultural therapy.

With what?

Horticultural therapy is just what it sounds like. “Just about any gardener will tell you gardening is therapeutic. No matter what’s bothering you, working the soil helps,” she says. “It was a new field when I got into it.”

She has consulted on horticultural therapy for the senior population and helped several nursing homes build wheelchair-accessible garden beds.

Until three years ago, Jan and Don lived on 30 acres near Glenwood, Iowa. Their land was home to 700 varieties of trees. She says the trees and gardens became a draw for visitors who didn’t always understand what they were looking at.

“As visitors stood on the deck overlooking the wooded ravine on our Iowa acreage, now and then someone would point to a dead tree. ‘Do you know you have a dead tree?’ he or she would ask. We welcomed the chance to explain the value of leaving a few dead trees standing as long as they pose no danger to humans. Dead trees provide homes for many kinds of birds and other wildlife.”

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When planting trees, the Riggenbachs often spaced saplings only 10 or 12 feet apart to mimic the forests of nature.

“People more accustomed to parks and golf courses than to woodlands asked, ‘Don’t you know you’re planting your trees way too close together?’” Jan laughs.

The 30 acres made a perfect home for the family. Don’s passion is trees. Jan had room on the acreage for her gardens. Their three children had room to play. The two writers worked out of a separate building they called The Word Barn.

The couple moved to Omaha three years ago to make life easier for Don, who has Parkinson’s disease. They had lived on the land in Iowa located between Council Bluffs and Glenwood for 35 years.

In southwest Omaha, a scaled-down version of her garden continues to produce flowers, vegetables, dwarf trees, shrubs, berries, and herbs. Downsizing for the Riggenbachs means one acre to work instead of 30, still not everybody’s idea of retirement.

“I do all my vegetables on raised beds, an easier way to garden,” says Jan. “There’s less bending and with the raised beds, I don’t have to worry about soil contamination, and drainage is good.” 

Some of their three children and eight grandchildren share the passion that Jan and Don, who have been together for 53 years, have for gardening.

“My son, David, is bitten bad. There’s no grass in his yard and it’s packed with every possible plant he can find,” Jan says.

Also into gardening are grandsons Nate, who is now a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Jackson, who at age 13 has his own garden.

Jan became an organic gardener before most people knew what that was.

“Organic then was looked at like there was something wrong with you. So I never said, ‘This is organic.’  Today I give programs about organic gardening.” 

She says readers’ questions help her as a writer to understand how a novice gardener may not understand gardening jargon. Examples: “How do you pinch a plant and where do you pinch it?” and “What does deadheading mean?”

As Jan kept writing, her garden’s reputation grew. People lined up to visit, primarily from garden clubs and local schools. She grew almost everything on the Iowa acreage, from fruits and vegetables to flower gardens. 

Jan remembers a fellow hiker who showed her a smartphone photo of the columbines he found blooming in his new yard: “He said, ‘I thought they were really pretty, but if they’re wildflowers, I’ll have to pull them out.’ 

Although most gardeners welcome native plants in their gardens, some newcomers still equate wildflowers with weeds.” 

Jan says she harvested a story every time visitors came to the sprawling acreage they once owned in Iowa.

“While conducting a tour for children, my husband Don pointed out an American hophornbeam tree. ‘Now this is a hop tree,’ he began. One little girl’s eyes got really big. ‘How far does it hop?’ she asked.”

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