When Chary and Steve Miller bought their Wauwatosa home in 1981, they knew the lawn wasn't going to work. It was green and manicured — or, according to Chary, "very spartan and plain."
Thirty-three years later, trees have shot up from seedlings to 30 feet high and the property is teaming with flowers, edibles and dozens of unusual plants. Each marks a unique memory for the family, which has cared for everything with their own hands.
The yard, in the 1400 block of North 121st Street, was open to visitors July 12 as part of the Secret Gardens Tour of Wauwatosa. In addition to raising money for the city's Beautification Committee, which funds all the planting in medians and flower beds in Wauwatosa, the event was meant to bring gardeners together to share inspiration and tips.
As visitors poked and peeked through the Millers' gardens, behind the shed and around the hand-laid patio, they had plenty of questions and the Millers had answers.
Making it meaningful
"Everything comes from right here," Steve said, framing Chary's head with his hands.
Chary, although she works full-time at Wheaton Franciscan as a medical imaging supervisor, said she feels like gardening is in her blood. Her grandparents were farmers in Wisconsin and her parents also gardened.
Spending time nearly every day in their yard, she and Steve view their projects as a form of relaxation, although they're often moving heavy loads, pulling weeds and watering relentlessly.
"I like to work with my hands and I like beautiful things," Chary said. "It's satisfying to be able to build something yourself."
Although the Millers haven't had to outsource any of their yardwork, most of the plants have come from others and many materials have been recycled.
"As I was writing the description for this event, I found myself getting so sentimental," Chary said. "So many people have contributed to my garden."
Contributions from strangers and loved ones make the gardens one-of-a-kind. A man who bought the Millers' car noticed their hostas and donated some of his own that he crossbred. Two of their trees came home as seedlings from kindergarten rooms with their kids. Several plants are from Steve's mother and some from a neighbor, both of whom have passed away.
"They live on," Chary said, motioning across the yard.
The Millers have a knack for recycling all kinds of objects. Materials from an old playset were used for new tables, and bricks from an old sidewalk used in a backyard path. Their son-in-law cut off the bottoms of used San Pellegrino water bottles and wound them with copper wire to create a decorative rain gauge.
Going the extra mile
Despite having put in more than 30 years making their garden sparkle, the job is never-ending for the Millers, who are fastidious caretakers.
Chary said one of the most important steps in curating a garden is to be aware of the micro-climate, which she pointed out can change significantly just between the Lake Michigan shore and Wauwatosa.
Working with a shady yard, the family has planted many hostas and other shade-friendly plants. Chary said she is trying to work in as many native plants as possible, which, because they are alrady adapted to the micro-climate, do not require as much extra watering.
"Isn't that something we should all be working toward?" she asked.
In the winter months, she brings many of her perennial plants inside, loading up her living room to keep them comfortable until they are ready to go back outside.
Plants are also brought in the home for harvesting. Chary suggests the red runner bean plant for something more unique to eat and decorative to view, as it produces bright red-orange flowers that attract hummingbirds.
The Millers also grow lettuce, kale, peas, broccoli, green beans, heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, and more — all organically, with just a little Liquid Fence repellent around the garden border. Their son-in-law brews beer from hops growing around a trellis archway.
For those at any level of gardening, Chary recommends knocking on some doors nearby for the best advice.
"Start small and don't be discouraged so easy," Chary said. "Talk to your neighbors to see what works by you. Gardeners are usually very friendly."
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