How to Design a Garden on a Budget

Owners of an Italianate house in Milwaukee share their secrets for creating an old-house garden on the cheap.
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The garden's fall colors pop against Steve Bialk and Angela Duckert's cream-colored Italianate house.

The garden's fall colors pop against Steve Bialk and Angela Duckert's cream-colored Italianate house.

While restoring their 1872 Italianate house in Milwaukee, Steve Bialk and Angela Duckert also turned their spacious yard into a veritable Eden that showcases more than 500 varieties of plants. Self-described “texture gardeners,” they focus on shrubs, grasses, and evergreens, and they grow it all in gravel. “It makes it easier to weed, and plants tend to love the microclimate,” Steve says. “It holds enough moisture and it’s tidy.”

Their love of Dumpster-diving has yielded a slew of repurposed materials. Steve salvaged thousands of red pavers from street repairs to create the driveway and pathways that wind through the garden. He used limestone curbs from the 1870s and 1880s, destined for the city dump, to form walls. “When they were doing street work, I’d talk to the contractor and offer him $100 and a case of beer [in exchange for the curbs],” he says.

After spotting a red sandstone capital in someone’s backyard, Steve made the man an offer and then turned it into an eye-catching fountain. To fill out the gardening “vignettes,” Steve buys distressed plants when they’re on clearance in the fall. “I don’t buy things that are perfect,” he says.

The couple's garden has a gravel base for reduced maintenance.

The couple's garden has a gravel base for reduced maintenance.

Other garden accents include the top of an old police call box—it features acanthus leaves, a decorative motif that's also found throughout their house's restored interior—and a hood from an old window they found buried in a salvage shop. They even salvaged a limestone foundation from a school up the block that they hope will one day support their next dream for the garden: a conservatory or orangerie.

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