Master Gardener, horticulturist cultivate unique New Berlin gardens
The New Berlin gardens of Patty Witt and her son, Dave, can be best described as a one of a kind space. That’s because over the years, the two have attempted to plant one of everything.
Patty, a Master Gardener for 14 years, said her son, a horticulturist, regularly tells her “we have to have this in our yard! We should have one of everything in our yard!’”
While they’ve accomplished this beautifully, they initially started out in a different direction.
Patty said that at the age of 10, Dave decided he wanted to add plants to their yard, using a square foot gardening method with grids for planting flowers in beds.
Armed with a list of plants he wanted to use, they went to Milaeger’s garden center to shop.
“The plants were listed alphabetically by botanical names. We started looking at plants and we got from A to G and the cart was full, and we were out of money. We didn’t get anything he had on his list. But we put those plants in and we’ve been adding plants ever since,” she said.
Then, 34 years ago, their green spaces were a blank canvas as she and her husband, the late Gregory Witt, had just built their home, which sits on about a half-acre lot that was originally a cornfield.
Over the years, the two continued to add plants, and they carved out new garden beds throughout the front and back of the yard. They added a variety of trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. Some stayed, others died and were replaced.
“Dave and I would go for walks and go to garden centers and look at plants. He was into everything about nature, and we kept buying more,” said Patty who is retired but worked as a management assistant at Rockwell Automation in Milwaukee. Dave is a horticulturist at Prospect Hill Garden Center, New Berlin.
“There was never a plan for how this was going to be. Dave would come home and say ‘mom, want some peonies?’ and we would plant them in the yard.”
They also added other popular perennials such as iris, hydrangeas and purple coneflowers. Some were purchased while others came from Patty’s mother’s home up north.
Not surprisingly, the original flowerbeds the two planted got bigger, and bigger.
“The perennials would grow and get close to the edges of the beds, and we would have to make them a little wider. I was also raising monarch butterflies, so I had a lot of swamp milkweed and I needed space to grow them.
“I slowly got rid of more and more grass. I also put in terraced gardens using wall blocks, and I added a steppingstone trail that goes through the backyard and into the side yard. I planted all different kinds of creeping thyme between them. I used white thyme, which has white flowers on it, red thyme that has burgundy flowers, and wooly thyme, which is a blue green color and it looks furry. I also added Archers Gold thyme that is a lime green with pink flowers,” she said.
She said she and her husband also built a pond with a waterfall off the home’s large deck in the backyard. When they first installed it, they added six goldfish. Today there are about 30 swimming in it.
In 2009, when Dave went to school to study horticulture, their gardens changed even more.
“That really opened up the world to us. He would go to conventions and learn about different plants. He went to horticulture competitions for a year to ID plants when he was at MATC,” she said.
Soon he began replacing some of the original plants in the garden with new varieties.
“We got tired of the basic plants. I wanted to try different plants, the stuff you don’t see everywhere. I would read about them, or see them in a catalogs and then I would try them out and decide if I liked them. I was always checking to make sure they were hardy here, before I wasted a bunch of money on plants that won’t get through the winter,” said Dave.
“There was a lot of trial and error, … Sometimes you can move a plant six inches in another direction and it will do better. I often move them around to make them happy,” he added.
In addition to buying new and unique plants, Dave started growing some plants from seed.
“I started a golden rain tree from seed five years ago. I think a lot of people think trees and shrubs are hard to grow, but trees and shrubs grow faster when they’re young and they slow down as they age. The rain tree grew about a foot when I started it inside. When I planted it outside it was slow the first year but then the next year it shot up 2 to 3½ feet. Now it’s about 8 feet tall,” he said.
While he was busy finding new plants to add, his mom was fine-tuning the shapes of their flowerbeds.
“I have no straight lines, they’re all curvy. It’s not an easy mow; there are a lot of things to go around,” she said.
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They recently talked about their garden and how it has grown over the years.
Question: What started your love of gardening?
Dave: Mom and Grandma gardened their whole lives, so I was surrounded by it. My grandma had a horticulture magazine I used to read when I was 10. That’s how I started to learn the botanical names of the plants.
Q: Where do you learn about all these unique plants?
Patty: From Dave but also from Master Gardeners. I learned so much from them, and from the educational programs and conferences we go to. And David loves to read about them and do research on them.
There are so many different plants, but some of them aren’t hardy here. There are some plants he finds that aren’t hardy here, but then he checks to see if maybe there is someone who has propagated a variety of that plant that is hardy here.
Q: Where do you get your plants these days?
Patty: Dave loves going to garden centers. He also buys online. If it’s something he really wants and he can’t find it, he’ll start it from seed.
Q: Are the unique plants you grow harder to maintain than traditional garden-variety plants?
Patty: No, not necessarily. Outside of knowing what they like and don’t like — for example if they like a lot of water or not — they’re like any other plant.
Q. Do you plant annuals?
Patty: We used to put in hundreds of dollars’ worth of annuals. But then every year the perennials get bigger and bigger, so we said OK, let’s just do perennials.
Q: How do you edge your beds?
Patty: The beds in the front I edged with pavers. In the backyard I used Black Diamond Edging. It comes in 20-foot lengths and it looks like a hose. It’s buried 3 to 4 inches down, and has metal stakes holding it down.
Q: What plants are your favorites?
Dave: Any of the ones I grow from seeds, especially the trees and shrubs. I’ve had them their whole lives, so those are kind of special.
Q: What did your garden look like when you first built your home?
Patty: There was nothing here … my youngest brother came down from up north with his Bobcat and we had a whole lot of dirt delivered. He leveled all the land and then we seeded for grass. … There were two big rocks on the property that they found when they dug the basement to build the house, and we had one put in the front and the other one is in the back.
Q: Who does what in the garden?
Patty: When it comes to creating the shapes in the garden, that’s me. I am usually making the beds when Dave is walking around looking at the garden. He loves to plant and buys the plants. But he’s not big into weeding.
Q: How much time do you spend gardening these days?
Patty: I average about two to three hours a day. Some days, if it’s too hot out, I only garden in the mornings. Since I’m retired, I love being outside. It’s like therapy for me.
Dave: Not that much. Mom does it all. I buy the new plants. I sponsor the garden.
Q: Do you use chemicals or fertilizer in your yard?
Patty: No. We never use pesticides because of the birds, so our lawn isn’t a very special lawn. I normally don’t fertilize either. I mulch with a mix of coco husks and rice hulls. I don’t use regular mulch because I’m concerned about jumping worms.
Q: Why do you put ID markers by all your plants?
Patty: Part of the Master Gardeners program is to educate. When I add a marker I write it out then I give it to Dave to add the botanical name and to have him check the way it was written.
Q: Are you done creating new flowerbeds?
Patty: I’m done. This is plenty.
Dave: If we have two of something in our yard, I’ll want to get rid of one of them so I can plant something new.
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