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Natural habitat
Suburban yard is arborist's laboratory

Photos by Bill Reichenbach

June 2014

Bill Reichenbachís perennial garden is lined with trees and shrubs.

Just outside of Pewaukee on a street lined with split-level homes and perfectly manicured lawns, Bill Reichenbach has transformed the grounds of a 1940s-era cottage into a natural landscaperís dream.

The lush oasis may look wild, but this is not the work of your average back-to-nature suburbanite. Reichenbach is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist and 25-year veteran of the tree and landscape business. What he has growing on his acre of land is a mini-arboretum, with more species of plants and trees than even he can remember.

Mary Potter Crabapple tree

Reichenbach bought the property in 1990. The cute wood cottage had its appeal, but what really sealed the deal was the huge gingko tree in the front yard. "I often tell people I bought the tree and the house came with it," he says. More than 20 years later the tree is even more impressive, although today it no longer stands alone surrounded by a stretch of green lawn.

Eastern Redbud

The grass was Reichenbachís first project. He got rid of it and began pocket planting small trees, shrubs and ground cover. To the untrained eye, the property looks like it has been left to grow wild, but Reichenbach had a plan and has worked hard to see it through. "Most people have the misconception that a natural landscape is easier to maintain than a lawn. Thatís not true. There are weeds, buckthorn and garlic mustard and plenty of other things I have to control. Plants and trees fail and need to be removed and replaced. Itís a lot of work, but I prefer that to sitting on a lawn mower all day," he says.

Shantung Maple with spring foliage

Heís not alone. "More people are moving toward natural landscaping every year; we should do more of it," he says. "We grow and maintain too much turf, which is often chemical-dependent and not as good for life in general. Natural landscaping offers a habitat for birds and bees and other animals. Itís vibrant; thereís life everywhere you look."

A Swiss Stone pine

When he is not sitting on one of the stumps he has scattered throughout his property contemplating his next move, Reichenbach is assisting homeowners with tree care, pruning, insect and disease control or proper planting methods for Wachtel Tree Service & Science in Merton. What advice does he give clients looking to go au naturel? "Get professional help or do a lot of research. You have to analyze site conditions to determine what kind of soil and exposure you have. Different plants have different growing conditions. The biggest mistake I see is that people begin by saying they want a specific tree in a specific spot. They should do just the opposite. They should start with the space, study its conditions and then decide what tree is right for that spot."

Wild Columbine, a native wildflower

The two other most common errors Reichenbach sees are overplanting and planting too deep. "People want to fill a space quick so they put in too many plants. You need to look down the road and take into account how big things will end up. They also need to know that the majority of roots are less than 1 foot underground. This is where the best soil is, but people plant deeper. The tissue of the trunk is made to be in the open air; if you plant it underground, it can rot."

Three-flowered Maple

Finally, he says, make a plan, but understand that things change. "All trees die and all wood rots. I am a professional tree guy and I lose plants. Nothing is forever. Landscapes are dynamic. Keep an open mind and adapt as needed. Remember with natural landscaping, itís always a work in progress, but thatís why itís so much fun."


This story ran in the June 2014 issue of: