Tom Hickey calls the small cottage gardens that surround his east side home his Garden of Eden.
“When we walk out into our garden, all the shrubs and trees make it feel like we are enclosed in an area far away from the city. When it’s in full bloom, it looks like everything is woven together. It looks like an impressionist painting. It’s our little Garden of Eden,” he said.
He also calls the gardens in his 40-by-120-foot lot “organized chaos.”
“There is a lot of stuff packed in this little yard,” he said of the gardens he has tended for about 35 years.
No matter how he describes it, it’s his favorite place to be.
But it didn’t happen overnight, and his interests went in different directions before settling in.
“When I first started, I didn’t have a plan. Then I wanted to grow vegetables and flowers. At that time, I wasn’t that familiar with perennials, but I knew a lot about annuals and shrubs, so I started adding those. Later, I learned about all the different perennials and I started adding about 10 a year,” said Hickey, who is a Master Gardener volunteer.
He later became interested in pollinator plants, monarch butterflies, combining plants that have different textures and shades of green, adding plants that give bursts of color, and layering plants.
He added all these elements to his yard over time, but he said pollinator plants have become the most important to him.
“In the last five to six years, I have tried to add plants that give a succession of flowers blooming from spring to frost. I want to provide nectaring sites for monarchs and the other butterflies and for the bees. The emphasis now is on biodiversity.”
Today, when he sits in his gardens, he’s surrounded by colorful plants that are short and tall, plants that climb nearby buildings, and herbs and vegetables that are tucked between plants.
“We did an inventory of all the plants we added since we moved here. We have about 100 individual species of perennials, and every year I usually plant 10 to 15 different annuals. I have four varieties of roses, 16 different shrubs, and 17 herbs and vegetables.”
Hickey, a retired chef, said when he and his wife, Doreen, a retired legal secretary, first moved to their home, their yard was bare.
“There was a Jackmanii clematis, and that’s still here. There was a climbing rose by the front porch, and there were five or six peony bushes. A few of the peonies are still there. That was it. I added a lot.
“I created one garden bed then another. There is a bed along the south side of the house where I plant all my annuals. That’s the only area that is completely sunny all day. I also have a horseshoe shaped bed, a pollinator bed, and a bed with annuals and vegetables.
“The horseshoe shaped bed is in the backyard. There are a variety of plants there. There are shrubs, perennials, tulips and daffodils in spring. There are also quite a few daylilies, three types of honeysuckle vine, a climbing rose, a bush rose and a rugosa rose. I also have a dogwood shrub, a St. John’s wort shrub, a climbing hydrangea and an elderberry bush.”
He added his pollinator bed in about 2016.
“I bought a kit from Prairie Nursery in Westfield. There were about 25 plants. They were all little, and it was a struggle for a few years to get them established, with the rabbits. … After about five years, it really kicked in, and now it has a life of its own. Now it’s my favorite part of the garden,” he said.
His newest bed faces the alley.
“About two years ago, I moved our fence in the back along the alley. I had it brought in toward the house about 4 feet. That allowed me to put snow there in winter, but I was also able to plant shrubs, perennials, annuals and vegetables there. In summer, it’s quite beautiful. It adds a liveliness to the alley and makes the block look nice,” he said.
After having his pollinator bed for a time, he became involved with butterfly and insect monitoring.
“We raise monarchs from eggs, and our pollinator garden is a registered Monarch Waystation. We bring the eggs inside, and then when they turn into butterflies, we release them. We send the information on the butterflies to the Monarch Watch through the University of Kansas. We also do insect monitoring, but we don’t send that information in to any group. We just track it ourselves so we know if we are attracting beneficial insects like ladybugs.”
Toward the back of his pollinator bed is his “secret chair,” which can be reached by a mulched path that meanders through lush plants.
“I like to sit back there and watch the bees and the butterflies. I also like to take pictures of the butterflies, and I send them to the Southern Wisconsin Butterfly Association. I like to go out there between 2 and 4 o’clock. That’s when there are a lot of pollinators in the yard. That’s prime time for the pollinators because the plants are producing a lot of nectar that time of day,” he said.
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He recently took time to talk about his gardens, which will be on this year’s Lakeside Garden Tour July 31.
Question. What are the biggest challenges of tending a small garden?
Answer: Finding space to put new plants. You have to be very selective when you buy new plants.
Q. What are the benefits of a small garden?
A: It’s more manageable. If you had a big garden and you wanted to do a garden like this, you would have to hire professionals.
Q. Do you have any favorite plants?
A: That’s so hard for me because there are so many that are so beautiful. One plant I really enjoy is a dahlia called Firepot. It usually blooms the first week in August, and then it keeps blooming into fall. It’s not a tall plant; it gets 3 to 4 feet tall and has blossoms that are 4 to 5 inches across. It has multiple flowers, and the flowers look like a flame. It’s orange and yellow, and it has tinges of purple in it, too.
It’s really beautified. It’s the only dahlia I plant every year. It’s the perfect color going into fall. It mixes well with the asters, goldenrod and other fall type plants.
