Riverwest Secret Garden Tour has sculptures outside the old Schlitz bar
Marina Lee’s philosophy regarding the plants in her Riverwest garden is simple.
“I’m not a real gardener. If they grow up and they’re happy, I’m happy. I don’t need to know much else,” she said.
Despite her relaxed attitude towards gardening, her small backyard is striking as it is filled with perennials, trees, shrubs and some of her bright, whimsical sculptures.
It’s an artist’s garden, and it will likely be one of the highlights of this year’s Riverwest Secret Garden Tour on July 10.
Lee, owner of Beginning Dreams Forever, an art business she runs from home, said she started working in her gardens when she bought her house about 25 years ago.
Over time, she has surrounded her garden with a large wooden fence, added a retaining wall, created a space where she can sit and relax, and added walkways and a grassy area.
“I am not a fanciful gardener. I have hostas, irises and English ivy. Most of my flowers are perennials and they were given to me by friends. I also have lilac and raspberry bushes and there is some sage planted. It is a fairly rustic garden. My plants are all perennial except for the sunflowers which I plant. It’s my favorite plant,” she said.
There is also a long space along the east side of her house that faces the street which she has filled with bushes, small-scale trees, and other perennials.
“I have decorative trees there that have berries, and there are also two different types of vines growing in the building.
“The birds that live in the vineyards are spectacular. There must be 100 of them. If I open the window on this side of the house too quickly, I disturb them and they can fly away. But if I’m really quiet, I can watch them in there. It’s pretty cool.
“I also have a viburnum by the front door that blooms in the spring and it smells so good. It’s a nice way to walk through your door. It has small white flowers when it blooms,” she added.
Because the front of her brick house has no grass, she added seven stylized planters that she made from fiberglass and filled them with colorful annuals.
She said she painted the planters in shades of purple and teal with bits of white, red, beige and black, to match a painted area that runs across the top of her house.
“In addition to the planters, I added columns to the front of the building. The columns and planters are all weathered to give a more earthy feel to go with all the brickwork in the house.
She said that although she has been working on her outdoor spaces for years, a fair amount of work was done seven years ago.
“Then I extended the driveway and we had to put the dirt somewhere so I had it moved to one side of the yard which made it higher so I had it built a retaining wall. It makes the backyard more intimate, even though I’m on a main street,” she said.
Artwork was added to the gardens when she ran out of space in her home and studio.
“My pieces are modern. They are quite abstract and whimsical. They are lighter and funnier pieces, so they look great in the yard. Some of my pieces live there in the yard. I’m used to them hanging around all the time,” she joked.
She also has two large paintings which she hangs on the exterior wall of her house which faces her gardens.
“For the Riverwest tour, I’ll take them outside. They are seven feet high and eight feet wide. They are abstract paintings. People always seem to like them. I put hooks in the walls on one side of my house so I could pull them out and hang them.
She said that because her outdoor space is small, it tends to overlap.
“At the bottom of the garden I have a large sandy area that looks like an overgrown sandpit. My three grandchildren love to play in it, but I also use it for pouring concrete. Lee has a daughter adult.
“And the driveway serves as a loading area and a patio. It’s also a disabled entrance, so it’s also quite versatile. I planted some ivy near where I load and unload because it’s is very tough. You can’t kill it.
Along with all the artwork in her home and gardens, she has created pieces to put in Snail’s Crossing, a small park across the street. She said she and others who live in the area, as well as some people who live elsewhere, are banding together to improve the space.
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She recently opened up about the home and garden she shares with her German Shepherd named Mat’o, which means bear in the Lakota language.
Question: Have you ever taken part in this garden tour?
Answer: It’s my first time, but I like to do community things once in a while. This visit to the garden looked like a great event. I’ve watched it for years and people still seem to like it. It’s small and very laid back. I used to go on the art walk around the neighborhood and always enjoyed it.
Q: Did you spend more time in your garden to prepare for the tour?
A: I just let the plants do their thing. Now everything is settled. But I weed a lot.
Q: What plants do you put in your planters?
