Where Beauty is in Season

English garden

An Evolving Garden for the Ages

By Marni McEntee | Photographed by Sunny Frantz

Mike Collins is a bit of an Anglophile. And a bit of a Frankophile—as in Frank Lloyd Wright.

Collins’ lush backyard garden in West Madison is part English garden, with its lilies and daisies, and part prairie garden, bursting with asters and coneflowers. And, there’s another whole section Collins calls a mosaic garden.

The eclectic mix reflects the several trips he and his wife have taken to England, and his appreciation of Wright’s work, from art to architecture to acreage, as well as Collins’ volunteer work at Taliesin, Wright’s Spring Green estate.

“I’ve kind of evolved my own prairieEnglish garden,” Collins says. “I appreciate that there’s a certain wildness and naturalness to it but at the same time it’s where  I put the wildness and where I let the  natural take over” that is actually all part of the plan.

Collins, a retired attorney, started the garden later in his career, in 2004. After a visit to the Dana House, a Frank Lloyd Wright design in Springfield, Illinois, he decided on a perimeter garden, similar to the courtyard garden at the Wright house. He and his wife hired workers to build an expansive patio and cut out the garden beds along the edge of his lot.

From an initial base of annuals, he gradually worked in a variety of perennials, along with bushes and trees and ornaments, like a sprite, that continually give the eye a beautiful place to land.

When he was still active as an attorney, specializing in divorce, bankruptcy and foreclosure, Collins craved the relaxation afforded in his backyard space.

“I could go out there and you couldn’t get any farther away from having to deal with other lawyers,” he says. “It really was a kind of a soul balm for me.”

Collins may have gotten a bit of his gardening gene from his father, a probation officer who struggled to grow things in the sandy soil of Portage, Wisconsin. “He did the best he could, and he especially liked his rock gardens, and while he was alive he’d enjoy seeing what I’d done and he helped as much as he could.” As the weather warms up—finally—this year, Collins has raked and prepared the soil for the season to come, and his asters and tulips are beginning to show their heads. The garden requires care every year, and that naturally keeps Collins com- ing back, season after season, turning over the soil again and marking the garden’s growth. “Plants come and plants go, so it’s kind of naturally evolving and seeing that keeps you coming back. Like a writer, you’re in a constant state of editing and the situation being that, you could write something and edit it forever.”

How to make your garden grow

Mike Collins has a tremendous backyard garden on Madison’s West Side. How’d he create it? Here are a few of his tilling tips.

  • Have patience. You don’t have to do it all at once. Start small and work up.
  • Let the garden speak to you; let it tell you what it wants to be. “It’s OK to have a vision for your plot, but you also should be open to changing it.”
  • Know your light and soil. “I think this is real important because, sadly, the orientation of our back- yard is absolutely the worst.”
  • Weed, but don’t obsess about it.
  • Do a really good spring and fall cleanup, because those will make your life so much easier. “The best gardening you do is in the fall. That’s when you get the opportunity to do a lot of the editing. You’ve seen what works and what doesn’t, what thrived and what hasn’t thrived, and that’s the time to make your changes.”
  • Understand that each area of the garden has its own demands—the shade garden, the vegetables. “It’s really about staying ahead of everything instead of letting it all get ahead of you.”