Debra and Steve Koenig describe the 5 acres that surround their River Hills home in various ways.
She calls it a labor of love.
He calls it a tremendous amount of work.
They both say it’s central to their lives.
“There’s no question about that. We spend most of our time in the growing months working on our property. It takes constant work when you have a property this big,” she said.
“Gardening mixes the pleasures of physical exertion, intellectual stimulation, problem solving, creativity and beauty. Neither of us gardened growing up and we have no formal training, but we both love the outdoors, and we were influenced by people close to us who treasured their flowers,” as well as travel destinations, she added.
Today their land is a park-like setting with a large vineyard, stands of nut trees, a mixed fruit orchard, espaliered apple and pear trees, a vegetable and flower garden, beehives, a wildlife pond, a Japanese-inspired garden, a garden with plants and pathways in an old barn foundation, a meadow, a large shade border, an area where mushrooms are grown on logs, and a shade garden at the front of the house.
“It’s edible landscaping,” Steve said. “We have chosen plants that give food for people, for insects and for animals. We also have the fruit trees, nut trees and pollinator plants for insects and butterflies.”
“We also grow grasses for shelter for insects and small mammals. … We are trying to restore some ecological balance to the property. We also added a pond last year so we would have a habitat for frogs,” Debra said.
Their gardens, along with two others, will be featured in this year’s Garden Conservancy 2022 Open Day Program for Milwaukee County on July 30 and 31.
Debra is president of Milwaukee Art Museum Garden Club and regional ambassador for The Garden Conservancy, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve and share America’s gardens and diverse gardening traditions.
Debra said a trip to France influenced them early on.
“We were lucky enough to travel to Europe when we were first married. We were in the Loire Valley and we saw the gardens at the Villandry Chateau and Gardens. They’re famous for their large kitchen garden, called a potager. It’s a vegetable garden that is ornamental.
“At the time, each section of the garden had little espaliered trees at the edge. We loved it and wanted to try doing that. We really were struck by that,” she said.
Steve, a retired physician, said they were looking for a larger piece of land when they bought their property in 1985. Until then, they had been living in an apartment downtown.
“We bought it with the hopes that we would garden, but we had no idea what it would become,” said Debra, a retired attorney.
They began working on one area of their land at a time, with no clear plan in mind.
The first things they did — before they even moved in — were to clear buckthorn and add a vegetable and cutting garden.
“It was overgrown with buckthorn and invasive weeds. We have spent over 30 years battling the buckthorn and weeds,” he said.
“There were truly some wild areas,” she added.
Their work didn’t always go smoothly. They lost a number of ash trees about seven years ago, turning a large shady area sunny. The couple had to put in plants that would thrive in sun.
“Unfortunately we had to remove the trees because they had emerald ash borer. We lost 70 trees,” he said.
But today their property is nothing short of stunning.
One unique space is where Steve maintains his espaliered trees.
“Some are more than 30 years old,” Debra said. “Steve likes the challenge of training a tree to grow in the shape he wants. This style of gardening was developed in Europe as a way to get more fruit in a small space.”
“We have been working on our land 36 years now. It’s highly developed. We have touched a lot of the property, but there are still some small areas we haven’t touched,” she added.
They recently talked about their gardens and the upcoming tour.
Question: How much time do you typically spend gardening?
Debra: Some days we spend 10 hours in the garden. We spend a lot of our time harvesting things. And we are always baking and cooking the things we grow. Our lives are very centered on our property.
Q: Who does what on your property?
Debra: Steve does the vegetable garden, the grapes and the espaliered trees. He also does a lot of the heavy work. I do a lot of the weeding, and reading about different native plants and trees and how they help the environment.
Steve is also really good at making new areas. We have an old barn area we excavated, and we put in paths made from 19-century bricks. He also put in a Japanese-inspired garden with conifers and ferns. We have little pocket gardens. We try to have different areas.
Q: Do you have help tending your land?
Debra: We have someone cut the grass, but we don’t treat our lawn. We have dandelions and creeping Charlie. We don’t irrigate it. In the last five years or so, we have had a man who is good gardener who helps us out five to 10 hours a week.
Q: Can you tell me about your vineyards?
Steve: The biggest area on our property is the vineyard. It used to be a horse pasture, and it has the original fence around it. It’s probably over 2 acres and it has all cold-hardy grapes. They were developed by the University of Minnesota for our climate and are all wine-making grapes. We don’t make the wine, but we do work with a winery. We have 500 vines and assorted varieties of grapes.
Q: What kind of nut trees did you plant?
Steve: Shagbark hickory, butternut, black walnut and hazelnut trees. They were put in 30 years ago.
Debra: We did it by planting nuts and whips, which are 1-year-old trees.
Q: What fruit trees are in your orchard?
Steve: We have pear, plum, nectarine, peach and apple trees.
