CORNUCOPIA, Wis. — In a spot along the back border of Ellen Akins’ sprawling backyard, where the lawn wages a dogged battle against the ever-encroaching woods of northern Wisconsin, lies the Island of Misfit Plants.
Here are the lilies that didn’t thrive where they were planted; the roadside foundlings that responded too well to the beneficence of tending; the flowers that proved a little too pink to play well with others; the dead Gooseneck Loosestrife that revived.
Other gardeners might pitch such misfits into the compost. But Akins’ gardens in Cornucopia, Wis., are in the land of USDA Zone 4A, where the temperature often plummets to minus 25-30 degrees. The weather already is enough of a predator. Why should she further the horticultural toll? Second chances for all!
Somewhat like her misfit plants, Akins doesn’t hew to the usual profile of an ardent gardener. She places well-researched catalog orders, but also scavenges ditches. She creates carefully considered garden “rooms,” but lets hollyhocks wander about like stray cats.
“I let them go to seed, then just throw them around where I want them,” she said with a shrug. “And they come up where they want to be.”
Akins and her husband, Steven Denker, have lived in Cornucopia for 27 years. On the shores of Lake Superior at the northernmost tip of Wisconsin, the climate is an ever-present challenge. Summers are short; winters can be brutal.
“The guideline is whatever is safe in Zone 3 is OK here, but it’s surprising what thrives,” she said.
Indeed, depending on the season, the ditches are filled with vast waves of lupine, or bright with wildflowers that often are considered weeds.
With thrift in mind, Akins began filling her beds with such free finds. “Then my husband would come in and say, ‘What are millions of butter-and-eggs doing in the garden?’?”
Butter-and-eggs, which Akins also knows as Linaria vulgaris, are an invasive species, but they’re adorably invasive, like tiny snapdragons the color of rich butter and egg yolks. Irresistible.
But … invasive.
Likewise the Campanula Glomerata, also from ditches, with stalks bobbing with globes of purple, bell-shaped flowers. They appear where she plants them, but also where she doesn’t.
“I should have suspected they were hardy, right?” Akins said, laughing at herself. “I spend three days every year digging it up now, and it’s already back in the plot I dug out last year.”
Her thrift, though, enables her to invest in the specimen plants that anchor the various garden beds.
There are pear trees and apricot trees, along with several varieties of apple in this apple-friendly climate.
She loves her bank of ‘Harison’s Yellow’ roses because they’re so “floriferous.” “It blooms all at once but it’s beautiful,” she said. “And it has a good story.”
One of the first roses that came West with the pioneers, Harison’s sometimes is called “the yellow rose of Texas.” You can only imagine the comfort such a blossom brought to some settlers.
A spectacular smokebush that epitomizes its name dominates one garden plot, while a Japanese willow with its arching limbs of variegated foliage looms over peonies nestled beneath. The mottled bark of a magnolia tree draws the eye to another garden area. When it bloomed, Akins fell hard for its huge yellow blossoms, “so I planted another. Who knew it could tolerate Cornucopia?”
Not everything does. A particularly frigid winter will reveal its fatal effects come spring. There are plants she’ll never dare try; might as well put the money in her freezer.
Then there are the deer.
Repellents? She’s tried them all. Some never work. Some work for a while. Some may work but the stench isn’t worth it.
Her current go-to weapon is Deer Off from Havahart. It’s a combo of putrescent egg solids, garlic and hot pepper. Put it this way: Akins has smelled worse, and it seems to last several months.
TEXTURE AS LOVELY AS COLOR
Akins’ huge yard comes in swaths of mowed grass and lushly wild plants. Paths of wood chips curve through shrubs and grasses that graze your shoulders. There’s not a straight line in sight.
The couple’s property is on an old homesite, with mounds and depressions that tell its history. Her shovel occasionally hits the rotted wood of some aged foundation. And, as no-fuss as she tries to be with perennials, it’s the woods that keep her working. Seems one or a dozen aspen seedlings are always poking through the paths’ chips. “It’s like nature is out to get me,” she said, bending and tugging.
Akins is a big fan of ninebark shrubs, hardy ornamentals with both great foliage and flowers. Her newest garden plot pairs two burgundy-leaved ninebarks and a tricolor beech tree with mottled foliage of brown and pink. It’s a striking combination, brought to earth by heucheras in burgundy and gold.
“It looks so orderly for now,” she said of the new garden.
In her foliage, she aims for a mixture of texture and gradations of shades from chartreuse through burgundy. “Look at all these colors,” she said, gesturing across the expanse of hosta. “And nothing’s blooming there.” Same with ajuga, a stalwart ground cover in several varieties.
As for flowers, the brighter the better. Photos of her garden in spring shimmer with fuchsia azaleas; yellow, white and pink peonies; rainbows of lilies, iris and tulips.
Some combos don’t work as well as she’d hoped.
In one spot, the hosta overshadow the delicate columbine planted alongside. She often moves a plant from one “room” to another, trying to find the best match of color and texture. If nothing works, there’s always the Island of Misfit Plants where, if they hang in there, may someday discover themselves replanted yet again.
GLORY OF GREEN IN WINTER
Akins is a writer and editor by trade, so it’s not surprising that even her hardscapes come with stories.
Under an apple tree caressed by a climbing hydrangea, she created a highly personal mosaic patio with a small table and pair of chairs. Among the stones, she’s worked in tiles that hold found pennies, one of her son’s childhood Pokémon medals, her mother’s pin from Notre Dame, her dad’s military dog tags and more.
The two iron trellises in the yard began life as decorative iron benches ordered online, with some assembly required. Procrastination played a role, and when they finally got around to the job, found that some hardware had never been shipped. So the seat and back of a bench gained new vertical lives as trellises.
A statue depicts a young Grecian woman holding a cornucopia brimming with fruit. Of course!
Akins keeps records of what she plants, whether it thrives, where it came from.
Her current favorite spot to order from is Klehm’s Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery in Avalon, Wis., southeast of Madison.
“Things arrive in such good shape, like they walked it up to your house,” she said. White Flower Farms will always be a favorite, but she discovers some sites by serendipity, led there by whatever plant she’s seeking.
One of Akins’ favorite gardens is in the area between the house and the garage, where a central walkway leads from the front entrance to the backyard. One side of the walk is planted with azaleas and rhododendrons, while the other side is filled with a mix of evergreens and conifers. Dwarf pines, spruces, cypress and arborvitae come together with a mix of foliage, but with a common trait crucial to the long winter: They remain green.
“I like heaps of greens,” she said.
Winter’s reward, of course, is spring, and the realization that things do come back to life. One annual symbol is the huge weigela shrub next to their rear deck. In full bloom, she said, it practically shimmies with bees.
“You walk by it, and it just hums.”