'Mid-American Gardener' host well-known for teaching - and love of plants and people

'Mid-American Gardener' host well-known for teaching - and love of plants and people

ST. JOSEPH — The logistics might make it impossible, but WILL-TV ought to film its weekly program "Mid-American Gardener" at host Dianne Noland's home and garden.

She and her husband and son, Drew, when he's home from Northland College, live in a beautiful rustic log house near the Salt Fork River in rural St. Joseph.

More important, the semi-retired horticulture lecturer at the University of Illinois maintains a lovely garden — or better put, gardens.

Adding to their appeal is a small unlined pond in front of the home. Each spring, the small natural body of water is home to peepers, bullfrogs, toads and water lilies. Not to mention a plethora of perennials and annuals growing on the small yet steep banks.

And no surprise here, but Noland's many plants, whether near the pond or not, appeared in good shape after this summer's drought and before the recent rains.

"The best thing about the drought is some things have gone dormant and will re-flower, like a second spring," Noland said. "A lot of plants are resilient."

Her secret for a great garden, though, especially during dry times, is mulch.

Lots of it.

In fact, a veritable mini-mountain range of mulch borders her gardens on one side.

Before drawing from those huge piles, Noland allows the spruce, pine, oak and maple chips to age for a season so they decompose and don't rob the garden soil of nitrogen.

And she said she wouldn't have a vegetable garden if she didn't have four rain barrels on her property.

She's had to experiment, though, because her land has a variety of soil types. In some places, particularly in front of her house, she aims for a dry Mediterranean look — influenced by the time she spent as an exchange student with a horticultural family near Lugano, Switzerland, just next door to Italy.

Gardens galore

Among the plants that thrive in Noland's Mediterranean-style landscape are silver mound artemisia, thyme, calamint, autumn sedum and Arkansas blue star, the Perennial Plant Association's Plant of the Year in 2011.

They give the landscape a nice variety of texture and color, enhanced by all the stones, rocks and geodes placed here and there. Among those are stones from the foundation of Noland's great-grandfather's barn in Macon County.

In her flower garden to the south of the house is a profusion of, among other blooms, cosmos, zinnia, three types of calendula and hyacinth bean vines that climb trellises.

And nasturtiums; Noland became hooked on the edible plant during her summer in Switzerland in 1972, when she saw nasturtiums trailing from flower boxes that graced the front of Swiss homes.

In her vegetable garden, Noland grows okra, corn, kohlrabi, leeks, butternut squash, lima beans and varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, dried beans and string beans. A small fence keeps out the five Rhode Island reds that she and her husband keep.

Just several yards away from the veggies is one of Noland's refuges: a wooded spot with a small bench along the river. In the summer, it's 10 to 15 degrees cooler there, and in the winters it's a nice vantage place for watching eagles fly over.

Noland and her husband, Dave Negangard, a Sidney native and semi-retired certified arborist, bought the land between Homer and Sidney in 1988 because of the woods there. Noland is drawn to forested land because she grew up near a native white-oak timber at the Noland seven-generation family farm on the Macon-Christian county line.

Starting young

As a kid, Dianne helped out on the 1,000-acre spread, "walking" (weeding) long rows of beans. She cared for the family pets — "tons of cats and dogs." She raked hay, using a tractor. And she helped her grandfather with his vegetable garden.

"I loved it from the get-go," she said. "I like people and plants. I haven't changed a bit since I was 16."

She actually fell in love with gardening at an even younger age, 5, when her Sunday school teacher took her and other students to a backyard garden in Blue Mound.

There Dianne saw a daffodil for the first time.

"I remember that single daffodil. Isn't that so geeky?" she said last week.

Noland, who's 57, believes her love of the botanical is in her DNA.

She cited her maternal grandmother, Lola Moma, who was a well-known flower gardener; Dianne inherited her diaries from 1916 to '49. In those, Moma kept accounts of her gardening and other household matters.

"It's like seeing myself in someone I never knew," Noland said. "She died in 1952. I always wanted to meet her."

Noland also attributes to DNA her cheerful personality. She comes off as so positive and joyous that many people who meet her or attend one of her workshops ask, "Is she really like that?"

The answer is yes.

"It's really a family trait," Noland said. "Grandpa Noland was known for his jolly laugh. And I had great parents."

They are Neil and Erma Noland, who continue to live and farm part time in rural Blue Mound.

To bolster her happy-genes point, Dianne mentioned her brother, Duane, a former state senator. He's so outgoing he makes his sister seem less so, she said.

Noland said she's also filled with "the joy of the Lord." She attends Victory Christian Center, a church that meets in homes in the Homer area. In good weather, services take place outside, sometimes under a hackberry tree on a neighbor's property along the Salt Fork.

"You're out in nature; it's great," she said. "It's a church that goes by the Bible but not all the religious traditions and rituals. We have fun. We had two baptisms on Sunday — in the Salt Fork River."

Keeping it light

For Noland, fun is the operative word. She likes to make everything fun, from teaching to hosting "Mid-American Gardener" and to leading myriad workshops on perennials, bulbs, herbs, landscaping and floral design — often done to fast-paced music.

She teaches teachers how to teach those subjects, too. She's always wanted to teach people and she's become well-known for her skills in that arena: In July, the Perennial Plant Association gave Noland an academic award for exceptional leadership to students, green-industry members and the gardening public.

And her UI students have rated Noland an excellent instructor every semester since she began teaching at the university in 1980. The students cite her energy and enthusiasm. Noland again mentions fun, in addition to building a team spirit and acting as an "encourager."

"I think you're able to teach better when you have fun with it," she said. "That makes learning fun. I want the show to be fun too."

Busier than ever

She became host of "Mid-American Gardener," which airs live at 7 p.m. Thursdays on WILL-TV, 14 years ago. She had appeared on the first episode in 1992 as a guest and regularly thereafter until taking over the helm.

On the program, Noland and other experts answer viewers' questions about lawn and garden care tailored to Zone 5 growing conditions.

Even when she's off the air, Noland finds herself answering queries from folks who recognize her as "that gardening lady."

"If I'm at a gardening center people think I work there because I look familiar. I say, 'I don't work here but here's the answer to your question.'"

In addition to hosting "Mid-American Gardener," Noland now teaches at the UI two courses, floral design and perennials, in the Department of Crop Sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

Before she retired in 2011, she taught five courses, including landscaping. Wanting to maintain contact with college students — she enjoys their energy — she asked to teach part time.

In addition to teaching, Noland and a graduate student wrote a book about perennials. She has contributed chapters or a good percentage of text to 10 floral-design books and was a co-author of "A Centennial History of the American Florist."

As a woman, Noland is a bit of a pioneer in her field. She was the first woman to teach horticulture full time at the university. And she believes she was the first woman to work in a supervisory position at Wandell's Nursery and another nursery when she was in college.

At Wandell's, where she worked after obtaining a UI master's degree in horticulture, Noland was in charge of planting, pruning and fertilizing 600 acres of trees. She remembers driving a 1-ton stick-shift truck on that job.

Besides gardening, which Noland considers her avocation, she enjoys history, travel, hiking, camping, photography and Big Ten sports. She calls herself an Illini fan.

But her main thing continues to be the garden.

"Gardening is so therapeutic," she said. "I actually love to weed because I can see the end product."

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