June 24, 2024
Beautiful Gardens winner on Wisconsin lake is ‘an artwork in constant progress’

“Phantom, Quickfire and Little Quickfire,” Kathy Dirks said, sounding like a proud elementary schoolteacher calling roll. “Baby Lace, Pinky Winky, arborescens. Limetta, Ruby, Invincibelle Wee White.”

Dirks and items she’s planted in her garden have a language all their own. Her babies don’t answer back, at least not that others can tell. But that doesn’t mean these varieties of hydrangeas don’t respond to her touch and coaxing. They are winners all.

If Dirks suggests a latter-day Dr. Dolittle, she is a whisperer of flora, not fauna. The former tech recruiter and her husband, Arnie — a retired Anoka County facilities manager — live on a small lake in Wisconsin’s Barron County.

Her eye-catching garden — a lush explosion of color, patterns and aromas spread among nine areas — is a winner of the Star Tribune’s annual Beautiful Gardens contest.

Areas in Dirks’ garden have their own distinct aura. The east garden is intimate and personal. There’s a whimsical garden framed by oversized bunnies. She also cultivates vegetables. And Dirks has a section of flowering vines that includes 80 clematis plants, her favorite.

“Gardening has always been a respite and has literally grounded me,” Dirks said. “It’s a different mode from being a worker or a mom.”

Her flowers must know, for they bloom in happy stages from early spring to fall. In addition to beauty and serenity, her gardens also have been places of solace in moments of loss.

“When my twin brother died and when my parents died, it’s where I found peace,” Dirks said. “I’m an introvert, and I really recharge in my garden. It’s where I’m happiest, preferably with a friend.”

Growing interest

Dirks’ appreciation of gardening has changed over time, both because she has grown and also because the developed world’s understanding of how people interact with plants and animals is catching up to some ancient wisdom and knowledge.

In her 20s, when she became interested in gardening, Dirks leaned into Gertrude Jekyll’s and Lawrence Weaver’s “Gardens for Small Country Houses,” the classic guide to English country gardens. She wanted to create full, lush gardens with beautiful sightlines. She traveled to England to see the gardens in person.

Her gardens had “rooms and garden paths,” she recalled about the era when she lived in Golden Valley, Minneapolis and St. Paul. And they were for contemplation and pleasure.

“The basic structure of an English garden — a formal layout with lush plantings — I still love that,” Dirks said. “But my thinking has changed. Gardeners have a lot of potential to solve a lot of the problems we have with fragmented ecosystems and ecosystem collapse.”

Dirks’ gardening philosophy has evolved in part because of the works of University of Delaware entomologist and wildlife ecologist Doug Tallamy, whose books include “Nature’s Best Hope” and “Bringing Nature Home.”

Tallamy’s work has increased awareness about combatting invasive plants and animals. He also has underscored relationships between plants and pollinators and how plants can help in addressing manifold climate crises. Oaks, for example, can help with carbon sequestering.

“Gardeners, landscape architects, homeowners, even people who don’t care about gardening have a big role to play in maintaining functioning ecosystems,” Dirks said.

Dirks is mindful of planting things that bloom in early spring and late fall so that pollinators can have sustenance during transitional times. And she urges long-term solutions beyond her garden.

“Put a willow in, they bloom early,” Dirks said. “And oaks — there are over 70 species of insects that live on oaks. We might think of insects as annoying, but if there’s a massive insect decline, humans are not far after. Everything is interdependent.”

Dirks explained that what attracted her to their Cumberland property was that it resembles the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The family home sits on a 67-acre parcel consisting mostly of woods. The nearby 101-acre lake, including a bay that’s part of their property, teems with muskie, panfish and bass. And the view includes swans.

“We own 80{ae4c731f0fa9ef51314dbd8cd1b5a49e21f1d642b228e620476f3e076dd7c050} of the shoreline, and we’re just an hour-45-minutes from the Cities,” Dirks said. “It’s so therapeutic to just be surrounded by nature like this.”

Hedges make good gardens

If fences make good neighbors, hedges make good gardens.

When Dirks lived in the Twin Cities, her plots were limited by the ways of urban life, with tight borders heightening the need for efficiency. Now, she has the opposite problem.

“I wish I understood I needed more structure,” Dirks said. “To not have a hedge — that was a big mistake. I keep adding things.”

She has tried hedges. One attempt involved putting in a border of cotoneaster. “I thought it was the perfect hedge plant for they don’t say it’s susceptible to fire blight,” Dirks said. “But the Japanese beetles think it’s candy. So, they’re dying.”

She recently put in some crabapples, hoping that will do the trick.

“That’s also part of the fun of it,” Dirks continued. “We have a problem and try to solve it. You just keep learning and feel good when things work.”

While there’s no natural barrier to help guide and regulate her plantings, something else has come up to regulate her passion.

“The limit for me is I’m 72 and I’ve had two hip surgeries,” Dirks said. “I wish I had 14 gardeners to help. Otherwise, I have to stop adding things, but I’m not ready just yet. My husband is under the impression that a garden, once it’s done, is done. But it’s never done. That’s the fun of it, keep making it better.”

Dirks does have some help. Neighbors and friends pitch in as she constantly divides her plantings and moves things around. The garden is an artwork in constant progress, wrote Beth Tracy, the neighbor and friend who nominated Dirks for the Star Tribune award.

And it’s one where the artist is a deep listener not just of people, but of plants. After all, this Dr. Dolittle of flora appreciates their therapeutic qualities and cannot stop singing their praises.

“I’m not going to admit to talking to plants, but you have to remember, there’s nobody around here,” Dirks said.