Manitowoc gardener Don Cisler shares his advice


West Lake Chief Gardener Don Cisler gives his advice on making your gardens as beautiful as the private gardens he maintains near Lake Michigan.

MANITOWOC – When looking for gardening advice, why not turn to the experts directly?

Each summer I head to 6.1 acres of carefully manicured gardens that make up West of the lake, 915 Memorial Drive. These gardens are located in the former residence of famous philanthropists Manitowoc John and Ruth West.

After the West’s built their home (now the headquarters of the West Foundation) in 1934, Ruth West became very interested in gardening and started with a pathway garden that paved the way for Lake Michigan. The gardens have been enlarged over the years and continue to grow.

Every year, I marvel at the symmetry of the gardens, the perfect combination of colors and the absence of weeds! I like to think I have a little green thumb, and while my flower beds aren’t likely to reach West of the Lake level, I spent an afternoon with Head Gardener Don Cisler to find out more.

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He shared some great tips on growing a beautiful garden. Here are the top 10:

• Use perennials as a backdrop for your garden and place annuals in front. Each year, the teams plant 18,000 annuals in the 10 separate gardens to the west of the lakes. They plant flowers in mass groups to give a drift, or a more formal look, to the flower beds. This avoids the mishmash look that can come from planting single flowers here and there.

• Think about the theme of your gardens and add landscaping or man-made elements such as walkways, walls or garden artwork to contrast the vegetation. Fancy a country chalet look? A formal European garden? Native garden or butterfly garden? Once you’ve thought about that, create a garden border that fits, perhaps using field stones, bricks, or mulch.

“Always rely on landscaping,” Cisler recommended. “If that pretty, neat edging doesn’t exist or the lawn isn’t maintained, no one will notice the pretty flowers – they’ll focus on the edging and messy grass.”

• Start small and don’t be afraid to experiment. “When I started at home I had Shasta daisies and phlox that someone gave me,” he said. “When these returned the following year, my interest was piqued. Start with something that grows easily and keep adding more every year. If something doesn’t work, don’t worry, just try something else.

• Prepare your soil. “It all starts with the ground,” Cisler said. “We are constantly working to improve the soil. The natural soil beneath West of the Lakes is hard clay, and starting from Ruth West, gardeners have added compost every year to keep the plants happy and healthy. They save and add grass clippings, fallen leaves and sawdust to large wooden compost bins, then mix compost with garden soil each fall.

• Give annuals time to acclimatize to outdoor weather and don’t plant too early. Annuals are typically planted outdoors after Memorial Day in West. Small plants in individual disposable containers arrive in April and live in greenhouses on site until they are ready to be planted.

Retail greenhouses often display annuals in full bloom before Mother’s Day, a popular weekend for plant shopping. But, Cisler said you shouldn’t be afraid to wait for the next set of plants to arrive in greenhouses, which may be smaller but not bloom.

“Rather than buying a plant in full bloom, look for healthy, smaller clods with lots of buds,” he said. “This way they will have time to settle into their new home outside and then give you great colors. “

• Don’t forget the trees and shrubs. Sure, annuals and perennials are bright and pretty, but to keep things manageable and structured, add shrubs, which can range from dwarf blue spruce to Japanese maples.

“Trees and shrubs come in many sizes and shapes, with different shapes and colors of leaves,” Cisler noted. “They really add consistent color and a lot of interest to a garden space.” He recommends mulching around them to cut weeds or make mowing grass easier.

• Keep weeds under control. Almost none of us like to weed, but it’s important to stay on top of invasive species before they take over. “Don’t let them go to seed,” Cisler said. Spot weeding or spraying can really make a difference. When hand weeding, be sure to pull out the taproot to prevent weed regrowth.

• Consider adding rustic roses. Each year, gardeners in the west of the lake plant 160 roses of 40 different varieties in two long rose gardens. Their private foundation replaces the bushes every year, so gardeners treat roses like annuals. For those of us who can’t afford to pluck roses and start over every year, Cisler recommends choosing roses that don’t mind the cold Wisconsin, like rosa rugosa or hardy vines.

• Don’t be afraid to try new herbal mixes. In West, wax begonias are planted in full sun next to petunias. While many people consider begonias to be shade plants, Cisler believes that most plants love the sun, but some are more shade tolerant than others. The first year he experimented with begonias in full sun, the green leaves melted. He thought they were dead and took them out. The following season, he saw green regrowth after the first leaves wilted, and he learned that the flowers do well in a sunny location once they acclimatized.

“Don’t give up on things,” he said. “And don’t be afraid to move the plants around and see what happens.”

• Plan for the next year. Taking notes or photos of gardens, pots, and plants can help gardeners remember what went well and what didn’t during the spring rolls of the following year. You don’t have to be rigid, but it’s good to remember what you particularly liked, Cisler said.

Often times, West of the Gardens will experiment with new plants as side players, and if they do well and look great, they could become main players next year.

West of the Lake is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, Memorial Day weekend through early October, weather permitting. Visit The West Foundation website for more information.

Contact reporter Patti Zarling at 920-606-2586 or email [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @PGPattiZarling.


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