Q: How many beehives do you have?
Steve: I have three hives. I added them at least 20 years ago.
Debra: We will be selling the honey from the hives at the tour. The proceeds will go to a community service project the Art Center Garden Club has.
Q: What kind of mushrooms do you have?
Steve: Shiitake and oyster mushrooms. You can only grow them on certain kinds of logs. You can use ironwood, oak and hard maple. The logs are inoculated with mushroom spores.
Debra: Once you put the spores in the wood, they will produce mushrooms for years. You will usually get two to three flushes a year.
Q: Did the property change much after you removed your ash trees?
Debra: We took them down about seven years ago. The loss of the trees changed a lot of our property, but it enabled us to put in a lot of native plants because when the trees were removed we had full sun. Before it was all shady. Now the area is a large meadow with native grasses, native plants, oak trees and river birch.
We forested it with native species of trees to restore the ecological balance. Oak trees support the most variety of native insects and native caterpillars. We also added river birch because part of it is wet.
That’s part of being a gardener. One of the challenges and also one of the joys is that things change. Things get too big, they don’t thrive, or pests come in and you are left with a different environment. Adapting to them is a challenge.
Q: Can you describe the allée near the front of your home?
Debra: It’s an allée made up of Norway spruces. It was one of the reasons we bought the property. Those trees are around 100 years old. It’s a very peaceful and beautiful area. We have great horned owls living in the trees.
Q: What are your favorite spaces?
Debra: I really love my entire property, but right now my favorite place is sitting on a high point overlooking our new wildlife pond. We have a bench we sit on. It’s a great way to appreciate the wildlife in the pond. It’s set in the woods, and it’s very peaceful.
Steve: My favorite place is the vineyard. It’s amazing that we can grow grapes in this climate.
Debra: I tell people it’s like Napa Valley in Wisconsin.
Q: What are your three favorite plants?
Debra: One is verbena bonariensis. I love it so much because it’s a self-seeding annual. It pops up in different places, and it’s a magnet for butterflies and other pollinators. I harvest the seed heads and sprinkle around the seeds. Also salvia. There are all kinds of salvias on the property. The hummingbirds love salvia. My third choice is hostas. They aren’t native, but when you have a lot of shade like we do, they are great. We have a lot of them in front. The bees like the flowers, too. I also like them because they are so diverse. We have some huge ones, and some small ones. They are great for shading out weeds.
Steve: I like blue flag Iris. It’s a native plant, and it grows in low-lying wet areas. Also Canadian columbine because it has such beautiful flowers, and foxglove. I like its tubular flowers. The bees like them, too.
Q: Have you been doing a lot of work to get ready for the tour?
Steve: We’ve been mulching and pruning and weeding.
Debra: We are also replacing things that died over winter. It was a tough year for some conifers. Being on this tour is a real honor. We really want a premium experience for our guests. This is our second time on The Garden Conservancy Tour; we were on the tour in 2018.
Q: How do you cook with the food you harvest?
Debra: We make pizzas and pasta dishes with our mushrooms, and cook a lot of things with the honey. Every year, the amount of honey is different. Some years we don’t get any, last year we got 150 pounds. It’s a good sweetener. We also give it to our friends.
I have great recipes to use our fruit in cakes, and we make fruit compote and we freeze it. We also grow a lot of fresh vegetables. What we don’t eat, we give it away. We don’t harvest the nuts from the nut trees. We have squirrels that harvest the nuts.
Steve: We also make jam and pickles.
Q: What is the style of your home?
Steve: It was an unfinished caretaker’s cottage. It will be 100 years old in 2024. When we bought it, there was no plumbing upstairs. It was very rudimentary. We bought it and renovated it and ultimately added on to it.
Debra: It sits on the highest point of the land, so it gives us a great view.
If You Go
What: The Garden Conservancy 2022 Open Days Program for Milwaukee County: Sponsored by The Garden Conservancy with the Milwaukee Art Museum Garden Club. Tour three private gardens totaling over 11 acres on the North Shore of Milwaukee County. They include a 5-acre property with a 2-acre vineyard, a vegetable and cutting garden, espaliered trees, and a wildlife pond; a property with an abundance of color and textures in sun and shade plants; and a large property with a prairie garden, an apiary, a vintage stucco-and-beam barn with an art studio, a perennial garden and an English garden.
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 30 and 31.
Tickets: $10 per person per garden. Children 12 and younger free with a paid adult admission.
Other events: Digging Deeper events will be 2 to 4 p.m. Aug. 20 and 10 a.m. to noon Aug. 21 in Fox Point in conjunction with the tour and will focus on integrating native plants into an established garden. Admission is $40 a person.
Note: Advance purchase is required for Open Days gardens and Digging Deeper, and tickets are limited.
For more information and tickets: See gardenconservancy.org/open-days/milwaukee-2022.