How a Local Woman Transformed Her Backyard into a Blooming Urban Garden

This green-thumbed Tosa resident has these tips to make your garden grow.

As we walk around her backyard in ​​​​East Wauwatosa, hobby gardener Marilu Knode explains her planting philosophy: “My ethos is food, flowers or get out,” Knode says. Her garden is tucked between an Ace Hardware and some neighboring houses. Like the industrial-style home she lives in – formerly an office – the backyard isn’t traditional, but it is cleverly designed and striking. When she and her partner, photographer Kevin Miyazaki, moved in, there was no lawn, no flowers, just an overgrown lot of weeds. Knode had to start from scratch, and the process has made the garden her happy place (and a bit of an obsession). Here are her top tips for new gardeners looking to get their hands dirty: 

Marilu Knode holding pink peonies that are “at least 58 years old”; Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki

Kick Grass 

The first thing you’ll notice in Knode’s backyard is that there’s no lawn to mow. “Unless you have kids or dogs, you don’t really need grass,” Knode says. “Why would you spend the precious resource of water on something that doesn’t benefit you?” Instead she focuses on plants that feed her (hello, carrots!), the local ecosystem (hi, poppies) or her happiness (hey there, gerbera daisies).

Bee Friendly 

Knode swears by her gardening friends at Wild Ones, a local natural landscaping club founded in the ’80s. Members meet every second Saturday of the month at the Wehr Nature Center in Franklin (9701 W. College Ave.). They promote planting native species, which support local pollinators like birds, bees and butterflies. Knode has dedicated over half her garden to native perennials, but that’s just the beginning. She’s hoping to get up to 70% someday.

Salmon poppy (papaver) Princess Victoria Louise; Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki


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Spoil Your Soil 

Knode believes the previous owners dumped used motor oil in the backyard, which is why she opted for raised garden beds. If you’re planting directly in the ground, she recommends getting your soil checked by the city, which typically costs less than $20. She’s also composting to add nutrients to her dirt. “It’s only stinky if you don’t put the brown in,” Knode explains, saying she uses a lot of leaves. “If it’s just green materials from the kitchen, that’s when it stinks.” 

Sharing Is Caring 

You can’t miss Knode’s pink peonies, which she describes as the showgirls of her garden. “It’s like they’re showing their underwear,” she jokes. “They’ve got ruffles on and they’re putting on a show!” But these flowers actually have a sentimental connection. They come from Miyazaki’s childhood home, and his mom shared cuttings with her. Knode shares her plants, too, sending me home with two tomato varieties she started from seeds.

Five-color silver beet Swiss chard; Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine’s August issue.

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Alli Watters is the digital and culture editor at Milwaukee Magazine. That means that in addition to running this website, she covers art, entertainment, style, home and more for the magazine. It also means she doesn't sleep much.