When Jobey Clarke designed the gardens that surround her south side Milwaukee home, she laid out a long-range plan to create a beautiful and relaxing space by combining plants with contrasting foliage, those that came in different shapes, sizes and colors; and those with different bloom times.
She met these goals beautifully but said her gardens serve other purposes as well.
They’re where she and her husband, Troy, grow organic food and where their children, Rhyen and Rowen, can play in their tree house, soar high on their swing set, jump on their trampoline, hop from tree stump to tree stump, or watch the butterflies that frequent the green spaces.
It’s a space the entire family loves and uses regularly.
Jobey Clarke, who is a coordinator in the international affairs program at Marquette University, said she began working in her gardens soon after they bought their home in 2017. Her husband is a recreational coordinator at Milwaukee Recreation.
Back then their lot was mostly grass with patches of sedum and iris, a single lilac bush, and an area of buckthorn entwined with a red willow.
She started working on her shady front yard first, where she planted Japanese maples, shrubs, grasses and hostas.
“I really covet shady gardens that are similar to the Japanese-style gardens. I wanted to add plants that had impressive foliage,” she said.
They also added a picket fence.
“That was to rein in Rhyen (now age 7). She was a quick-footed toddler. But she found a way over and under the fence, so it soon became decorative,” she said. Their son Rowen is 12.
Next she created an area for sun-loving perennials near the center of the backyard, and they planted a curly willow that would one day be home to their children’s tree house. Troy also added a Lannon stone patio, and built a curved and raised retaining wall against the back of the house.
More plants were added over the years, and before long their home had one of the most striking gardens in the area.
But they didn’t stop there. Some of the biggest changes happened last fall when they decided to tear down their two-car garage and put a shed and raised beds in that space.
“It was Troy’s idea. He said, ‘I would rather focus on our health by growing our own food than to build another garage,’ ” Jobey Clarke said.
She added that they also wanted to put the money they would have spent to build a garage, and the money they would have spent on produce over time, toward their future.
“It was also a safety issue,” she said. “The garage was occupied by raccoons, the structure was compromised, and it flooded. Troy tore it down himself and loaded it all in the dumpster.”
They also had the cement slab and part of the asphalt driveway removed.
Troy then built an 8-by-12-foot shed and three raised beds — each measuring about 4-by-8 feet — in the space where the garage was.
The raised beds have tall, screened sides and screened tops that are covered with hardware cloth. To access the plants, Troy added a pulley system that lifts the entire top portion of the beds off to one side.
Once the beds were completed, the couple planted different cover crops, including oilseed radish, hairy vetch and mustard greens, in each. These crops would keep the weeds down until they could plant in spring, but would also enrich the soil.
The family recently talked about the gardens they share with rescue cats Tigger and Dash.
Who does what in the garden?
Jobey: Troy is the vegetable guy. I’m the plant gal. He also does all the hardscaping.
Have you always gardened?
Jobey: My dad would say I resisted gardening chores when I was young. But in 2006, when we lived in central Oregon, something clicked and I found that gardening grounded me. It’s a way to make a house a home.
Where did you learn to garden?
Jobey: I‘m self-taught. I read books, and when we lived in Oregon I joined a garden club and they showed me the ropes. Since I’ve moved here I have also worked at two garden centers. It’s like being a reader in a bookshop.
What do you enjoy about gardening?
Jobey: I truly enjoy the physical labor and the mental puzzle of gardening. I like sifting through my mental files to answer questions like: “What leaf will accent this fine-toothed foliage? What vertical bloom will accent these flowers with horizontal blossom at the same bloom time and at the height I want? Does the eye get a chance to rest? Is there any reason to wander or explore?”
Are you teaching your children to garden?
Jobey: Yes. They like to pull carrots and garlic and watch for caterpillars on the milkweed. The garden is still a bit of a mystery to them, like it was for me at that age.
What is your favorite plant?
Jobey: Ornamental grasses are my favorite category of plant, but my favorite flowering perennial is blue false indigo (baptisia). When morning or later afternoon sun hits it, the indigo blooms light up as if a switch has been turned on. The foliage is incredibly soft and the plant is tough as nails. I’ve watered it twice in three years and it’s 3-by-3 feet.
Troy: My favorite is a tree, and we don’t have it here. It’s the clump paper birch. We might have one here one day if we can find the right spot. My mom really liked that tree, so it has special memories for me.
