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Abundance of irises, construction threat inspire vigilante planter

By Katherine Wartell

Andy Deckert isn’t a gardener by trade. He’s not even a gardener by life-long hobby. But over the past decade, he’s become something of a guerrilla greenskeeper in the neighborhoods near his Manhattan home, planting irises along public walkways and roads to spruce up otherwise dull horizons.

You could call him Johnny Iris-seed if you were so inclined to such corniness, or if the irises were actually grown from seeds and not spread through rhizomes, a root-like subterranean stem. (That’s a lesson from Linda Deckert, Andy’s wife).

Deckert, a retired teacher, has already planted 2,000 irises along a stretch of Miller Parkway, near where the couple lives, and plans to plant 2,000 more to reach the water tower located off of Mill Knoll Terrace.

He’s also planted irises beside 31 fence posts along Amherst Avenue, behind a guardrail on Davis Drive, in a large plot on Brierwood Drive and in a grassy median on Miller Parkway, not far from the K-18 exit.

It’s at that median where Deckert first started his work back in 2001, after moving to Manhattan the previous year following his marriage to Linda, a long-time Manhattanite.

Though Deckert was never big on gardening, the iris became his calling card after his father-in-law from his previous marriage, Bill Pickering, thinned his own patch of irises growing outside of the kitchen door of his WaKeeney house.

Pickering gave Deckert the thinnings. “I didn’t know what to do with them,” Deckert said, before he set his eyes and shovel on the boring patch of grass in the middle of Miller Parkway. “I just started spading it,” Deckert said, planting irises and daylilies.

All lavender and purple irises that Deckert plants come from that original patch in WaKeeney, he said.

Deckert’s father-in-law died about seven years ago, but not before he could see his son-in-law’s handiwork. The Deckerts have a photograph of Pickering sitting in a lawn chair in the middle of the median amongst the irises as they are at full bloom.

Last summer, Deckert had to thin the irises from the plot.

Once again not knowing what to do with them, he started spading and planting the thinnings along a sidewalk that runs the length of Miller Parkway.

But irises aren’t Deckert’s only plant of choice—in front of a sign for Miller Ranch, Deckert planted little groups of daffodils, salvaged from a lackluster patch that had been there previously. “I love these,” he said, of the cheery, bright yellow flowers, planted with liriope grasses, but calling them, “sort of an accident.”

Deckert had so many excess daffodils from the pruning that he planted several in his family’s yard and in true guerrilla fashion, planted a row at the very edge of his next door neighbor’s yard without their knowledge. “They haven’t gotten rid of them,” he said. He also planted flowers in the front yard of another neighbor who eventually moved, Deckert said, and never tended to their yard.

He gave even more excess daffodils to a friend who lives on Leavenworth Street. That friend in turn passed them around to others because there were so many.

But perhaps his largest project is on Brierwood Drive, where family friend Larry Weigel owns a house and the plot of land behind it. With the permission of Weigel’s next door neighbor, the pair cleared a nearby plot of land in 2011 and planted 1,000 irises, catmint, loriope grass, Russian sage, garlic cloves, crepe myrtle, daisies, daylilies, chrysanthemum, sedum and Yukon gold potatoes. The patch yields about 9 pounds of potatoes.

“Neighbors just come by and laugh,” Deckert said, of the potato patch. The pair gave away the potatoes last June.

The plot is across from residential construction and the soil the potatoes were planted in was so poor when Deckert first began planting that he could barely get his shovel through it. Now the soil is soft and malleable.

They’ve also decorated the plot with rocks and a stone bench, and Weigel hung a sign on one of the surrounding trees that reads, “Andy’s Corner.”

“Do we really know what we’re doing? Most times not,” Deckert said.

A short drive from the Brierwood plot is Deckert’s final contribution—a row of irises planted behind a guardrail on Davis Drive, near the K-18 exit. The irises were first planted much closer to K-18, beside a ravine, but construction on the highway forced Deckert to move the flowers.

He moved them to a strip of land by the home of an elderly couple who had been receiving notices from the city to mow the area. “I accomplished something really good accidentally,” he said.

Linda Deckert is also a plant enthusiast, though she prefers perennials with longer bloom times than irises, which bloom for about two weeks. She tends to her own flowers in a potting room she designed.

The couple grew up together in Pawnee Rock but after high school Deckert attended Kansas Wesleyan in Salina and Linda enrolled at Kansas State University.

After moving away, Deckert married a woman from WaKeeney, while Linda married a man who worked in the veterinary department at K-State. He died of a heart attack.

After Deckert, a father of two, lost his first wife to cancer in 1998, Linda, a mother of two, sent him a sympathy card and the pair continued to correspond until Linda suggested dinner. They were married in 2000 and celebrated their 13-year anniversary on Tuesday.

Deckert will continue gardening throughout the summer. His irises should bloom in June.

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