I also love my spring flowers. In spring I can’t wait to get going in the garden. I have spring flowers in all my flowerbeds. I have about 10 different varieties of bulbs, including tulips, narcissus and daffodils.
I also love vinca. I have that in front of the house. It’s a ground cover that blooms in early spring, and the bumblebees love it.
Q. Who has influenced you in your gardening?
A: Neil Diboll, consulting ecologist at Prairie Nursery. He is so knowledgeable. I learned a lot from him.
RELATED:Micro prairies: No yard is too small to go with earth-friendly native plants
There is also a wonderful professor, Douglas W. Tallamy. He is chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark. I have several of his videos, and I heard him talk about biodiversity at a Wild Ones conference. He talks about layering plants in the garden from short to tall and how to do it to make a welcome mat for biodiversity.
Q. What is an example of how you layer your plants?
A: In my pollinator garden, I have some plants at the front that are 2½ to 3 feet tall. There are coneflowers, daylilies, marigolds and zinnias. Then behind them are hydrangeas, turtleheads, Aralia, heliopsis and asters. They are usually a foot taller than the front layer. In back are the viburnum and the evergreens. They are the tall guys.
Q. What are some plants you use to provide different textures?
A: Lady’s mantle is one. I get up in the morning and there are always little dewy drops on the leaves. They’re glistening and really pretty. And the Indian plantain has beautiful leaves that are all crinkly. It’s tall and gets beautiful, pale yellow flowers on top.
Q. What are some plants you added to give bursts of color?
A: One is aralia. I really like its lime color. The closer you get that plant to the sun, the more yellow it gets. Also the daylilies, the zinnias and my dahlia.
Q. As a Master Gardener, where do you volunteer?
A: At the North Point Lighthouse at Lake Park and also at Maryland Avenue Montessori School. I do gardening, weeding, pruning, watering, transplanting and planting there. It’s nice because it’s in my neighborhood. As a Master Gardener we have to take educational credits every year, so you are constantly learning. I took the Master Gardener certification in about 2016. I also joined a pollinator group in the Master Gardener organization.
Q. How much time do you spend working in your garden?
A: A couple of hours every day, mostly from June to September. But I spend most of my days out there. My wife does, too. I work in it, but I also like to sit outside and read and sometimes be with friends.
Q. Do you use fertilizer to get your plants looking so lush?
A: I don’t fertilize, but I do add compost to my plants. I use compost from Purple Cow Organics. It’s made in Middleton, and it’s the best. I never use any pesticides or herbicides, but I do use diatomaceous earth when I need to get rid of pests. It’s made from the fossilized remains of tiny, aquatic organisms. I sprinkle it around the plants.
Q. Does your wife work in the garden, too?
A: She spends time taking care of the monarchs, and she cuts the grass. She doesn’t like to play in the mud like I do.
Q. What trees and bushes are in your garden?
A: We have arborvitae, three types of viburnum, a plum tree, and an elderberry bush with purple leaves and pink flowers in spring. I also have forsythia and mock orange.
Q. How do you get to have a Monarch Waystation?
A. You have to go through a series of classes, and they certify your garden. You have to provide plants for the caterpillars. You have to have milkweed so they can lay their eggs and plants that provide nectar like zinnias, marigolds, coneflowers, St. John’s wort, butterfly weed and red milkweed.
Q. What annuals do you grow from seed?
A.: Nasturtiums, zinnias, marigolds, cosmos, morning glories, moss roses and calendula.
Q: What vegetables do you start from seed?
A: I start my tomatoes under a grow light in the basement. My cukes, beans, peppers and herbs I start from seed outside. I usually buy my seeds from Seed Savers Exchange. I like them because they have some really old varieties.
Q. Do you have garden art?
A: I have a statue of St. Francis of Assisi and a Buddha. St. Francis is the patron saint of animals, and I have him because I love animals. The Buddha brings serenity to the garden. I like to come out here and meditate.
Q. Do you bring any plants inside over winter?
A: I overwinter my geraniums. I also have two rosemary plants I bring inside every year; they are quite big.
Q. What herbs do you plant?
A: Parsley, fennel, sage, basil, marjoram, thyme.
Q. As a former chef, do you cook with your herbs a lot?
A: Yes. I use my basil and thyme, and sage and parsley for lots of things, and I use my tomatoes with my basil. I also put marjoram in my salads. I also grow nasturtiums and the leaves and flowers can be added to salads. I have a lot of them growing along the sidewalk. They greet you when you walk into the garden.
Q. Have you been on a garden tour before?
A: This is my fifth time in this tour. It’s a nice tour because it’s smaller, and it’s unique in that the people in this tour do all their own gardening. They don’t have someone come in landscape their gardens for them.
If you go
What: Lakeside Garden Tour. Tour 12 small gardens on Milwaukee’s east side. Gardens are within an eight-block radius.
When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 31
Maps: Available at Downer True Value Hardware, 2629 N. Downer Ave. during business hours.