As we stroll through the backyard of her East Wauwatosa home, amateur gardener Marylou Knode explains her gardening philosophy: “My moral is food, flowers, or get out,” Knode says. Her garden is located between Ace Hardware and some neighboring homes. Like the industrial-style house she lives in — which used to be an office — the backyard is not traditional, but it is smartly designed and stunning. When she and her partner, photographer Kevin Miyazaki, moved in, there wasn’t any grass or flowers, just a lot of weeds. Knode had to start from scratch, and this process has made the garden a happy (and slightly obsessive) place for it. Here are her top tips for new gardeners looking to get their hands dirty:

Marilou Knode holds pink peonies that are “at least 58 years old”; Photography by Kevin J. Miyazaki

Grass kick

The first thing you’ll notice about Knode’s backyard is that there’s no grass to mow. “Unless you have kids or dogs, you don’t really need grass,” Knode says. “Why spend your precious water resource on something that does not benefit you?” Instead, they focus on the plants they nourish (hello, carrots!), the local ecosystem (hello, poppies) or their happiness (hello, gerbera daisies).

Bee friendly

Knode swears by her gardening friends at the Wild Ones, a local landscaping club founded in the 1980s. Members meet every second Saturday of the month at the Ware Nature Center in Franklin (9701 W. College Ave.). They encourage the planting of native species that support local pollinators such as birds, bees and butterflies. Knode has dedicated more than half of its garden to native perennials, but that’s just the beginning. She hopes to get up to 70% one day.

Salmon Poppy (Poppy) Princess Victoria Louise; Photography by Kevin J. Miyazaki

Spoil your soil

Knode believes the previous owners dumped used motor oil in the backyard, which is why she chose raised garden beds. If you’re planting directly into the ground, she recommends having your soil inspected by the city, which usually costs less than $20. They also compost to add nutrients to their dirt. “It only stinks if you don’t put brown in it,” Knud explains, saying she uses a lot of leaves. “If it’s just green stuff from the kitchen, then it smells bad.”

Sharing means caring

You can’t miss Knud’s pink peonies, which she describes as the showgirls of her garden. “It’s like they’re showing off their underwear,” she jokes. “They wore ruffles and they were performing!” But these flowers actually have an emotional connection. They come from Miyazaki’s childhood home, the scraps of which his mother shared with her. Knud also shared her plants, sending me home with two varieties of tomatoes that she started from seed.

Swiss chard in five colors; Photography by Kevin J. Miyazaki

This story is part of Milwaukee MagazineAugust issue.

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