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Cottage gardening
Anything goes with this Waukesha Master Gardenerís "wonderful obsession"

By MARY LOU SANTOVEC

June 2006

Nearly every square inch of Barbara Nickelís yard is filled with plants and flowers.


Barbara Nickelís husband, Duane, generally has a few extra hours in his weekend each week. Thatís because unlike many homeowners, he doesnít have to mow his lawn. His wifeís plants cover nearly every inch of their city of Waukesha lot.

Filled with day lilies and complementary plants, Nickelís blooms are legendary. She willingly shares plants with those who stop and admire her handiwork. "Whether they like the way I garden or not, people come away with ideas and plants for their gardens," says Nickel.

Obsession is probably the most appropriate word to describe this master gardenerís floral passion. After having run out of gardening space in the backyard, Nickel began planting along the driveway and finally took over the front yard. There are a few grassy paths through the various beds in the backyard, a little circle of grass in the front yard and a piece of green between the sidewalk and the road for Duane to mow.

"I consider myself a cottage gardener," she says, "anything goes. You donít have to worry about doing it the wrong way. And I like the fullness and the beauty that goes into a cottage garden."

Recycled items, such as this old pail, are used for plants.


Tucking fennel, milkweed, parsley and other herbs in between the sweet Williams, delphiniums, peonies and hollyhocks, Nickel utilizes every inch of dirt. Thereís a tiny bed filled with cacti and succulents. She grows lantanas into topiaries for the butterflies. "Theyíre a magnet for butterflies," she explains.

The only space still available to grow anything appears to be vertical so sheís added clematis and climbing roses, which wind their stems up old gardening implements and other "junk art." An old hubcap has been transformed into a birdbath. Sheís tied old shovels and hoes into teepees to support her clematis. A wooden chair with the seat removed supports a pot of herbs. And Duane does his part by making birdhouses out of recycled pieces of wood. "I like things old and rustic looking," says Nickel.

But itís her day lilies that steal the show. Originating in Asia, the plant has really taken off in the United States because of its hardiness, variety and versatility. Of the potential 58,000 cultivators available, Nickel has more than 300 in her backyard. That number doesnít include the ones located in one of her three, 30-foot by 30-foot garden plots that she rents from the city near the Huber facility.

The day lily bug bit when a friend gave her some of the old-fashioned orange blossoms. Because of their resistance to disease and hardiness, she continued to add to her collection. "Thereís such a variety of color and form," explains Nickel. "Some are repeat bloomers; some have ruffled edges." There are varieties that are as small as six inches in height; others grow to six feet. "If youíre a new gardener, theyíre very easy to grow," she added. And theyíre good companions to other annuals or perennials.

Barbara Nickel has more than 300 day lilies in her yard. She mixes other plants in and around the day lilies creating a kaleidoscope of color.


Day lilies come in any color but blue. They can carry a color theme and can be grown from seed although Nickel purchases dry roots from catalogs. It takes two to three years to grow a blooming plant from a seed. And to get the best out of the plant, day lilies require at least six hours of sun.

Her two favorites are "Always Afternoon," a purple variety with a greenish throat and a different colored edge and "Ruby Spider," which is red and yellow with big, open petals. And she dabbles in hybridizing, or creating her own varieties, learning the techniques from members of the three day lily clubs she belongs to.

Many of Nickelís plant choices are the result of her decision to go organic. She prefers to plant things that donít require any chemicals to make them bloom, hence the climbing roses rather than the hybrid teas. She mulches everything to conserve water, uses soaker hoses to direct the precise amount of water to a specific area and recycles newspapers by putting them in between the rows to keep the weeds down.

At the plots she rents, Nickel grows vegetables, raspberries, perennials and seedlings from her hybridizing experiences. This summer she plans on taking some of her old species from her yard and transplanting them to one of the gardens across town and then moving some of her perennials back to her house. She also intends to start a strawberry garden in one of the plots.

"Gardening improves your life," says Nickel. "It gives you energy and exercise. Itís a wonderful obsession with me."