ene Sprenger is the first to admit he doesn’t have a green thumb. That’s why he was surprised when he was selected for Port Washington’s annual Garden Walk.
“I laughed at them. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” he said.
What Sprenger has accomplished, however, is no joke.
After moving into his new home on Woodridge Avenue six years ago, Sprenger doubled the size of his patio, added a huge flower and vegetable garden and bordered everything with rocks.
It was all part of his master plan.
“I just did it on a whim,” Sprenger said. “I have no vision. I just did it.”
Motivation came from operating his lawn mower. Sprenger’s backyard has a small hill, and he had no interest in mowing it. Sprenger thought it would be easier to kill the grass and instead create a flower garden.
“I was completely wrong,” he said.
His daily hard work on his yard started as an escape from a divorce.
“It kept my mind not thinking about things. It was good therapy,” he said.
It was worth the time and effort. Sprenger enjoys his patio each night, watching the sun set between the trees.
“You sit back here and you think you’re up north,” he said. “It’s very peaceful.”
That peace came at a price.
Sprenger had an empty lot next to him when he moved in, which served as a storage pile for 50 yards worth of dirt and mulch. He carted it over to his yard with one of his two wheelbarrows.
“There was a lot of sweat,” he said.
That was before he put in rocks, hundreds of them. Sprenger’s neighbor down the street works in construction and had a contact at a quarry in West Bend. The pair made two to three runs per night, a couple of days per week, for three weeks to install Sprenger’s rock border.
“We just set them as we took them off his pickup. There was no rhyme or reason,” he said.
Sprenger did plan on growing a vegetable garden. His parents had one where he grew up in Brown Deer, and Sprenger loves to cook. He paid for college by working as a cook at the Milwaukee Country Club, and now he grows peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, beans, oregano, basil and rosemary.
The rest of his garden remains a little more mysterious.
“I don’t know what the name of that is,” he said, referencing more than one flower.
Sprenger did know he wanted native Wisconsin plants that could grow in clay soil, plants that look pretty and are colorful.
“I wanted some things that were green all year long. That’s the only vision I had,” he said.
Placing them followed an improvised plan.
“One of these there, one of those there,” Sprenger said.
That required some adjustments. Some plants in front grew taller than those behind them, so Sprenger had to move them around. Others just didn’t make it.
“Three times, something died. Twice in another location,” he said.
Sprenger doesn’t have one favorite plant, but a few stand out.
“I like the day lilies, cornflowers and hostas. Everything is blooming in the next week or two,” he said last week.
There are plenty of hostas. His sister, who has a large garden at her Madison home, gave him one of the plants. Sprenger put it on the side of his house and took a couple of leaves for his garden in back.
“They love clay. Most plants don’t like clay,” he said.
He didn’t initially know just how much hostas loved their soil. The plants have grown wide and deep, expanding their empire across his garden.
“It’s unbelievable what these things do. They’ve just gone bonkers,” he said.
Sprenger’s array of greens and flowers draws bees and many butterflies, and a welcome surprise.
“I would have never thought I would have had hummingbirds,” Sprenger said.
Non-flying wildlife also flock to the area. A beautiful red fox strolls by during winter, and coyotes and turkey are frequent visitors, as is one more animal Sprenger would prefer stays away.
“In March, April and May, the deer are eating everything they want,” he said. “I’m kinda mad at ’em.”
But the perennial plants keep coming back. One of Sprenger’s favorite parts is seeing the growth each spring.
“It’s just amazing how everything sprouts,” he said.
Sprenger said he watered his garden early on, but that’s not necessary now that it’s established.
“A week or two (without water) doesn’t affect them,” he said.
Sprenger added whimsical animal statues, chimes and solar lights to the garden for effect. His sister gave him a wire statue of a jazz musician playing saxophone, and Sprenger strung lights around it.
A fence behind his property guards a woods that won’t be developed. That’s one reason Sprenger loved the location of his new house, but it does make for more work, the eternal battle many gardeners fight.
“Every night I come out and spend 15 to 20 minutes pulling weeds. Every day they grow, unfortunately. If you just do a little bit everyday, it’s not a big deal,” he said.
Sprenger took a chainsaw to booming buckthorn that tried to take over his garden, followed by many trips to the local dump.
“The City of Port wondered what I was doing,” he said.
Sprenger now can mow his lawn in 30 minutes, much less time than before. But looking back six years, Sprenger came to a realization about his plan to limit his lawn mower work.
“The weeding is more of a headache than if I would have just mowed,” he said.
For someone with no history of gardening, Sprenger said his son and two daughters are shocked.
“They can’t believe I did this all, and I can’t either, to be honest with you,” he said.
Sprenger will have more time to devote to his yard as this month he retires from his sales job at a promotions company in Menomonee Falls.
Image Information: With help from a neighbor, Gene Sprenger moved hundreds of rocks by hand into his yard to serve as a border around the garden and patio at his Port Washington home. Sprenger’s work has landed him a spot on Saturday’s Port Washington Garden Walk. Photo by Sam Arendt