Wild Ones   Green Gables: An American Landscape Designed With Nature in Mind: Lakeshore Shade. Part 5  
By Richard J. Ehrenberg

One of the reasons for purchasing the land I now call Green Gables was to be able to enjoy the ambience of a lakeshore homestead. A real estate agent who had been showing me properties for a year said he had a rather run-down house and garage to show me, located right in town, on the shore of Trippe Lake. The two structures I saw were in desperate need of repair, paint, and reroofing. However, when I looked out the rear window of the house, past the lush green lawn, toward the lake – the deal was clinched in my mind.

Green Gables

The view of the lake from the house is picture perfect, framed by judicious pruning and transplanting.

Looking past the lawn and into the future led me to the second reason for purchasing the property. Here was an opportunity to actually create the type of natural landscape environment I wanted. As a landscape architect, working for others, one is always constrained by a client’s likes and dislikes, wants, biases, budget, and mostly reluctance to consider non-traditional approaches. My own unrestrained imagination, and my confidence in what could be done, embraced the future possibilities with excitement. Here was the chance, as Frank Sinatra would say, to “do it my way.”

Some of the existing vegetation would be incorporated, and the rest completely redone. The lakeshore area was to be defined by the existing trees; two multi-trunk black willows (Salix nigra), one Asian weeping willow, two American elms (Ulmus americana), and two silver maples (Acer saccharinum). The extent of their shade would naturally dictate where the prairie garden would end and the forest planting would begin.

Approximately 500 bags of leaves, collected by the city, were dumped in the yard and, as in the process employed in the front yard forest (that was discussed in a past issue of the Journal), were emptied and spread onto a 100-foot x 60-foot area during the fall of 1993. By the following spring all leaves were compacted by winter’s snow, and all the lush grass was dead. No trees were planted. I wanted to see what would emerge out of the leaf mulch. The thick layer of leaves and the partial shade discouraged sun-loving Eurasian lawn weeds from germinating. Instead, the rich seed bank of tree seeds which had come with the leaves produced a great quantity of tree seedlings.

Green Gables

A neighbor's storm-downed tree, left undisturbed, now serves as a small wildlife sanctuary, and is a more attractive view than the neighbor's lawn.

The variety of native trees reflected the random collection of leaves with which the seeds had travelled: Wild black cherry (Prunus serotina), American linden (Tilia americana), white ash (Fraxinus americana), and black walnut (Juglans nigra) were the initial volunteers, and this selection has remained intact for 14 years. These trees have grown very slowly over the years, probably because of their density, and definitely because of existing shady conditions. With the advantage of full sun exposure, the front yard forest trees, in comparison, have reached four times the lakeside trees’ heights in a shorter period of time. Nature has seen to it that the existing large trees are not overwhelmed by the 200-plus volunteer trees. The volunteers appear to be “waiting” for a time when one or two of the large trees die, fall by wind or lightning, and additional sunlight will set off a competition to occupy the newly opened space. Nature adjusts to its own environment. A beautiful process to behold; no pruning or thinning is required.

There are unfortunate exceptions to the “no-pruning provision”: The need to control growth of exotic plants such as Russian mulberry, honeysuckle, buckthorn, Norway maple, and native ash-leaf maple (Acer negundo). All tolerate shade so well they overtake all other trees in a shady situation. All of these are removed or cut to the ground during each year’s growth. Native grape vine (Vitis amurensis) and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) are kept in check by annual selective cutting or removal. Both provide valuable bird food and shelter. In addition, removal of native trees and shrubs is needed when they block a view or interfere with the path to the lake. A few years ago 60 volunteer trees had to be cut down to maintain a narrow lake view from the house. It was hard to believe so many volunteers had grown into such a limited space.

Green Gables

The turkey and woodpecker sculptures are particularly striking after several snowfalls.

Native woodland wildflowers and shrubs have surprisingly also volunteered over time: Violets (Viola sp.), anemone (Anemone canadensis), asters (Aster sp), ground cherry (Physalis sp.), white snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum), fall phlox (Phlox paniculata), common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), hepatica (Hepatica sp.), sedge (Carex sp.), iris (Iris sp.), black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis), gooseberry (Ribes sp.), juneberry (Amelanchier sp), red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea), and cranberry viburnum (Viburnum trilobum). I am beginning to seed in other wildflowers for more diversity. The volunteers have become part of the lakeside scene. Each one adds to the texture, color, and interest of the natural environment at the edge of Trippe Lake – a vivid contrast of the once lawn-dominated setting.

Another interest which nature, as well as Kim and I, have added to the lakeside setting is sculpture. Metal wildlife creatures by a local artist and friend of Lorrie Otto, Kaaren Wiken (xn-trix@centurytel.net), provide interest throughout the year, and especially surprise guests who look out onto a winter scene to see full-sized turkeys, sandhill cranes, and a 5-foot tall woodpecker attached to the large weeping willow trunk.

The sculptures which nature adds, apart from everything that grows, are various massive tree trunks, some fallen, some leaning spectacularly, some simply stretching their majesty skyward. These artistic, living and dead sculpture pieces are left where they fall. Branches and twigs of dead limbs are removed to highlight and clean up the monumental accents. Shrubs, volunteer trees, and vines grow among the fallen artifacts. Birds benefit from the insects and invertebrates which take advantage of the decaying wood.

Green Gables

Trunks of large trees, standing, tlting, and fallen, stabilize the water's edge, while lending a wild feel to what is a suburban lot.

Enough light still filters through the tall trees to maintain a 4-foot wide grass path that leads to a patio of flagstone, and to an outdoor fire pit with a grass seating area. The path continues past the fire pit, and ends at the very edge of the property where a small boat dock is located. The out-of-sight location, away from the central view of the lake, enhances a feeling of being in a wilderness setting. When sitting on the patio or walking the path along the shore, it’s very difficult to see the house or garage or any other sign of urbanization – especially when leaves are on the trees. Away from the house one may stroll past a prairie, then into a secluded lakeshore forest, and away from the city of Whitewater. It’s a short trip to the country.

If the tall trees had not existed near the lakeside, it might not have occurred to me to plant any. After all, when one thinks of lake property it’s natural to imagine sunbathing and a full view of the water. I have discovered shade to be a very welcome amenity during the hot and humid days of summer. During the cool days of early spring and late fall, a lack of leaves on the trees makes the sun’s warmth available. As for the ubiquitous mosquitoes, we have a screened gazebo on hand to deal with one of nature’s nastier aspects.

Richard J. Ehernberg, of the Madison (WI) Chapter, is a landscape architect.

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Updated: Jul 28, 2009.