Thursday, November 13, 2014

So... I'm frequently asked just what is this 'Oak Lawn Cheese Factory' and Conrad Art Glass and Gardens... here's the answer...


Hello and welcome to the gardens at Oak Lawn Cheese Factory located in 'farm country' in east central Wisconsin. I get a lot of questions, particularly on Facebook, as to who we are and what we are about. The short answer is that I am a garden hobbyist who supports said hobby by doing  commissions through a small retirement business in stained glass.


I have been spending some time of late, trying to pare down  my 60,000 (mostly garden) photos and have decided to share some first time seen pictures of this season's gardens in this blog post as well as some of my favorite garden views. Additionally, I thought I would give some background on the gardens and maybe even a little of our lives here at Oak Lawn Cheese Factory. This is a long post so be prepared for that if you decide to read it...

Foggy mornings are 'the best' as far as I'm concerned and don't occur nearly often enough for my liking...
here the asiatic lily 'Graffiti' seen at first light on such a morning


The Gardens at Oak Lawn Cheese Factory

Oak Lawn Cheese Factory is our home. The building originates from the 1850’s and sits surrounded by the farms that served the factory in its original calling. 


Oak Lawn... probably just after completion of construction of a cooperative cheese factory in the 1850's


We have lived, renovated the building, and gardened here since 1972. The site is approximately two acres in size since buying additional land about 30 years ago, and is mostly developed from cow pasture and is populated by a huge variety of plants. Following is an overview of the types of plants we grow and love.

A close-in view of a portion of the new terrace gardens added this past season... hemerocallis bloom at the base of a stone wall built by my eldest son and myself many years ago... this area features a number of conifers but the focal point would have to be the Metasequoia 'Gold Rush' pictured here...

Every plant that grows here, other than the odd weed that shows up, has been planted myself, wife, and children over these past 43 years. My wife and I particularly enjoy magnolias and have some fifty plus trees of perhaps forty plus different cultivars planted. The count changes frequently as trees are added and removed.  We have come to a point in the lifespan of this garden where choices need to be made in the best interest of the specimens we keep. Many of the magnolias have gained some maturity while others have been installed more recently. I am well acquainted with Dennis Ledvina, who is one of the most active and well respected amateur magnolia hybridizers in the world today and an all around great guy. It is exciting to be able to trial a number of his creations. Magnolia season is an exciting time for us.


Magnolia 'Elizabeth'
Other trees of interest include Fagus sylvatica (European Beech) cultivars. Perhaps my favorite is ‘Asplenifolia”, although we do grow others as well, including ‘River’s Purple’, ‘Purple Fountain’, Dawyck Purple, and Tri-color.


Tricolored Beech is pictured here in the background...


Fagus sylvatica cultivars 'Asplenifolia' (Fernleaf beech) and 'Purple Fountain' in October...
both have now attained 25-30' after many years in the gardens

Flowering crab apples have been important to the gardens from the beginning. Unfortunately we went through a period of fire blight some years ago and I was forced to remove over twenty trees. Of late, apple scab has become a real problem and I have been removing a number of mature trees, as well as heavily thinning the remaining trees to improve air circulation and hopefully deter the problem. I did at one time try to maintain a spray schedule but have since decided that at best it offered questionable results and I don’t care for its risks to the environment or the risks to my health. Trees with sargentii such as ‘Tina’, ‘Firebird’, and ‘Mary Potter’ in their background have proven to be very disease resistant and I use these throughout the gardens.


'Mary Potter'  flowering crab


Other deciduous trees in the gardens include Cercis, Cornus, Katsura, Aesculus carnea ‘Briottii’, a variety of Oaks including bur, scarlet, emperor, and english;  Birch, standard Maples as well as Acers griseum, pseudosieboldianum, shiraswanamum, and palmatum. I am excited about the new crosses of Japanese and Korean maples which are allowing these beauties to be grown in harsher climates… I have recently installed two “North Wind”  and one "Arctic Jade" and anticipate adding others in the near future as they are developed. I also grow several cutivars of Ginkgo and am particularly pleased with dwarf forms such as ‘Green Pagoda’ and ‘Mariken’.,. the latter a mutation discovered in Holland in 1995.  Heptacodium miconioides, the Seven Sons tree, a very large shrub of which I grow three as tree forms also do well in our gardens.


Over view of the west gardens just past the main arbor...'Taylor's Sunburst' is the colorful pine pictured here and has recently been moved to make more space for the Acer palmatum 'Trompenburg'... the small magnolia excites me with it's potential for Campbelli-like blooms in the future and yet it's very hardy.... it's name is 'Cotton Candy'


We do much less with flowering shrubs at Oak Lawn because of the space many take as well as an abundance of rabbits that enjoy nibbling on them. We do, however grow numerous Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Hydrangeas, shrub roses, Tree Peonies, Lilacs, Altheas, Bottlebrush buckeye,  and Viburnums.