Rowen: The common milkweed because the caterpillars lay eggs on them. We take the caterpillars in until we can release them. We make a shelter for them so the birds don’t get them.
Rhyen: I like love-lies-bleeding. I like the color and how long the flowers get. Also how big the plant gets.
What is your favorite place in the garden?
Jobey: The curly willow with the tree house. It’s inspired by a children’s book, “Miss Twiggley’s Tree,” written by Dorothea Warren Fox, which is a book my parents read to me and my sister in our early childhood. The willow trees we climbed as kids were magical. The tree in our yard evokes that magic even to this 44-year-old gardener.
Troy: My shed. I can fix the kids’ bikes in there. It’s the base for my projects.
Rhyen: I like the trampoline. My brother and me like to play games on it and jump around.
Rowen: I like the trampoline as well for all the same reasons. I also like the patio. I like it because it’s made of stone and I like the fire pit in fall.
Rhyen: I don‘t like the patio because there are bugs there.
What are your favorite grasses?
Jobey: Variegated miscanthus and hakone grass. We also have some Karl Foerster, switchgrass and Elijah Blue fescue.
What trees are in your gardens?
Jobey: In the back the curly willow, an Ann magnolia, an elderberry, and a Yoshino cherry. That’s the same as the cherry blossom trees in Washington, D.C. In my teen years I grew up in Springfield, Virginia, so cherry blossom trees are a part of home for me as much as the front stoop is here. In the front I also have a lace leaf Japanese maple and a blood good Japanese maple.
What do you plant in your raised beds?
Troy: Tomatoes, basil, carrots, lettuce, onions, garlic, sweet peppers and a watermelon for Rhyen.
Jobey: In the yard we also have herbs and we grow grapes on the arbor.
What kind of wire did you use to build the raised beds?
Jobey: We found that chicken wire had holes that were large enough for chipmunks and birds to get through. Troy used 1/2-inch galvanized steel hardware cloth. This wire has smaller holes, but they are large enough for bees to get in.
Do you water your flowers much?
Jobey: I water very little. I use plants that are very drought tolerant. They have to pull their own weight.
How is the tree house designed?
Jobey: It’s three stories, and it’s built around a number of the different limbs of the curly willow. It has a bucket on a pulley system the kids can pull up and down.
Where did you get all the tree stumps in the yard?
Jobey: I found them on the side of the road a few years ago. They are all the same size. I buried some of them to make a walkway through the flowers for the kids, but some I just set on the ground so they can jump on them.
Any gardeners who have influenced you?
Jobey: Piet Oudolf. I have three of his books from the library right now. I learned about him two years ago. He has taught me that plants can offer beauty in seasons you least expect.
Do you plant many annuals?
Jobey: Just a few. I plant Irish poet tassel flower that is tall and has bright orange flowers, globe amaranth that has purple flowers, love-lies-bleeding that has red rope-like flowers that hang down, potato vine and impatiens.
How many butterflies will you release this year?
Rowen: This year we have released two. One year we had about five. I know how to find the eggs on the milkweed. One year we had so many we had to have someone babysit them when we went out of town.
Was creating the patio a lot of work?
Troy: Yes. I wouldn’t recommend it. First I built the fire pit, and then right after that we decided to do the patio. We wanted a place to relax with the family.
Did you make anything else in your garden?
Troy: I made the arbor and the two trellises.
Do you harvest your grapes?
Troy: Yes. Last year we got three gallon-sized bags.
Any more projects slated for down the road?
Jobey: We are going to put a fence along the driveway. We already have one on three sides of the house. It will give our neighbors and us more privacy.
I will also finish my Attila the Hun garden bed. I call certain plants Attila plants. They’re ones that are really aggressive. I’m going to put them alongside the house. I’m planting some butterbur, sweet woodruff and ferns. I see what their ideal growing conditions are, but then I don’t give them their ideal conditions. That way they won’t spread like crazy. They will also have to duke it out with each other.
Troy: I have some extra Lannon stone from when I did the patio and I would like to make a walkway from the side gate near the front of the house to the front porch. If I have enough left I’ll also make a walkway from the front sidewalk to the house. I also want to build three more raised beds next to these first beds.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee garden provides sustenance and fun for entire family