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Surrender to Backyard Retreats

[soliloquy id=”9367″]Take a vacation every time you step outside

English gardens that look like a landscape painting come to life. Acreage planted with so many trees it feels like you’ve stumbled into a state park. A tropical paradise planted lushly with banana and palm trees surrounding a crystal-clear swimming pool. These are not mirages, but backyard oases, created right here in the Bluegrass State by some garden-variety, if-you-can-dream-it, you-can-do-it homeowners.

Here are several green-thumbers who have turned their back yards into vacation-at-home retreats.

Gardens and Gazebo
Fifteen years ago when Tim Arnzen, a Taylor County RECC member, confronted the blank canvas that was his back yard, he had no design scheme in mind, only lessons learned from a previous garden.

“My small city garden taught me a lot—mostly what not to attempt,” says the Campbellsville forestry and timber consultant. “And I’ve had the good fortune to travel Kentucky over the years and was always taking mental notes on gardens I saw, why things looked good, and what seemed to work.”

Today, Arnzen and his wife, Carolyn, have a full acre devoted to three gardens—a rose garden, a butterfly garden, and a mixed garden with masses of rose of Sharon, daylilies, irises, and lots of evergreens—all surrounded by mature beech and evergreen trees. In the midst of all the foliage and blooms is a massive, Amish-built screened-in gazebo with rocking chairs and porch swing. Grassy and hardscaped paths weave through the landscape, where surprises emerge from the greenery: birdfeeder, seating nooks, a raccoon woodcarving, and the American flag snapping in the breeze.

Arnzen’s landscaping philosophy is simple: “Keep trying what appeals to you, learn from your mistakes, and keep dreaming.”

Gone Fishin’
Gordon Wilkerson has a standing invitation for friends and family to feed the fish at his Owensboro home. Wilkerson’s lavishly landscaped koi and goldfish pond with a waterfall has been his labor of love for the past 17 years, since he bought the house.

After intensive initial research on how to care for fish and how to plant and care for water plants, Wilkerson now generally spends about eight to 10 hours a month in season maintaining the pond, plus a full day each spring cleaning the pond and dividing his plants—but every minute is worth the enjoyment this “outdoor room” brings to him.

The pond holds court in the center of Wilkerson’s fenced-in yard, surrounded by rocks, with thickly curling ivy covering much of them. Nearby are seating and the patio table where the fish food sits. Wilkerson’s design developed organically, with water plants selected and added based on his research or given to him by other pond owners. Most of the fish flitting beneath the water’s surface, including a half dozen koi (two the size of his arm), have been gifts. His biggest expense was lighting, as he opted for professional illumination.

“In the summer I feel like I’m going home to a vacation in the back yard,” he says. “I’m sitting out there in the morning when the sun comes up, and I’m sitting out there in the evening when the light gets soft and the sun goes down.”

An English Garden in Owensboro
Another Owensboro oasis is found behind the home of Marcia Matthews Hocker and David Hocker. Designed by David Hocker, who restored and made extensive additions to the home and garden, this terraced, three-level affair includes two English gardens and a swimming pool trimmed with wrought iron and brickwork between them.

Old stonework steps descend to the different levels. Pink hydrangeas—pink is a favorite color of Matthews Hocker—border a length of the property. There are trees, flowering bushes, and statuary, including two foo dogs (Chinese guardian lions). A sundial on a column adds more interest, as do two sizable troughs brimming with herbs that sit by the outdoor dining table. Last year, they added a pergola with four columns and topped by a weathervane.

“It’s a sensory and creative sanctuary,” says Matthews Hocker, an expressionistic artist and colorist, whose studio overlooks the pergola and the gardens. “You can sit on the terrace and look down on three levels. It’s just a little dream.”

A Tropical Retreat
Mike Zoeller caught “banana tree fever” 30-plus years ago when his father-in-law gifted him with one, and he discovered he could successfully grow it with special care.

“I thought I was in heaven,” he says.

Now the Shelbyville homeowner has a tropical oasis of more than 15 banana trees, plus a couple dozen potted palm trees surrounding an in-ground pool, and larger palm trees (4 to 5 feet tall) set here and there among nearly 1,000 daylilies and—his new favorite—Cheyenne Spirit coneflowers. One palm tree, already grown to 15 feet, winters in its own 16-foot by 16-foot greenhouse that Zoeller constructs around it every autumn and takes down again when the weather warms up the next spring.

“I love palm trees, and I like to plant flowers,” the retired teacher, administrator, and football coach says. “We own a little over three acres, and if I had my way, most would be in flowers.”

