The Door Peninsula is well known for orchards and art galleries, for shorelines and parks, for fish boils and the performing arts. But less celebrated is the county’s identity as a garden peninsula. However, as the area’s public and private garden spaces continue to be featured on television and in magazines, and as more and more day-trippers enjoy garden walks, appreciation will grow for the gardening culture that thrives in Door County.
An important development in the concept of a garden peninsula originated with past Door County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bob Hastings. Under his guidance in 1993 the chamber purchased bulk orders of spring bulbs that were made available to local businesses and residents at reasonable prices, and the following year the annual May Festival of Blossoms was launched. The Visitor Bureau continues to sell bulbs.
The culture of gardening that exists in Door County is the result of a number of interrelated elements fortuitously coming together. A primary factor is the tourist industry, a major contributor to the local economy. Landscape gardening draws visitors to the villages and public spaces, and creates curb appeal for businesses that in turn attract customers. Local and seasonal residents become aware of gardening possibilities and incorporate designs and plantings into their home landscapes.
Garden installation and maintenance creates a need for gardening services, for classes and workshops in horticulture and landscape design, for greenhouses and nurseries, and for organizations that bring together people who share an interest in plants. The end result is a garden peninsula that offers sensory beauty to visitors and residents alike.
Chriss Daubner currently serves as president of the Door County Master Gardener’s Association, a group that numbers approximately 180 members who have completed the required hours of class work and volunteer service to be officially designated Master Gardeners. “The goal of the organization,” Daubner said, “is to beautify the county.”
A secondary goal, she noted, is to provide free educational programs, most presented at the Crossroads at Big Creek facility in Sturgeon Bay. These lectures on horticulture are funded in part by the organization’s plant sale that is held every year on the last Saturday in May.
An especially ambitious project of the Master Gardeners was the creation of Garden Door at the Peninsular Research Station on Highway 42 north of Sturgeon Bay. This public garden is designed to entertain, inspire, and educate visitors who are interested in more than foundation planting and lawn maintenance.
Located near that plot is The Garden Next Door, a community garden with plots maintained by Master Gardeners. The organization sponsors a youth program at this garden with plots available for young people.
“Our Master Gardener’s group is respected throughout the state,” Daubner said. “We are the only one that maintains a public garden.”
While the Master Gardeners have the largest gardening organization in the county, other groups abound, official gardening clubs as well as volunteer groups who tend plantings at performance and educational facilities and at municipal spaces.
While tourism offers an impetus for gardening, the population demographics of the county provide potential gardeners. In addition to being a favorite vacation destination, the peninsula is a popular retirement area as well.
Kathleen Blankenburg, who with her husband Ralph owns The Gardening Angel, a personal garden
design and service business, pointed out that nationwide statistics have shown “gardening is the number one activity for people over 50.”
Subsequently, a large pool of gardening volunteers is available in the county, as are potential students interested in taking classes, clients who make use of professional gardening services, and customers for nurseries and greenhouses like Jerry’s Flowers.
Since 1960, Jerry’s Flowers has been a fixture in Sister Bay; Joy and Fred Lang have operated the greenhouse from 1988. Joy divides her diverse base of customers into three groups: the permanent residents; the summer residents; and the weekend residents. All are gardeners but with different approaches because of their varying lifestyles.
For years Door County has enjoyed a reputation as an artists’ colony. Artistic people usually have an affinity for gardens; Daubner feels that “creative people often have better gardens, not just with plants but with hardscapes and artistic touches that add a lot of diversity.”
Barbara and Doug Henderson, for example, artists who work with fused glass, maintain “an eclectic and whimsical primarily shade garden with about 75 containers of annuals” located on Bay Shore Drive north of Sturgeon Bay. The Hendersons bring their sensibilities to a garden that incorporates architectural features they have built along with “many re-purposed found objects.” Their garden has been featured in Country Living Gardens, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, and other publications and has been host to tours and fundraising events.
Another artist’s garden is that of Karin Overbeck who works in mosaics and stained glass. Because of exposed bedrock her two-acre plot is, of necessity, a rock garden; this foundation provides a setting for her workspace in the former Evergreen School (not far from the nursery of the same name). Her garden displays her artwork in part “because I don’t have the money to buy the plants I would like,” she said. But she also enjoys the year-round sound and color that result from her mosaics and found objects.
Like the Hendersons’ garden, hers had been featured in a number of publications, including the May-June issue of Midwest Living, and on public television and HGTV. Both gardens are open to the public by appointment with donations requested.
More traditional are the gardens of Gary and Julie Lhost, situated east of Ephraim. Gary is the vegetable gardener while Julie tends perennial mixed borders, a cutting bed, and a prairie garden. Last summer they were featured on the Sister Bay Historical Society’s garden walk – “A wonderful experience,” Julie said, “meeting people with the same love of gardening.”
Amy and Marc Savard’s penchant for gardening has taken them in a different direction: community supported agriculture. Wildwood Farm, located north of Sister Bay, is one of the “truck gardens” in the county that sells produce through farmers’ markets as well as to restaurants and to customers who come to the gardens. While not certified, the Savard farm employs sustainable organic practices.
Gardeners who enjoy fresh produce but lack growing spaces are taking advantage of community gardens, such as those offered in Sturgeon Bay and Sister Bay. First-time gardeners find different growing conditions in the southern part of the county than do their neighbors farther north.
Daubner, who lives in the Brussels area, has a deep moisture-retaining clay-based topsoil; Lhost, on the other hand, works in earth that is light and shallow. A common consideration, though, is soil amendment. Lang said that novice gardeners have more success “putting a 10 cent plant in a 10 dollar hole, than placing a 10 dollar plant in a 10 cent hole.”
Lhost agreed, recommending soil testing. Because her gardens were created on poor soil near new construction, she amended them with peat moss, composted cow manure, and compost of her own making.
Blankenburg often advises raised beds, bringing in new soil. These beds, she noted, allow people with mobility problems to garden. Presently she and her husband are creating a garden of this type as a teaching station at their home; she is a horticultural instructor for Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.
Irrigation has become a primary concern, especially during recent summer droughts. Lang noted that properly amended soil holds more moisture. Lhost recommended using a wand to water at the base of plants, counting to 10 for each. Amy Savard said Wildwood Farm uses drip tapes for their 300-foot rows; other gardeners use soaker hoses. Blankenburg suggests drought tolerant plants, and has developed a “Door County Dozen” list that she provides to her classes.
Many gardeners use mulch both to conserve moisture and to control weeds. Lang likes to use cocoa bean shells; Lhost prefers finely textured bark; and Iva Grasse who gardens near Ellison Bay uses layers of
newspaper covered with straw for her vegetable plot.
Door County’s experienced gardeners see trends in peninsula gardening such as an ecologically friendly approach regarding pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Gardeners are gaining an appreciation of native species, hence the popularity of prairie and butterfly gardens and memberships in environmentally conscious groups such as Wild Ones. They are more likely to select plants appropriate for their growing conditions and to purchase them locally from greenhouses that offer stock from Upper Midwest growers. And because of space limitations, container gardening is becoming more common.
“Flowers are tied to almost every life event that people experience,” Blankenburg noted, adding that plants also play a role in meditation and healing gardens. While Door County has always been a lovely place, with orchards and trilliums blooming in spring and maples blazing with color in fall, the gardeners who live here are making this garden peninsula even more beautiful.