This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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Lark Kulikowski is a late bloomer.
Long a shrinking violet, she was reluctant to speak up in public. But after retiring from her job as a pharmacy tech and turning her attention to her cottage garden, she soon blossomed. So did the wide expanse leading down to the Scuppernong Creek behind her Dousman home.
“When you have a passion, it’s easier to talk,” Kulikowski smiles.
Soon, strangers were poking their heads into her backyard. Garden tours came calling. Better Homes and Gardens featured her amazing Technicolor garden.
Today, Kulikowski’s private garden has an almost gravitational pull on visitors. I first saw it in summer 2009. The Oconomowoc Woman’s Club Garden Tour had ended, but the visitors refused to leave.
Enchanted by Kulikowski’s sea of perennials, the bent tree turned trellis for a trumpet vine, the whimsical sculptures the gardener created herself, they could not get enough. At the edge of the bed, an animated Kulikowski held court, fielding questions, talking about the fertilizer she concocts called “worm tea.”
True blue is the rarest of garden colors, but Kulikowski had risen to the challenge: A tree-hung mobile made from a bicycle wheel bejeweled with translucent royal blue plates shimmered in the late-afternoon sun (she also has a red one, pictured in the magazin on Page 45, or here). Cobalt bottles buried bottom-up lined a walking path like lights on a runway. Blue bowling balls edged another.
“With every garden, you see the gardener’s personality,” says Kulikowski, who now teaches classes at home on everything from creating gardens with constant color to “worm farming.”
Months after the garden tour, my gardening friends were still talking about Kulikowski’s garden, and I realized we’d discovered one of the region’s hidden treasures. So began Milwaukee Magazine’s search for the most extraordinary private gardens.
Our quest included interviewing dozens of experts – garden tour planners with decades of experience, garden club members, Boerner Botanical Gardens staffers, landscapers and garden suppliers. Finally, there was a survey of the region’s approximately 400 master gardeners conducted with the help of UW-Extension consumer horticulture agent Sharon Morrisey.
There were no restrictions as to size or type. A small, exquisite garden might qualify alongside an expansive one. A rose garden, a wildflower garden or one composed of ornamental vegetables would be equally eligible. What we were looking for were private gardens that elicit a “Wow!”
Nominations flooded in, some 70 in all. With difficulty, we trimmed the list down to 10, all with enough of a wow factor to stun you.
How do you see them? These are private gardens, after all.
Many can be viewed simply walking – or driving – by. Polly Rabion’s garden is so stunning, it’s impressive even when viewed online via Google Maps. But better yet, stop and say hello. These champion gardeners are like doting grandparents, always eager to show off their pride and joy.
Top 10 Private Gardens
1) BILL RADLER
10020 W. Meadow Dr., Greenfield
Radler, famous as the hybridizer of the sturdy Knock Out Rose, goes beyond rows and rows of his trademarked roses in his own garden with an impressive array of lilies, annuals and perennials planted around a serious stone infrastructure of raised beds and sturdy garden frameworks that include a wrought-iron arbor and log pergola.
2) POLLY RABION
6350 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay
This small front-yard garden across from the Jewish Community Center literally stops traffic. “But this is a garden with a purpose, not just my own enjoyment,” says Rabion, also treasurer of the Herb Society of America. A three-story garden filled with flowering trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials, Rabion’s petite paradise is entirely wheelchair-accessible. “I invite nursing home residents, but it is open for everyone,” she says. “It’s sort of a public garden that’s privately maintained.”
3) DAVE & CAMILLE KUNDERT
13915 N. Hawks Landing Rd., Mequon
An attractive display of annuals augments a rose collection so extraordinary, it’s the envy of even the rose experts at the region’s largest public garden, Boerner Botanical. From color-laden classic climbers to fragrant floribundas and delicately scented tea roses, the Kunderts’ Eden is a gift to both eye and nose.
4) LARK KULIKOWSKI
S28 W36123 Scuppernong Cir., Dousman
Her garden never really peaks. “To be a successful gardener,” she says, “you need to have color into October. I designed it so it doesn’t matter when someone drops in.” larksperennials.com
5) TED & HATTIE PURTELL
7775 N. River Rd., River Hills
The Purtells nurture a late-season star – an ornamental vegetable garden. Heirloom tomatoes in varied shades of red, orange and purple, fragrant herbs, sunflowers, cabbages, exotic pumpkins and edible flowers like nasturtiums transform the lush green valley with their many shapes and flashes of color. The focal point is a fern-lined pergola made of tree limbs, an au naturel passageway into the Purtells’ veritable Garden of Eatin’.
6) KAREN & DON HALT
W327 S7589 Squire Ln., Town of Mukwonago
Karen is an artist who paints with flowers. Her garden boasts numerous meditation spots, but the most calming feature is a massive lily pond surrounded by plantings that look as if Mother Nature placed them there. Even the garden sculptures are positioned with an artist’s eye. “The most remarkable garden I have seen in many years,” says master gardener and veteran garden tour organizer Carol Mainwaring.
7) DOROTHY DANFORTH
9345 N. 51st St., Brown Deer
Danforth has built this small corner lot’s beauty from the ground up, making her own compost. A local gardening legend, Danforth is a master at incorporating specimen conifers in her beds for year-round interest and using negative spaces to provide a pleasing order to the eye. “An exquisite garden with each corner having something special,” says master gardener Mary Thiele.
8) ROBIN & JEFFREY MONSON-DUPUIS
4827 S. 94th St., Greenfield
The Monson-Dupuis garden combines stone paths, shrubs, perennial borders, grasses, annuals and a fish pond with novelty accents including a maypole, an old ladder covered in begonias, and antique insulators repurposed as garden accessories. Simply delightful.
9) GERI & MARK BIALZIK
8131 Milwaukee Ave., Wauwatosa
A mature garden that’s been nurtured by the Bialziks for 28 years covers their double city lot. Their labor of love includes red barberry hedges, palms, giant globe amaranthus, stands of German iris, lime- and lavender-colored beds, a trumpet vine-draped arbor, and even an Alice in Wonderland/Cheshire cattail garden and French fan parterre.
10) CLAYTON & CAROL SCHOTT
1252 Seitz Dr., Waukesha
Even before the trees leaf out in spring, an azure wave sweeps over this backyard garden. Daffodils and tulips follow the deep blue scillas rising up the incline of the rocky terraced hideaway under mature trees. But this is more than just a bulb-lover’s spring garden. The Schotts nurture an abundance of perennials and rarities, including a cactus that blooms once every 18 years, and then only for a single day!