A: I buy by color and what will survive in there. This year I have solid purple petunias, white and purple striped petunias and white creeping phlox. They seem to be doing very well. Every year there is something different up front.
I have to water some planters from the upstairs window. The others are accessible from the ground.
Q: Why is the sunflower your favorite flower?
A: I love them because it’s fun to watch them grow. They are such fast growing flowers. Every day I go there to see their progress. And once they bloom, they are gorgeous.
And we have to plant them all for Ukraine this year. Sunflowers have been grown there since the mid-18th century. Their seeds are eaten as a snack or ground into oil used for cooking. It is also a product that is exported.
Q: Are there a lot of trees on your land?
A: I grow two trees, but they are old box trees, so they are not very good trees. But they create a beautiful shape. A maple tree also grows in the yard. It came from a seed from a large maple tree that we removed because it was growing in the building. There are also decorative trees that have berries in the area along the side of the building that faces the street.
Q: Do many of your neighbors garden?
A: Yes. A neighbor has no grass. She has all the flowers. A lot of people are starting to do that.
Q: Do you still have garden projects to complete?
A: One year I will have to thin out the hostas. For the first five or six years, I was really trying to keep it going. That’s what’s good with my plants. When they settle in, you’re good to go.
Q: How long have you been in the art business?
A: Thirty years this year.
Q. What kind of art do you do?
A. I mainly do sculptures. But I also teach. I do artist programs in education where I teach two-dimensional and three-dimensional arts. I travel and teach at technical schools and community centers, primarily in Wisconsin, but also out of state. I used to go on the road and sell my art at fairs around the country, but I stopped doing that about seven years ago. I also do a lot of community programs here.
Q: How many sculptures are there in your garden?
A: I only have six carvings on the back. They are kind of leftovers. I put them in the yard because I had no place to keep them inside the house. Sculptures take up a lot of space.
I also have artwork on a pedestal there. It was a demo piece from when I took a class at an MPS school here. It contains all the children’s writings and drawings. I took their words and their illustrations and put them on a computer to create this piece. It’s my way of giving children an outdoor gallery. There are other pieces like this placed around the city.
Q. Can you tell me more about Snail’s Crossing Park?
A. It’s a geoglyph, and the walkways are shaped like a snail. It’s a fun community project, and lots of pieces were made by local artists and students from different schools. I recently helped put six benches there. There are also tile pieces in the walkway, a game piece that looks like a caterpillar that has bumps that are braille and pieces that are supposed to be the snail’s antennae.
Q. Can you see any of your artwork in the park from your home?
A. I can see a few rooms from my east windows and from my upstairs deck.
Q. Do you have other works of art in the area?
A. I’m doing a big tree for the Frederick J. Gaenslen School which is near here, and I have a piece at a music school which is not far either. I have different rooms all over town.
Q. What is the history of your house?
A. It was built in 1904. It was a commercial property; a former Schlitz bar building. Throughout the Riverwest neighborhood there are many such buildings. They are fairly basic brick buildings, but very sturdy and functional. Schlitz built them all around the city. They were near train tracks, along major thoroughfares and along bus routes. They were bars years ago.
Q. Why is your house made of two different types of bricks?
A. One wall is a Cream City brick and the others are a red brick. I don’t know why they are different. There was another building where the courtyard is now. I was told it was an old Boys & Girls Club years ago.
Q. How is your house laid out?
A. I have my studio in the basement, on the first level is my business, and my apartment is on the second floor.
Q. What do you like about the Riverwest neighborhood?
A. It’s very laid back and easy to get around here. The people here are very friendly. My neighbor takes my dog to the dog park every day for me. We have the dog park one block away.
If you are going to:
What: Riverwest Secret Garden Tour: A self-guided tour of 14 gardens in the Riverwest neighborhood.
When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 10.
Tickets: Tickets/cards are $5 on the day of the tour in Garden Park at the corner of East Locust and North Bremen streets.
For more information: See the Riverwest Secret Garden Tour Facebook page, RiverwestSecretGardenTour.com or call (414) 562-9025.