Photo by Melody

Languid lushness in lake land

By Summer Walla (summerkidAugust 24, 2008

Every year, on the last weekend of July, I have the pleasure of visiting Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin for a memorial golf tournament with my boyfriend Jack. The weekend itself is a tribute to the spirit of Jacks friend Vinny, who died much too young, and to the joie de vivre of his surviving sister, Ginny, who keeps a summer house on the lake.

Gardening picture
This twisted rebar forms an arched entrance to Victorian Village's stretch of beach. At right: the Osthoff's huge pond, with the lake in the background.
And the tranquility of Elkhart Lake is the perfect oasis for this casually convivial crowd. While most of the other guests golf, I wander the town with my camera, delighting in the small gardens & lush hydrangeas that characterize the village. The town of roughly 1,000 residents in the heart of the Kettle Moraine State Forest hosts bicyclists and race car drivers over the summer but, most of all, it fills with families drawn to the beauty of the lake & the cloistered feeling. Even among the summer residents, everybody knows everybody. Elkhart has a whopping three hotels plus three bed & breakfasts and a downtown that is about 3 blocks long.
A subtle palette of daylilies.
An overall look at the planting scheme.

While the lake is 120 feet deep, it is relatively small and could not support any more recreation than it does now. Therein lies its charm: Elkhart Lake will never be Lake Tahoe, and its residents clearly prefer it that way. In place of compulsively mown lawns, you'll often find billowing borders of native plants. Along the ancient railway that crosses through the "downtown," a small sign declares a wildflower area. A few of the houses sport lavish hanging baskets & spiffy Victorian paint jobs, but most verge on quaint & quirky. And no motor craft are allowed on the lake on Sundays. Can it get anymore civilized than that?

The old-fashioned approach has some drawbacks - Ginny said that housing codes prevent her from putting in another bathroom, leaving her only 2 showers for 19 guests that weekend - but the laissez-faire feeling is just my style (of course, that's easy for me to say -- Jack & I were staying at the swanky Osthoff with its 3 pools and showers galore!).

While the Osthoff has a few large-scale planters such as this, the hotel relies mainly on perennial borders.


This year I found some particularly lovely plantings & details that are worth sharing with my DG friends. The Osthoff, of course, is spectacular with its huge pond & extensive borders. But even here the landscape is not fussy - a good thing, since the place is swarming with kids. Mercifully, there was not one impatiens in sight. One of my favorite beds along the pond starts out with a huge swath of black-eyed susans backed by copper grasses & then segues into a stand of pastel daylilies. While neither plant is a favorite of mine, in combination they were stunning.

I'd never thought of Lysimachia nummularia as a windowbox centerpiece, but here it is.
This traditional mix of begonias & Ipomea matches the Siebkens Hotel's ambience.

A short stroll away lies the Victorian Village, an older hotel that sprawls over several acres & is home to the most beautiful hedge of cream-colored mophead hydrangeas. It must stretch 200 feet along the street. Along with substantial borders of native grasses, Vic Village has an elegant stand of trees that reminds me of the allees in France. And tucked next door is a chalet-style house with a delightful, long windowbox filled with coleus, marigolds & lysimachia. Across the street, the Siebkens hotel mimicked the windowbox in feel, if not plants.

The ubiquitous -- but welcome -- hydrangeas border Victorian Village's streetscape. The hotel sprawls over several acres.
Behind the hydrangeas & a sweeping border of native plants & grasses, a graceful allee cuts toward the hotel proper.

A town such as this doesn't have the "wow" factor that, say, fussy French villages do, but oohing & aahing over flowers that spill out of every window & doorway can be exhausting, and I prefer the occasional "pop" of something beautiful. At the otherwise hot, dry, boring main intersection in town, each corner has 2 large planters, and the unexpected combination of colors caught my eye - I would never have thought that red & yellow verbena would look so good with reddish-orange begonias. Perhaps it's the purple foliage that brings it all together into a rich tapestry?

TOP LEFT: The little-used railway is planted with native wildflowers rather than sprayed & mowed. CENTER: So many hydrangeas! ABOVE: Most of the Victorian-style houses put on a good show. LEFT: At the main intersection, bold containers pair orange angelwing begonias & the neon shades of verbena.

All in all, Elkhart Lake has the feel of a town of true gardeners - people who planted their piece, brushed the dirt off their hands & are now relaxing on a sailboat somewhere on the lake.

  About Summer Walla  
Summer WallaSummer is a native Montanan, former newspaper editor, would-be artist, wannabe architect & someday resident of France or the Pacific Northwest. But she is first & foremost a gardener, currently on the banks of the Kankakee River , from which she can -- and does -- pump as much free, fish-poop-laden water as possible.

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