An admirer of Charleston, South Carolina, and its profusion of palm trees, Zoeller knew he had to have them himself. As their numbers multiplied, he built a 16-foot by 25-foot greenhouse onto his home for overwintering the palm trees. The property also contains a pond, a creek with wooden bridges built over it, creekstone-accented flower beds, and 8,000 bricks in walkways meandering about the property—not to mention apple, pear, peach, and cherry trees—and grapes and blackberries, too.

Zoeller’s little pocket of paradise includes an arbor providing shade for chaise lounges, scattered seating areas, colorful umbrellas and awnings, and an inviting pile of inflatable pool toys. Encircling the yard like a great, leafy privacy screen are evergreens, including some that started as 12-inch pines his children brought home from school.

“You can stand on the deck and look out, see the pool and all these palm trees,” he says. “I have been told by others that it looks like Florida.

“This is vacation.”

Backyard basics from an expert
Award-winning garden designer Jon Carloftis, owner of Rockcastle River Trading Company, a well-known home and garden store on his family’s property in Livingston (served by Jackson Energy), recently refurbished the formal gardens behind Federal Hill at My Old Kentucky Home State Park. Here, he provides some practical garden tips for do-it-yourselfers:

• When placing potted plants on terraces and wood decks, use fiberglass or plastic containers with Styrofoam pellets for drainage and a lightweight soil mix to reduce weight. Choose heat-tolerant plants such as lantana, Angelonia (summer snapdragon), plumbago (a tropical flowering plant), and sedums for texture and flowers.

• If you have lots of woods, create a woodland path so you can enjoy the woods, especially in the spring. These paths can be made of chipped-up wood, mulch, pine straw, gravel, or paving stones. Carloftis says anyone can do this because it is a natural looking, informal path that does not need to be perfect.

• If you have a nice view, orient a grouping of chairs and benches to enjoy it.

• The sound of water is always a favorite in a garden and will attract lots of insects and birds. Yes, mosquitoes will come too, but all you need to do is drop a Mosquito Dunk into the water feature once a month to prevent a new generation from hatching.

• Native plants make the most sense for planting, but if you want to use others, check to make sure they aren’t invasive. Great natives are Christmas ferns, sumac, sweetbay magnolias, oakleaf hydrangeas, American holly, and river birch, among others.

Advice from fellow do-it-yourselfers

According to Campbellsville’s Tim Arnzen, gardens are not actually created, but are a “never-ending, constantly changing ordeal—but one that is really the interesting and ultimately satisfying part of gardening.”

Arnzen’s best tip for do-it-yourselfers: “Don’t just dig a hole and stick a plant in the ground. Dig a good hole, remove heavy clay if necessary, then amend the soil, water the new plant well, and mulch heavily.”

Shelbyville’s Mike Zoeller offers these practical tips: “Banana trees are hardy. If you cut them down and mulch them, they come back every spring and multiply and multiply.” Use 10-10-10 fertilizer a couple times a year. If planter pots have plenty of holes for drainage, you usually cannot overwater the plant.

“To create a backyard retreat, start small, learn from others, don’t be afraid to fail—and enjoy,” he adds.
For DIYers interested in creating a backyard retreat with a fishpond, Gordon Wilkerson of Owensboro suggests talking to homeowners who have water gardens and backyard ponds, and find out what works for them.

“This is how I’ve gotten my best information,” says Wilkerson. “Some of the healthiest plants I have in my yard came from people sharing them with me.

“People who like to landscape like to share with other people and are happy to help you. It’s a great way to make new friends, find out what’s working, and exchange plants.”

To cope with his biggest challenge in owning a fishpond—keeping the water clear—Wilkerson uses barley bales (about the size of a loaf of bread), which grow a type of bacteria that helps keep the pond clean.

“It’s all about finding the right balance of plants, fish, and filtration,” he says.

At Tallgrass Farm in Mercer County, farm owner Lois Mateus built a stone path in her herb garden, choosing smooth field stones 2 inches or so thick that she could handle on her own.

“I just set the stones on top of the tilled soil, working them in place by hand. After laying the stones, I filled in the gaps and around the edges with loose soil. I then sprayed the path thoroughly with water to allow the stones to settle,” she explains.

Afterward, Mateus planted herbs, filling any gaps in and around the stones, sprayed thoroughly with water, and added a thick layer of organic mulch around both herbs and stones.

“Soils are different, and it is true some stones sink completely back into the ground over time,” she says. “Folklore will tell you that, like the best time for planting root or row crops, this is influenced by whether the stones were placed during a waning or waxing moon.”

Kathy Witt from March 2016 Issue

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