Looking towards the latest rock garden addition along the gazebo path...

Perennials abound throughout the gardens although I prefer the concept of mixed plantings to perennial borders per se. I enjoy hemerocallis and have several hundred of my own hybrids growing, plus named cultivars, as well as unnamed cultivars from other hybridizer programs. Our larger daylily bed is underplanted with hundreds of daffodils in well over a hundred varieties. We were honored to have Country Gardens, a national gardening magazine, do a photo shoot a year ago this last July during daylily season.


One of the larger daylily collections which is underplanted with daffodils...

Hemerocallis accompany Lilies throughout the gardens... many of the daylilies are unnamed hybrids as is the case here...
Hemerocallis 'Inner destiny'




Hemerocallis 'Virginia B. Hanson'

I especially enjoy Orienpet Lilies and imported 110 new bulbs in 20+ cultivars from England a year and a half ago to add to our collection. We additionally grow asiatics, orientals, LA’s, LO’s, as well as Martagons which are a recent addition.


Martagon 'Russian Morn'
Asiatic lily 'Pink Flavour'


Warm toned asiatics

Orienpet 'Lily 'Forbidden'

Trumpet lilies 'African Queen'

Lilium napelense 'African Lady'
'Vendella' LO lily
OT Lily 'Candy Club'

A lily garden with 'Louisa' flowering crab


Hellebores are also a particular favorite of mine and we have added approximately one hundred new plants in the past two years from both the Winter Jewels and Winter Thrillers series to about 100 that we already have been growing for some years. Winter Thrillers are known for their outfacing blooms to three inches in diameter.

Winter Dreams Picotee Hellebore

The rockery had been home to a collection of clump forming epimediums as well as primrose and other appropriate plants. Unfortunately, a winter rain followed by excessive cold, suffocated many of these plants a year ago and many more were damaged after last winter's excesses. I have lost the shade they require so more efforts will have to be taken to reestablish them in the future. I am also experimenting with Cypripediums and have a few cultivars blooming the past two seasons.


A photo from the rock garden prior to our winter losses...



The newer miniature conifer rock garden is to the right in this photo...


We do a number of peonies… the tree peonies have already been mentioned in the shrubs discussion. I have about a dozen new hybrids in the gardens, that I began as seeds four years ago. Tree peonies have double dormancy, creating a root the first season and top growth in the second. Many of my seeds came from Bill Seidl who is well known in tree peony circles. In addition to herbaceous peonies, we also grow of number of intersectionals which are a cross between herbaceous and tree peonies. My favorite is Bartzella for its amazing huge double yellow blooms which occur in abundance… to my mind Bartzella has to be among the top contenders for “most beautiful peony”! I have four reasonably mature plants of Bartzella and would love more.


'Bartzella' Intersectional Peony



Tree peonies in bloom...
Hesphestos tree peony in May of 2012

Other favored perennials include garden phloxes, delphiniums (of the New Millenium series out of New Zealand), and Astilbes. We also grow a number of grasses although I am very careful to avoid grasses that spread prolifically or seed about… two of my favorites are Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ and Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’.


Phlox paniculata ‘Junior Dream’




New Millennium Delphiniums







This brings us to the hosta collection. We have a number of shaded areas where hostas are planted. I have no clue as to how many cultivars there are, perhaps a couple hundred or more and multiples of many. I have made an effort to mix things up in the shade gardens and to get away from the “hosta garden” concept. They now occupy spaces with azaleas, martagon lilies, pulmonarias, phloxes such as stolonifera and divaricata, a dozen or more varieties of primula sieboldii, hakonechloa grasses, tiarellas and heucheras, trilliums and several types of ferns, and whatever else I could think of to create a spirit of texture and color in the shade gardens. We now more fully celebrate spring at ground level as well as in the air with the flowering trees; plants of the woodlands are becoming increasingly exciting to me as our shade develops.






Cypripediums are a new addition to the gardens and hopefully with time,
 will find homes throughout the shady wooded areas...




Trillium and other woodlanders are sprinkled amongst the hostas

'Blue Angel'


We also grow lots of spring bulbs with the emphasis on tulips and daffodils.





Through the years we have planted thousands of annuals but are now trying to cut back considerably in this arena. I still enjoy the color they provide, but space becomes a consideration as new avenues of gardening are continuously being pursued. We also winter over brugsmansias which add considerable interest to the gardens in season.






