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Bloomin' great
The Bastians’ love of English gardens shines through in the beauty of their back yard


April 2007

The Bastians have been planting their yard with gardens for years. They did not follow a strict plan, but rather designed it along the way.

There’s a bit of England tucked behind a thoroughly Midwestern Lannon stone tri-level home in Elm Grove.

You can’t see it from the road, but what lies behind this house is a 25-year labor of love created by irrepressible gardeners Frank and Hope Bastian. Lush beds brimming with a continuously changing mix of trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals border the back yard. There are islands and peninsulas of colorful plants offering secret paths and hidden views, all offset by a velvety green lawn.

Countless perennials create a splash of color.

Aside from wanting to emulate Frank’s favorite style — English gardens — the couple had no grand plan for their one-acre yard when they and sons Nate and Joe moved here more than two decades ago. At the time, the landscaping was limited to a rose garden, some pine trees and what Hope refers to as a "50,000 gallon water feature" aka the swimming pool.

"We started in the pool area and moved out a little each year," Hope explains.

Exactly how their garden grows is often a mix of vision and happenstance. Hope does the plant buying. She goes through catalogs and visits garden centers, buying what catches her eye. "Some-times we have a place for them; sometimes not," she reports. If there’s no particular spot for a prized purchase, a new flower bed may be born.

"My husband has the eye for things," Hope says. "He sees how everything goes together."

Evergreens are planted throughout the property including these two that stand sentry in the back yard.

Sometimes, nature helps create a new garden — like when some pines died of old age a few years ago. Frank turned the trunks into a sculpture that forms the centerpiece of a new, sunny flower bed.

Last year, Hope decided to use the spot where she composts into a flower garden grown from seed. Amongst the zinnias, nasturtiums and other flower seeds she planted was a big surprise — vegetables that sprang from seeds left in the compost. And, the veggies weren’t the only ones to appreciate the especially fertile soil. "Have you ever seen cosmos grow so high," Hope exclaimed, pointing to the 7-foot tall plants.

When the 9-foot-tall cedar fence around the pool blew over in a storm a few years ago, this created another "accident" turned opportunity. The Bastians replaced the solid fence with a handsome wrought iron one they could see through. This provided the impetus for a whole new garden beyond the fence. Here, the burgundy leaves of Japanese barberry shrubs and green conifers offset purple coneflowers, white Asiatic lilies, puffy pink hydrangeas and fragrant bee balm.

Early on, the couple replaced the willows growing along the back of the property with conifers from their home up north. "They were mostly just scrubs," Hope recalls. Mingled among them are the trees each of her sons brought home from their school Arbor Day celebrations. At the time, the trees, forgotten for a few days in school backpacks and such (as third-graders are wont to do), were barely more than sticks. Today, they loom 40 feet.

Inside this green and private backdrop, a profusion of prairie plants like baptisia, black-eyed Susans, queen-of-the-prairie, Joe Pye weed and helianthus happily mingle with an eclectic mix of sedum, Asiatic lilies, phlox and ornamental millet. Eventually, this back border became so deep that Hope created woodchip paths through it to provide access for both viewing and maintaining the many plants.

Spotted throughout the gardens are pairs of evergreens — arborvitae, pines, blue spruce and boxwood. Earlier in their lives, each pair graced the large planters that flank the Bastians’ front doors. The trees, accompanied by annuals, decorate the entry for a season and then take up permanent residence in the garden. "We’ve had so much fun with this," Hope reports.

Around the pool, the original rose garden remains, although its occupants have changed over time. Learning how to care for the tender hybrid tea roses has become a mission for Hope. Dissatisfied with their performance, Hope determined, "Either I have to get into this or get out of it." She jumped in with both feet, researching the plants’ requirements and talking to rose aficionados about successful techniques. "Now, they’re looking great," she says with pride.

In addition to the roses, Hope likes to use lots of annuals, including many in large containers, to provide bursts of color throughout the growing season. Some plants — like the palms and hibiscus — find a home inside for the winter. To get a jump on the growing season, Hope starts other tropical plants indoors over the winter.

"I start the cannas in February. They take three to four months to wake up," she says. Sometimes, though, a plant takes off sooner than expected.

"I started the elephant ears in mid-February. They grew so fast, I didn’t have room for them in the house," she recalls. "I made myself a note: ‘Next year, start in April.’ Because, really, how do you deal with elephant ears in the house?"

Taking care of all these gardens is a big job — one that’s grown over time. Both children of gardeners, Hope says she and Frank became more intensely interested after their own children left home.

They share the work of the gardens, dividing tasks according to their interests. Both weed. Hope says she deadheads and cuts back the flowering plants — the "fussy stuff." Frank handles pruning the trees and shrubs. "He’s constantly clipping, and I’m the picker upper," Hope notes.

Retired after 30 years as a special education teacher in Milwaukee Public Schools, Hope calls gardening her new full-time job. "In the spring, whoa, every minute is filled with dividing, planting, sowing seeds, mulching," she says."I used to spend more money, but now I don’t have time to shop," she adds with a chuckle.

"We don’t travel in the summer, because you can’t leave all this," she continues, sweeping her arm across the flowering expanse. Good thing she can be transported to the English countryside simply by stepping into her back yard.