A Woodland Gardener Creates a 3-Acre Wonderland

Stillwater Garden Pond

Above: Waltraud Brogren artfully blends dozens of varieties in her sun garden: native plants and other perennials, herbs, grasses, and shrubbery. Early fall brings a shift from flowers and greenery to golden foliage and late blooms.

The tree-lined road offers no clue as to what I will find when I arrive at the Stillwater property of Waltraud Brogren. I park on a high patch of driveway and, for a moment, I don’t see that I have entered a wonderland. Then I look out over the three acres.

To my right is a shade garden gently corralling a clump of aspens. In the distance is a patch of un-mowed grass dotted with daisies. A rick-rack shade garden trims the woods. At the bottom of a natural bowl is a 230-foot-long crescent filled with flowers, grasses, shrubs, and ground covers in soft blues, greens, yellows, and pinks that blend like water colors on canvas.

The overall effect is serene and natural, as if gardener and nature have made peace. Indeed, Brogren has embraced the natural assets of her property. She is under no illusions about nature, however. She has seen it give and take.

Stillwater Garden DecorationsAbove: Her judicious use of lawn ornaments allows for this stately heron. 

When she and her first husband bought the property more than 40 years ago, it included two ponds; they could canoe from one of them to a lake in a nearby wildlife refuge. On this day, both are dry. As I walk with her, she explains that when several willow trees died, she started a flower garden. I begin to see that for Brogren, gardening is a matter of taking what nature offers—or takes away—and making not just the best of it, but something better. Loss leads to possibility.

A personal loss, divorce, led her to begin gardening about 20 years ago. Although always outdoorsy, Brogren had focused on her career as an interior designer at 3M and enjoyed the outdoors on horseback or while walking her beloved dogs. But in that dark period, she discovered it felt good to have her hands in the dirt. And the designer in her found a new creative outlet.

Untrained and inexperienced, she read books. Two by Ken Druse, particularly, captured her imagination. “Imagine a walk in the woods,” Druse writes in The Natural Shade Garden, as if starting a storybook. And his admonition to consider gardening a process of “trowel and error” appealed to her. Even today, she says, she does “fly by the seat” gardening. “It just kind of comes together. I’m not terribly deliberate.”

Roses in Stillwater GardenAbove: Roses bloom into September.

Over the years, though, Brogren has refined her methods and her eye. To determine a garden’s shape and size, she lays out a garden hose “until it looks about right.” She aims for “waves of plants” punctuated by a few to add interest. And she thinks in terms of layers. The middle layer, she says, provides structure. Ground covers keep weeds and grass at bay and “give the eye some rest.”

Sometimes, she lets nature have the upper hand. For example, she lets lungwort and other plants escape their borders because she likes that they soften the line of a path. And sometimes she takes control. Usually, that means moving a plant from one spot to another. “My husband’s favorite thing he’s said for years is, ‘Oh my God, the plants see you coming, and they quiver because they never know when they’re going to get dug up and moved,’” she says. “So we have a lot of quivering plants around here.”

Occasionally, when her husband insists, Brogren sits down with a glass of wine or beer to take in what she and nature have wrought. More often, the 68-year-old, with German shepherds in tow, can be found working somewhere on her massive undertaking. And that suits her. “I don’t know what I’d do if I were not a gardener,” she says. “I have to be outside. I can’t be idle. It’s just perfect for me.”

img_2016-09_Outdoor_Natural-Garden_Path_Pergola_GAbove: Paths lined with of hosta, astilbe, and lungwort wander along the pond toward the pergola.

Tips from a Woodland Gardener

Design for your space and realities. In addition to thinking about aesthetics, sun, and soil, Waltraud Brogren factors in such things as whether the tractor can get through to mow and the paths her dogs use.

Understand your soil. She knows that much of the higher ground on her property is sandy and thus doesn’t hold nutrients. She buys aged manure from a nearby horse farm and adds a bucket of the rich loamy material as she plants in those areas.

Deadhead for control. Brogren says deadheading not only spares her plants energy they’d expend producing seeds, it helps her maintain control over plants that otherwise “run away from me.”

Train the deer. Brogren buys a product called Deer Out by the gallon. She douses her plants in the natural repellant once a week early in the season. “The idea is to train the deer to hate your garden,” she says. To keep them away, she also applies it every two to three weeks during the growing season.

Beware of garden ornaments. “Things can get kitchy really quickly,” she says. That said, she has a few, including a copper butterfly house where a tree frog has set up housekeeping.

Take precautions against ticks. Gardening is a high-risk activity when it comes to Lyme disease, and Brogren knows it. She was laid low by a case. She’s feeling better now, but is careful to always spritz herself and dogs with a mix of essential oils that she says keeps them all tick-free. 

Stillwater Garden Retaining WallAbove: The entrance of the house nestles into the evergreens softening a stone retaining wall. Elsewhere, expanses of glass allow for sweeping views of the 3-acre property.

By Carmen Peota

Photos by Barbara O'Brien


Designed by Waltraud Brogren

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