This brings me to the subject of conifers. I have loved conifers since the beginning and have planted a great many as windbreaks and also specimens throughout the gardens. After nearly thirty years, needle cast, which is prevalent in the mid-west has taken a toll on the spruces, particularly varieties of Picea pungens such as ‘Fat Albert’, ‘Montgomery’, ‘Baby Blue Eyes’, ‘Hoopsii’, and Moerheim’. I cannot be without blue spruces in the gardens and am also adding many additional varieties that will be much less sizeable and easier to maintain. Needle cast creates a dilemma for an aging gardener like myself. It is obvious to me that the best choice would be to start over on the windbreaks which consist of Austrian pines as well as Colorado spruce. If I were a younger man, that is precisely what I would do but I am not willing to give up the height and fullness of these trees at this stage of my life. The less than perfect solution has involved limbing up countless trees and building a rustic fences to slow the wind entering the gardens. If one walks under the canopy and looks directly up, the needle cast concerns are obvious,… most folks don’t look in that direction though, and from the side, the trees look acceptable. The up side of this situation is that we have been provided with wonderful space to add yet more shade gardens.


Female cones on Picea abies 'Acrocona'
Metasequoia 'Gold Rush', Pinus strobus 'Angel Falls', Thuja occidentalis 'Jantar', and Picea abies 'Cobra'


A row of Montgomery spruces with Emerald Green Arborviataes behind...

Revamped conifer area...

Abies koreana 'Horstmanns Silberlocke'


Pinus contorta 'Taylor's Sunburst'
New miniature and dwarf conifer installs from this season...

The conifer aspects of the gardens do not stop there however. I see conifers as the future in our gardening lives. Eventually they will predominate and because many are fairly easy to maintain, we hope to enjoy our gardens well into our 90’s… positive thinking as that may be! I added a rock garden mostly dedicated to miniature conifers about three years ago. I so enjoy these plants with the ”pseudo-bonsai” look when combined with other easy alpine plants. I am building a collection of diminutive dianthus cultivars and the combination with conifers is intriguing to my eye. Every year I add all sorts of new conifers that are hardy to our zone, mostly dwarfs and miniatures these days. This spring I developed another miniature conifer rock garden As well as conifer terraces and two additional conifers areas that contain larger growing specimens.

My first conifer rockery...


One of the dianthus cultivars I grow in the rockeries...


Thus is described a portion of the plant life here at Oak Lawn Cheese factory, although we grow lots more in our gardens that I haven't shown or written about today. I think that the hardscape of a garden is of primary importance and over the years I have continually updated these aspects of the gardens as well. A mass planting holds no excitement for me unless a lot of thought is given to form and texture… I am first and foremost an appreciator of design. I am also an evolver in most of my artistic endeavors, as one thing leads naturally into the next over time, design-wise. I find it necessary to use my imagination and the materials at hand since most of my garden budget goes into the plant material side of the equation. A couple years ago I spent a couple months scouring stone piles within a five mile radius for the materials to build a fifty foot long, three foot wide and tall stone wall reminiscent of the walls of my native Vermont. All it cost was the fuel to drive about collecting field stones and my time. The best 'side effect' of this project was that my 4 year old grandson loved helping and was really proficient at chinking the gaps with small stones... he has since called me to tell me that if I do another wall, I might want to wait for him to get to Wisconsin to help me, since he is good at wall building! I don't think there is a single project that I have done with  my wife, our boys, or grandchildren that isn't a precious memory of both the gardens and the people who get involved with them, either by visiting, or family lending a hand.






Other garden structures include a large gazebo, a large arbor festooned with hanging plants, and a "cottage garden" area defined by cedar fencing that reminds one of the Swiss cheese makers who labored here for many years. This area is really searching for a new identity as little by little it becomes transformed to a conifer garden. The newest "dependencies" are an 18' by 20' storage barn and a 16' square greenhouse. One feature of special interest is the hyper-tuffa garden area, supported by what our youngest son has labeled “the world’s longest xylophone”. It is actually an arborvitae hedge reassigned as a fence that carries the hyper-tuffa pots. The fence is supported by the arborvitae which were cut back to two feet and left in the ground. All cut portions were recycled into the building of the unusual support fence. The containers are planted with succulents and particularly, a favorite of mine… lewisias. I also use split rail fences for definition through parts of the garden. I split many of the rails myself.  Additionally there are rock retaining walls in various parts of the gardens.



The preceding pretty much covers what grows here at Oak Lawn Cheese Factory. I would now like to discuss what has brought us to this place in our lives and the ‘why’ of our gardening passion.

