I forgot that I was heading for Surrey Lane until I slowed toward the stop sign at 45th Street and Maize Road and saw a horse in a pasture scratch his chin on a fence post.
Welcome to the surprises from this year’s master-gardener garden tour, the annual staycation that lets us explore different parts of town, be transported by bodies of water and large trees, see how the other garden half lives, and get ideas to take back home to our own yards. Not a bad return for 10 bucks and some gasoline.
This year’s tour, which is three days next weekend starting Friday, hits all points east, west, north and south. The stops include two gardens that back up to the river, a forest-y garden in old Maize, a Midtown landmark and a little gem in Lincoln Heights that shows you can have breakfast on the front porch. And that you should hang more than one kind of wind chimes to tinkle in the breeze.
Back to Surrey Lane. When I arrived at 742 and stepped out of the car, I was enveloped in the old familiar but too-infrequent feeling of being hovered over and enclosed by friendly creatures. The creatures in this case being tall Siberian elm trees, planted 60 years ago as a shelterbelt that stretched for blocks in Maize. What remains of the belt, trees three and four deep, runs through the southern end of the back and front yard of Hugh and Linda Nicks.
Hugh is almost as old as the elms and remembers helping plant other shelterbelt trees when he was a boy growing up on a farm north of the current Maize High School. He’s sure the trees he helped plant weren’t elms; he figures the birds planted those, and they crowded out the others over time.
The elms don’t make the list of preferred trees for south-central Kansas, points out Hugh, now a master gardener. But that hardly matters. The trees, assailed by wind, ice, drought, lightning strikes and elm beetles, provide their own testament. “At one time they looked like giant Chia heads. But they’re still here,” Hugh says, then pauses and adds quietly, “I think that’s a good thing.”
It’s a very good thing.
The trees convey a certain stature, and we prairie-dwellers can feel it.
We also can feel the warmth that comes from replacing concrete with sandstone for a sidewalk and first step leading to the front porch.
Such are the ideas that come from a garden tour. We may not be able to have 13 tall Siberian elms walking through our yard, but we should look for the things we can do.
The Nickses’ garden is 20 years old. When one pond and then a second were installed – a channel that you can walk over joins them – Hugh took the soil that was displaced and created berms throughout the yard. One is along a fence that protects the berm from the north wind while exposing it to the southern sun, making it a Zone 7 microclimate, Hugh says. (Wichita is Zone 6.) The Nickses grows bear’s britches and rice paper plants and azaleas there. The berms are dotted with boulders and bordered in small rocks and finished off with cedar mulch.
Limestone paths wind between the garden spots. The herb garden is in an area where they couldn’t get much to grow. So they created a berm to one side and made a patio of old stockyard bricks up against it, and planted herbs in between the bricks, using a giant-pot fountain as the centerpiece.
On the other side of the yard, where the elms live, the Nickses built a redwood deck off their bedroom, placing chairs in different colors on it and enclosing an old wild cherry within its floor. The deck overlooks the shade garden, where the elms have been limbed up 15 to 20 feet to provide dappled shade to all manner of shade plants: hostas, heuchera, azaleas, pulmonaria. There’s also a fountain featuring lion’s heads, and a cedar shed in the corner has been stained to resemble the deck, with antique fittings such as old church windows. Hugh inverted the limbs from a dead contorted filbert to create a chandelier hanging from the ceiling.
The shed has its own patio, where a chimenea burns twigs and where the Nickses find protection from the south wind on a hot day, along with a sweeping view of the backyard.
The front yard echoes the back with berms and boulders. A corner stone fountain came from a trip to Santa Fe. A 35-year-old Urbanite ash with great form is one of the biggest in these parts.
The elms continue their march through the south end of the front yard and across the street, going on for a couple of blocks, belying all the new growth of Maize.
“They’ve been through a lot,” Hugh said of the trees. “They have character.”