Trees frame the landscape of Tonganoxie’s farmstead
When fishing with his father at Leavenworth County State Fishing Lake, Jim Bennett knew -- even as a young boy --he someday would live in Tonganoxie.
His father would bring along a five-horse motor, rent an aluminum fishing boat at the bait shop and they'd fish until dark, pulling into shore tired, sunburned and with a stringer of fish to show for the day's work.
"It was a big deal," said Bennett, who grew up in Kansas City, Kan.
This Saturday, Bennett and his longtime friends Steve and Cindy LaForge, who in 1979 purchased adjoining properties at the top of a hill 1 1/2 miles south of the fishing lake, will receive the county's 2003 windbreak award.
Gary Rader, district conservationist with Natural Resources Conservation Service, said Bennett and the LaForges were honored not only for establishing the windbreak that surrounds the driveway that provides access to both homes, but also for maintaining the windbreak.
Originally planted in 1979 to Scotch and Austrian pines, the families have had to remove the Scotch pines as they've died from blight. Bennett and the LaForges are replacing these trees with eastern red cedars, Rader said.
Bennett and the LaForges are owners of a dried flower business, Everlasting Specialties, which is located in Tonganoxie.
Throughout their property -- Bennett has 17 acres, the LaForges have 30 acres -- the land has been transformed.
Bennett described the land when they bought it as a "cornfield -- barren ground."
"And now it's wooded with all the trees we planted early on," Bennett said.
Even with the Scotch pines gone and the new cedars standing only a few feet tall, the windbreak is impressive. The Austrian pines top out at about 40 feet. The ground beneath them is carpeted with a thick layer of pine needles. Wind whistles through the tops of the trees and barely surfs over the roofs of the houses and outbuildings.
The wind protection has not only provided protection from the winter wind and summer heat, it's also served as a scenic backdrop for the landscaping that Bennett and the LaForges have done.
One can't begin to imagine how labor intensive it has been. First there are the ornamental grasses, swaying golden in the late afternoon sun this time of year. Different varieties provide various decorative heights and winter eye appeal. Trees dot the landscape, all planted by Bennett and the LaForges, and all looking as if nature intended for them to be in the locations they are.
Elements that look as if nature left them there, but didn't include a dry creek bed that runs about 30 feet behind Bennett's house. Bennett routinely scouts the woods behind his house, sniffing out rocks to use in landscaping.
"I always go for the rocks that have been on top of the ground, they might have moss on them," Bennett said. "Or anything with fossils -- those are the ones that pop up with me, mostly so they look natural, like man didn't put them there."
Larger rocks line the sides of his dry creek. Hundreds of smaller, smooth-surface rocks line the bed, much like rocks that would be found in any rocky stream. The result is it appears as if Bennett built his house by the side of a creek bed, instead of the opposite.
Obviously the work could be termed backbreaking.
But to Bennett, the ability to take rocks out of the woods and arrange them as nature might have done is just "fun."
"It's naturalistic stuff, not formal," Bennett said of his shrubs, trees, flower beds and rock arrangements. "To make something look natural is sometimes pretty hard to do because we all want to keep changing it to look more and more perfect and then it doesn't look natural anymore."
Bennett and the LaForges have had a quarter of a century to cultivate the natural look, one that flows with their landscape. And they've enjoyed doing it. But Bennett said anyone who wants quick results would benefit from seeking outside advice.
"It's too bad more people don't get a designer involved before they start planting because it doesn't cost anymore to plant things in the right place, rather than haphazardly," Bennett said.
Something they couldn't have predicted early on, Bennett said, was the blight that would affect the Scotch pines.
"The only thing you can do is cut them out, get rid of them and replant," Bennett said. "I started replanting my windbreak about seven years ago, then I planted another flush of trees three to four years ago -- more cedars -- I wouldn't plant anything but cedars for windbreak trees."
Bennett said he understands why some landowners shy away from using cedars.
"I know a lot of farmers don't care for them because they invade their pastures," Bennett said. "But they're beautiful trees, and they don't die."
On the other side of the drive
Even in the middle of winter, a waterfall splashes into a small pond off the deck of the home of Cindy and Steve LaForge. Large lazy goldfishes drift in the water's depths. Nearby, a greenhouse attracts the last rays of a late afternoon sun.
As at Bennett's house, the wind whistles through the tall windbreak where cardinals, chickadees and downy woodpeckers flitter in and out. Here too, the old cornfield is no longer evident. The lawn is landscaped with trees, shrubs and perennials that even in the starkness of winter, hint at their springtime beauty. All the beds and raised berms are curved, so that riding mowers can easily trim the grass in summer. As at Bennett's, drip irrigation hoses soon will be in place for summer gardening.
As Steve and Cindy walk around their yard, they readily know the names for all the plantings. Steve and Cindy point out various plants, including sumac, buckbrush, American plum, gray dogwood, redbuds, bittersweet and viburnum bushes, among others.
Their knowledge didn't come easy.
"We've learned not to fight nature," Steve said. "First you plant everything that looks good in the seed catalog or at the nursery."
But, Steve said, gardeners often learn all too soon that certain plants don't do as well as expected. So, it's natural to try again.
"If you're smart, you pick it up about the second time around," Steve said, laughing. "I think we're on the third or fourth time around."
And, as their landscape changes from field to wooded, their selection of plantings has changed. For instance, the LaForges are now establishing beds for the shade-loving hostas, goatsbeard and bleeding hearts.
Anyone can garden, Steve said.
"I think a lot of different personalities can do it," Steve said. "When you don't know what you're doing for sure, you've got to gather a lot of information and you've got to know ahead of time you're going to make mistakes."
But the work is well worth it, he said.
Particularly when it comes to trees.
Even now, Steve is looking forward to spring, when the redbud trees that line the driveway bloom in tandem with the American plum, providing a natural bouquet of pink and white.