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A passion for plants
Lark Kulikowski and her mother, Barbara Leibundgut, take home gardening to a new level

By PATRICE PELTIER

July 2007

Lark Kulikowski welcomes this opportunity to share her interest and her knowledge with others. "If people are interested in a plant, they can see it in the garden, see it in bloom and see how I use it," she says. "I always hope people can learn some tips that it took me 10 years to learn."

One of the tips Kulikowski likes to share is how to achieve continuous bloom throughout the growing season. She recommends that people start by choosing some plants that bloom in spring, some that bloom in summer and some that bloom in fall. Later, gardeners can extend color by filling in with plants that bloom in between the seasons like late spring and early summer or late summer and early fall.


If "flowers make our hearts smile" as Dousman gardener Lark Kulikowski maintains, then this petite fireball’s heart must be grinning all the time.

Over a dozen years, Kulikowski has created a backyard garden that spans more than 150 feet in width and brims with blossoms continuously from May through frost. Offering a tapestry of colors and textures, flowering plants climb homemade trellises, spill over the stepping-stoned pathways, and burst forth from containers including old boots, bird cages, broken chairs, woven baskets and rotted logs.

Gardening is a passion — perhaps even an obsession—for Kulikowski who gets up at 4 a.m. daily during the growing season to put in a few hours in the yard before going on to other things.

"She’ll sit in the house looking out the window and decide she needs color or a plant to fill in a gap somewhere, and she goes right out and moves the plants around," Kulikowski’s mother, Barbara Leibundgut, reports.

This love of gardening runs in the family. Kulikowski fondly remembers both her parents tending a large vegetable garden. Her entry to gardening came by way of helping out with pickling, canning and freezing the produce harvested. Later, when her own children went off to school, Kulikowski discovered a passion for perennials. These days, she finds special pleasure in actively sharing gardening tasks with her mom.

"I love the color blue, and there aren’t that many blue flowers, so I’m always looking for ways to add blue to the garden," Kulikowski says. One way she does this is by using cobalt blue bottles — reclaimed during her volunteer duties at the recycling center — as hose guides along garden paths. ("They look really pretty in winter, too," she says.) Another way is by using blue bowling balls and displaying them as orbs. "She puts together her bowling balls with all sorts of things," Leibundgut notes. "We’ll see something that she just has to have, and I’ll say, ‘What do you need that for?’"


"My mom was a working mom," Kulikowski recalls. "What I have now, this time together, is what I always longed for when I was growing up. I’m so glad to have this time now."

They share plants, ideas and tasks. "Mom is the patient one, so she starts plants from seed," Kulikowski reports.

When Kulikowski’s plants started outgrowing her garden, her husband suggested she sell the overflow at the Oconomowoc farmer’s market. So, Kulikowski and her mom gave it a try. "You meet a lot of neat people that have the same interests you do," Leibundgut says.

In addition to combining plants, Kulikowski has a knack for creating garden artwork out of found objects. She weaves plentiful and invasive buckthorn saplings into trellises and edgers. Old hitches and tractor gears find new lives as "flowers" that provide year-round interest in the garden. "A variety of serving trays provide shallow dishes for butterflies to drink from. Pizza pans and steamer grates become silvery mobiles that reflect sunlight and catch the wind.


After a while, some farmer’s market customers started asking if they could see Kulikowski’s garden. Now, people often come by appointment to tour the garden, selecting plants to purchase directly from the garden. Leibundgut, who lives across the street, makes the appointments and gives tours during the week, because she is home more often than her daughter. A "Perennials" sign on Highway 67 also draws a number of visitors.

"Before they come, I tell people, ‘Take a look at your garden and see what color or what bloom you are lacking,’" she explains. After they visit, she invites them to return every two weeks or so. "Next time they come, the garden will be different."

Over the last few years, Kulikowski’s garden ventures have taken yet another turn as customers have asked her to consult on their own gardens or even design garden plans. "I’m not a formal gardener," she says. "So, people have to see my garden first. I want them to see what type of gardener I am."

Each week, Kulikowski videotapes her garden, narrating the visuals with comments about what’s in bloom, what works and what she wants to change. Throughout the winter when she’s working out on a treadmill, she watches the videos, mulling over problem areas and making plans for next year.


In addition to challenging her creativity, Kulikowski’s recycling center/rummage store/junk pile finds help her have affordable garden art. That’s another discovery she likes to share with visitors. "You can have a spectacular garden on a budget," she says.

To this end, she continually experiments with the placement of plants, learning which conditions best suit each and which combinations are most pleasing. "You don’t have to be afraid to try something," she says. "I truly feel there’s no mistakes in gardening."

Maybe that’s why her heart is smiling.