From his living room windows, Wayne Wilson looks outside and finds plenty that pleases him - even in March, a month that can tax the finest planting schemes.
While other late-winter landscapes may seem limp as overwashed madras, Wilson has a different view.
His lakeside property in Waterford, Mich., is a densely planted retreat, an inviting habitat for wildlife and an orchestrated contrast to this increasingly populated area of Michigan.
It also takes into account the view from inside the home - an important consideration year-round but especially critical in winter.
Landscaping from the inside out - putting plants with textured bark, or bright persistent berries, or evergreen shrubs near the house, where they can be seen from indoors - turns what might be a dreary winter view into a rich tapestry.
Bare branches allow a winter peek at Watkins Lake, although trees and shrubs obscure Wilson’s view of the water from indoors most of the year.
“It’s like you’re sitting in the middle of a woods,” Wilson, 48, reports happily as a raft of assorted birds arrives for lunch right on schedule - 1 p.m. - on a recent weekday.
Wilson’s parents bought this cottage on its large lot in 1951. There was landscaping over the years, although Wilson says it mainly was “lollipop foundation stuff.” In the 1960s, the tall elms became diseased and had to be removed, leaving the yard even more exposed.
In the late 1970s, fresh from studying horticulture and environmental education at Michigan State University, Wilson began to make changes.
What had been an open lakefront lot is now a naturalistic habitat, a pleasing tangle of trees and shrubs that is a showcase for Wayne Wilson’s environmental landscaping.
Perimeter plantings and a number of evergreens shield the view of former cottages and fields, now replaced with large, year-round homes.
“Most of the people who live on a lake want to see it. We don’t,” says Wilson, who lives in the home with his mother. He objects to the pontoon traffic, to curious boaters who might peer inside his home at night.
So he has planted privacy, which benefits not only him - “I love tall vegetation,” he explains - but also wildlife. Where there had been just four trees, now the yard includes 98 species of trees, 108 of shrubs (many with bird-attracting berries) as well as many other herbaceous plants.
One of the first things he did was extend foundation plantings out into the yard, which had an added winter bonus: Away from the house, they may be seen from indoors.
“Basically, I’m just letting the landscape creep out,” he says. He also let plants shape themselves. Untrimmed yews, taller than Wilson’s 6 feet 2 inches, wave extravagantly, like fishermen bragging about the ones that got away.
As time has passed, borders have grown fatter, island beds stretched into links, plantings turned massive. It is almost as if the yard - roughly 150-by-300 feet - has taken on a life of its own.
“You get the feeling that rather than beds on a sea of lawn, the beds are taking over, spreading,” says Wilson, a floral designer and environmental landscape consultant, his loud voice energetic as he describes what he has accomplished.
It is what he calls environmental landscaping - the formation of a partnership with nature, in contrast with what he sees as the traditional horticultural urge to obliterate and conquer the natural wild habitat. He uses no chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides or fungicides.
By working with nature and its cycles, the landscape is enriched with diversity and wildlife is protected and encouraged, Wilson says.
He has eliminated much grass on his property because it “is a desert as far as nature is concerned.” Now the ground is covered with vinca, ferns, lamium and English ivy, a special favorite of rabbits in winter.
Wilson has also built nine ponds, five waterfalls and one fountain, plus a small stream. Aquatic plants overwinter in a greenhouse next to his residence.
He does not clean up perennial beds in the fall; dead stalks provide winter cover for wildlife. The cleanup comes in the spring, but Wilson puts the trimmings right back on the beds as mulch. Leaves and grass are added to beds along with compost he keeps piled in a screened corner. Last year, he harvested 18 to 20 wheelbarrows’ full.
With water and berries and shelter, wildlife comes to call. Wilson counted 128 species of birds last year - he keeps track of them on an annual yard list.
About three-fourths of Wilson’s property is a three-tiered, lowmaintenance expanse of trees, shrubs and ground cover. The rest is ponds, perennials and a bit of grass.
Wilson advises those interested in landscaping from the inside out to take a look, this time of year, at what they can see, and to imagine what the possibilities are.