Laura Willis-Riggen gives Steele gardens a refresher
By Lindsay Owens
The gently rolling hills of Brown County were the inspiration for the paintings created by Theodore Clement “T.C.” Steele. Now, visitors to the T.C. Steele State Historic Site have a chance to walk the grounds and tour the home and studio once owned by the Hoosier artist and his wife, Selma.
It’s no surprise that Selma’s gardens provided the backdrop for some of her husband’s paintings. Now, Laura Willis-Riggen, regional landscape manager for the Indiana State Historic Sites has been charged with refreshing the gardens and grounds at the site located just off of State Road 46 near Belmont.
“The largest garden here is Selma’s and it’s very formal,” said Willis-Riggen, who has been a Master Gardener for more than 30 years and worked for DesignScape, just down the road from Steele’s “House of the Singing Winds,” for more than decade.
Willis-Riggen said at first glance, Selma’s “formal” garden, a site that is often the backdrop for family reunions and weddings, didn’t seem very formal.
“After I learned more about Selma’s story, I understood why it’s set up that way. It was done to appeal to the artist’s eye,” she said adding some of Selma’s yews are still on the grounds.
Now, Willis-Riggen is looking through the notes left by Selma to learn about the types of plants she had in her gardens.
“I’m learning more about what things looked like when the Steele’s lived here,” she said, adding other state site gardens will also be getting some makeovers this year. “It’s all in Selma’s writing and words and that just makes it really cool.”
Willis-Riggen said one of her big focuses this year is restoring Selma’s rock garden. She’s been starting native plants and along with the rest of the landscape team, have been working on weeding out some of the less desirable plants.
“We started looking last fall at how to prepare for this year,” said Willis-Riggen, adding she’s started several native plants that Selma would have had in her gardens to add to the grounds this year. “We did put on some pre-emergent in some of the areas and that will allow us to better garden those areas now.”
While Willis-Riggen and her team have not only the T.C. Steele site but also gardens at Corydon, Madison’s Lanier Mansion and the Culbertson Mansion in New Albany, she still offers up several tips for home gardeners.
“If you put on a pre-emergent, make sure you read the labels and water it in with the hose if it’s not going to rain. Mulch is also huge but you need to mulch lightly. Too much mulch can be damaging to plants,” she said, adding it’s also important to make sure you have the right plant in the right place.
Gardeners should also make sure to check the depth of irises.
“The rhizome should be at the top of the soil,” she said. “And it’s OK to trim anything that’s not a spring bloomer now. You can trim your spring bloomers after they bloom.”
Willis-Riggen also advises against weeding and doing clean up on days when the ground is wet.
“If it’s wet, stay out,” she said.
As for annuals, Willis-Riggen advises on waiting until mid-May before planting.
“The weather gets nice and we all get anxious to plant but I really recommend waiting until around Mother’s Day. Your plants will grow better if you wait a little longer,” she said.