Her Gardens, Her Life

Garden Walk visitors will see gardens tended by Jill Kunsmann in her reverence for nature’s plants and creatures and in remembrance of loved ones
Ozaukee Press staff

Jill Kunsmann grew up learning how to garden and is still savoring the hobby in retirement, spending as many as six hours per day outside.

She has built up a vast knowledge of trees, plants and shrubs that has been passed down through five generations of her family.

But gardening is more than just a hobby or escape for Kunsmann. Her passion helps to remember her parents and husband.

“I always found gardens to be a refuge,” she said. “I channeled my grief from their loss into the create of gardens that helped me feel connected to each of them.”

Kunsmann’s efforts were so brilliant that she landed a spot on this year’s Port Washington Garden Walk on July 14.

All the sites on the walk are within walking distance. Kunsmann calls the area a story of “evolution and revolution.”

She lives on a .75-acre lot at 5069 Country Club Beach Drive in the Town of Belgium that she has been grooming since moving there with her husband in 1988.

Kunsmann was plenty familiar with the area since she grew up across the street in a house with a yard that includes a beach on Lake Michigan.

Her family moved to the house from an urban environment when she was 6. Cows and farm children became her neighbors, and Kunsmann fell in love with “the cool factor of bringing vegetables into the house for dinner,” she said.

Her father worked in the food industry and her mother became an officer in the Herb Society of America. Gardening and cooking were priorities.

“It was just the most magical childhood I could envision,” Kunsmann said.

Her family’s home was built in the 1950s and was the first year-round house in the area and holds special memories since she got married under a tree that still thrives on the property. The rest of the land was used for farming.

Now, several houses grace the lakefront with more across the street. Gardens at those homes, Kunsmann said, evolved with time, and they all have used seeds or plants from her family’s gardens or from that of her grandmother, who used to live up the street.

The revolution occurred just up the street, when Squires Golf Course was purchased by the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust and turned into Forest Beach Migratory Preserve that serves as headquarters for the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory. It has drawn more than 250 different species of birds and bats, Kunsmann said.

Those often spill over into the nearby yards, and Kunsmann has developed her yard to help welcome them.

In addition to birds and bats, Kunsmann raises monarch butterflies and her yard is a registered waystation for the colorful insects through the University of Kansas.

She has raised more than 40 monarchs and will tell others how to do it on the Garden Walk. She grows milkweed, which provides food and a place for the caterpillars to lay their eggs, and has nectar plants and water that provide liquid for the butterflies to drink.

Kunsmann advocates keeping butterfly eggs inside with milkweed. Only 1% of monarch eggs survive outside, but 95% survive inside.

For the monarchs that migrate, Kunsmann said the stretch of land along Lake Michigan is important for stop-over sites.

Kunsmann’s memorials to her loved ones began in 2000 when her husband died. She dug and planted the entire north boarder of her property and calls it Henry’s Garden.

After Henry died, Kunsmann’s parents moved in with her. When her father died, she and her mother created an Asian garden in his memory, choosing artifacts with help from Keiko Sano, an exchange student from Japan who lived with the family from 1968-69 and whose family helped them create a Buddhist Zen garden.

Kunsmann’s memorial to her mother is represented in the expansion on the west side of her house that she viewed from her writing desk. Her mother liked four-season plants, so Kunsmann put in trees and shrubs, along with an armillary that used to be the centerpiece of her parents’ formal herb garden. Among the greenery are a false cypress, fringe tree, service berry, star magnolia, Ludwig Spaeth lilac, red bud and Tina and Royal Raindrops crabapple trees, hydrangeas, flowers and more than 6,000 daffodils.

Kunsmann has started to change her garden’s makeup to a more native theme. Asian plants that used to be hard to come by often come with non-native pests.

She lives in an upside down home — the kitchen is upstairs — that she calls the crane cottage. Since the migratory preserve was created, she sees sandhill cranes.

She used to see bats, but now only a few visit since a disease has affected their population.

Kunsmann’s biggest challenge is her sandy soil thanks to being so close to the water. She doesn’t use any kind of spray on her yard, and she doesn’t water anything.

She admits she’s not the typical gardener.

“I love weeding. I’m a little odd in that respect,” she said.

She is more normal in another sense and has to use small fencing around some of her plants.

“I have a lot of rabbit and deer issues,” she said.

Her grass she calls an “equal-opportunity lawn” that includes dandelions, white clover and violets —”every imaginable species most people wouldn’t want in their lawn.”

She is actually trying to eliminate her grass and the 15 minutes it takes to mow by expanding her gardens.

Trees and shrubs are her new tools of yard domination. They’re easier to handle — playing in the dirt on her knees has become more difficult as the years have gone by — and they provide prettier scenery in winter when “branches go out and catch the snow,” she said.

Kunsmann now has more time to spend in her “happy place” after retiring in May from teaching and directing the outreach program at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

She serves on the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust’s board of directors and is secretary of the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory. She has served as president of the Wisconsin Unit of the Herb Society of American and helped develop the annual Herb Fair and Plant Sale at Concordia University Wisconsin in Mequon.

For those interested in starting their own gardens, Kunsmann suggests going to the library to get books on garden design and to ask a professional landscaper for advice. She wishes people would branch out into unique plants and not the same ones seen in every parking lot.

Those who like gardens and plants, she said, also likely appreciate birds and butterflies.

“Plant things that attract those to your yard and you’ll expand your enjoyment,” she said.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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