I grew up in the mountains of Vermont and early on developed a love of nature. As a boy it was my job to fetch the cows from the mountainsides on my grandfather’s farm each evening for milking. They could be found almost anywhere on the nearly 300 acres of forests and trails. I loved the small streams, the boulders surely deposited there for climbing upon, the ledges and ravines. Each spring it was a thrill to gather “mayflowers”, and to see the trilliums and dog-toothed violets covering the forest floor. Hours were spent swimming in the river that passed our property and fishing from its banks. When I got older, summer evenings my friends and I would ‘cruise’  the mountain dirt roads that were everywhere, sometimes putting on close to 200 miles as we enjoyed the sights, sounds, and fragrances of the fresh mountain air. Eventually I went off to college… first to Boston University and then to Westmar College in western Iowa. My chosen field was music and I met my wife at Westmar. Sarah was a student of piano and organ. After graduating  we settled here at Oak Lawn after a few months in a rented house in the city. I began my teaching career which encompassed 33 years in the same school system; I was blessed to be able to develop the choral program pretty much from scratch. We have also been in church music for the past 42 years.




Oak Lawn had been built in the 1850’s and the ancient cheese factory needed just about everything to be done as it was in horrible shape. We taught ourselves the necessary skills and refurbished and remodeled the entire place over a great many years and continue to work on changes in the building itself. During these early years we developed friendships with folks who were keen gardeners. Despite having our first house plant die from lack of care, I soon became interested in the growing of plants. Within a few years, I grew thousands of houseplants and sold some as a hobby business. Eventually the average of 18 hours of watering each weekend got to me and I decided it was time to let God do most of the watering. We had started being involved in gardens outside some years earlier, but they soon became a passion and one of the most enjoyable parts of our lives, spanning over forty years.




I cannot explain why I garden other than to say it is a never ending thrill for me. I love change in the gardens and every fall I embark on something new. Whether the building of a large stone wall reminiscent of stone walls built by sheep farmers before 1800 in the mountains of my youth or introducing more rock gardens to our property. More arbors are on this to do list as well. When these structures and projects are combined with plant life, I experience overwhelming joy and satisfaction. The large arbor was designed as a rustic interpretation of buildings one might see in Switzerland or Germany; its wooden structural pieces mimicking the look of ancient half log structures and the hanging baskets of pelargoniums giving the impression of window boxes. The three arbors I have planned for along the azalea walk will have a shape that pays homage to a mountain stream in Vermont near where I grew up. Within a half mile or less, three covered bridges have stood for generations and three new arbors will capture the memory of them. One of these arbors has been completed at this point.




I also love the aspect of sharing the gardens with others. I am frequently asked why we don’t charge admission to help defray the expenses we incur. My response is that this community supported me in my teaching position for thirty-three years and this is our way of giving back. Each season we welcome hundreds of visitors.  We get bus tours and small groups or individuals and all are welcome.  We have been a part of garden walks over the years but have come to prefer scheduling our own ‘Open Gardens’. We send out e-mail invitations to churches and garden clubs, as well as to individuals who have requested being a part of our e-mailing list. We also post invites in local businesses. In a good year we try to schedule these events at least during spring and the peak of July bloom. Notice is often short… that is to say a week out as we carefully monitor the weather and temperatures if at all possible. We set up seating in the driveway and people often stay and chat for as much as a couple hours. We have made many new gardening friends through these events. We often have between 500 and 600 visitors to the gardens in a season although some years have brought us as many as 1500 visitors.  I really feel that it is our duty to share what the good Lord has provided for us, and we've had so many wonderful times greeting old and new friends! Until recently we hosted photos for the prom of our local High School. Unfortunately the garden paths and lawn areas have eventually become too small while the group of folks gained in size to 200 or more people at a time, so after many years of doing this, we had to stop. We do allow smaller groups to come and also share our gardens for wedding pictures, graduation pictures, family pictures, and with professional photographers for use in their work.





Perhaps one of the biggest reasons we garden is that we love to do it together. These are among the most precious hours of our married life… forty-three years in all. I love being able to surprise and share new plants in bloom for the first time with my wife… we love the sense of accomplishment gained through nurturing the gardens. I am particularly blessed in that Sarah loves to weed! We often can spend ten hours together in the gardens and be amazed at how fast the hours fly by.

Bearded German Iris 'Swingtown'



Through the blog I often try to encourage others, not only in gardening but other events of life as well. I have had very serious health problems that began with pulmonary embolisms that nearly killed me at age seventeen and have been a problem at times since then. I have a number of on-going health issues including serious heart arrhythmias and congestive heart failure and many surgeries over the years. My arthritis is severe, especially in my lower back and I am seldom without pain, sometimes severe. Right now I am considering the possibility of major back surgery as my activities in the gardens and life in general are being restricted by the pain. I try to make the point in my blog that one simply can’t give up… there is way too much to appreciate and to do in this world… never say never. It’s too easy to give up in this life… I prefer to push on while at the same time using some good judgment and adapting as best we can.


Siberian Iris 'Charming Billy'



Gardening not only allows me to experience life more fully… it also gives me life. What better environment to create in, by the sweat of one’s brow, and to experience the wonder of it all....



Take care, Larry