A Secret Worth Sharing

by | Mar 1, 2022 | 1 comment

Jay Hatheway and Jim Ottney met in the 1980s and, now married, have been together for 34 years. They purchased a late-Victorian-era house in need of extensive repair on a 66×132-foot original 1855 platted lot in downtown Stoughton. The most urgent of the structural modifications, remodeling, and room additions were completed in the early 1990s, freeing up time and resources to begin working on the lot’s landscaping.

It Started Out Shady

Like the house, the sloped lot had been left untended for nearly a decade and featured piles of tires, an oil change sand pit, brambles, an invasive grove of sumac trees, noxious weeds, and volunteer sapling trees. In addition, a few salvageable larger trees divided the property into areas of varying degrees of shade. The trees included black locust, American chestnut, tulip poplar, magnolia, birch, apple and spruce. The first few years, after clearing most of the lot back to the dirt, “shovel by shovel” as Jay says, they seeded the area with grass and added foundation shrubs around the house. A row of mulberry whips provided a screen from the alley at the back of the property.


The “vision” for the remainder of the lot grew over time, determined in large measure by the predominantly shady conditions. An ultimate goal, notes Jay, was to “create privacy,” given that there are parking areas on two sides. As he describes it, “A small garden bed here, another there, expanded from little rectangles into sweeping curves, carving multiple beds in irregular shapes without any specific final layout in mind.” Providing vertical interest are arbor vitae, a gingko, a redbud, Korean maples, and numerous pagoda dogwoods—a particular favorite for their form. 

Multiple Perspectives

A central pergola and a corner gazebo, a bathtub-sized pond, an artesian well-style fountain, and several arbor trellises anchor the design, defining a series of rooms linked by gravel paths winding through the flower beds. With the addition of a flagstone area, the entire lot from the street park row at the front to the alley in the back is grass-free. Jim says, “Overall, the garden tends to be a foliage-based one, brightened by splashes of color. The combination makes for a relaxing, cool, ‘secret garden’ that feels like an escape from the urban surroundings.” 

Jay, who grew up in the oil fields of southern Iran and lived in California, brought a warm weather perspective while Jim, who grew up in Buffalo, NY, came with gardening experience in colder climes. Jay’s mother had flower and vegetable gardens that he helped her maintain. Jim learned about vegetable gardening from his father and began his first personal flower garden as a preteen and continued gardening on and off over the years as opportunities to do so arose.

A Whole Lotta Hostas

Selecting what plants would work (and could be afforded!) in a Stoughton garden was a combination of prior familiarity, research—and a bit of trial and error—with an emphasis on shade and woodland plants. Some areas in the garden afforded opportunities to “push the limits” with partial shade and sunny perennials. The garden makes extensive use of some common perennials throughout, including Jim’s hosta collection—though with 350+ varieties from giants to miniatures included, there are always distinctive specimen surprises. Accompanying the hosta are patches of ferns, scattered cimicifugae, plus a smattering of astilbes, epimediums, hellebores, and woodland plants.

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Jay and Jim also discovered a true monarch butterfly magnet on a trip to the Flower Factory: the liatris ligulistylis. Jay says, “It was incredible to see how rapidly the monarchs discovered the plants, and watching them cluster is a real delight.” In addition, the entire lot is underplanted with tulips, daffodils, Virginia bluebells, and bleeding hearts that provide swaths and spots of color in the early spring.

These are followed by several varieties of allium, Asiatic and Oriental lilies, phlox, and monarda, with continuing blooms throughout the late spring into fall provided by sun patiens, impatiens, coleus, and varieties of begonias. In fall, a second flush of phlox flowers are accompanied by stands of asters in a range of purples, pinks, and magentas. A large single truckload delivery of annuals arrives in late spring, supplemented by purchases from garden centers, greenhouses, and nurseries throughout Dane County. Jim and Jay add a touch of the tropics with overwintered elephant ears and banana trees, plus pots of caladiums, canna lilies, and flowering vines.

A Perfect Place to Hang Out

An elevated deck and sunroom overlook the garden. In Mediterranean style, the railings of the deck support pots full of bright red begonias and dripping vines that reach down past a latticed potting area under the deck to a raised bed filled with coleus. Jay especially notes that “several dozen hanging baskets and scores of colorful pots are located throughout the garden.” The advantage of the potted plants is that they can be moved around as sunny areas shift over the season. 

 “Gardening is a learning process, and you need to find out exactly what the ‘microclime’ of your property can support,” says Jim. The couple also offers advice to ambitious new gardeners to “tackle only small areas at a time, and grow your beds by enlarging or adding another distinct space each year only as you can fully fill and maintain it. Plants are expensive, so we’ve also only bought one or two of a new type of plant each year to see if it survives and where it does best before investing in quantities. Truth be told, we’ve probably lost more than most people ever planted as we’ve experimented!”

Atlas Counseling

The back wall of the house features a collection of vintage tools acquired over time at local thrift stores and second-hand shops. A fence along one lot line is also covered in vintage signs and hanging durable art. Metal sculptures, mosaics, and glass art Jim and Jay bought from artist friends, scavenged at garage sales, and purchased at retail locations bring additional interest and “around the corner” surprises as visitors walk through the garden. Face jugs line the steps up to the deck, and the gazebo is inhabited by a family of classic busts and caricature pots that all sport foliage and floral hair.

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral

One tree has numerous traditional and novelty birdhouses that regularly have wrens in them. A wide range of songbirds visit the seed and suet holders, and urban wildlife also frequent the garden, including chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, and even the occasional deer. Because the house is located less than 100 feet from the Yahara River that flows through Stoughton, the yard also attracts some waterfowl, with one pair of ducks who annually return to nest and relax in the tiny pond.

Once they had filled their own space, Jay and Jim decided to expand into small “leftover” city spaces surrounding the property. A short-lived early venture into growing vegetables on a sunny spot located on the other side of their fence was eventually overtaken by a neighboring walnut tree. Next came an irregular patch along a parking stall and the extension of the park row down to the entrance to the lot. But then they set their sights on a much larger enhancement, a 150-foot riverfront strip they see from their living room bay window. They got permission from the Stoughton Area Senior Center, who owns the land. Jay observes that “the strip had been landscaped a couple decades ago but had gradually deteriorated—and the riverbank itself was eroding away annually—so the space was in need of a real facelift.” After an original grant that shored up a further part of the riverbank, the city was able to obtain additional funds to build up the remainder with riprap.

Planting Philanthropy

Working with the city, Jim and Jay got some overgrown beds and dying ornamental trees and bushes removed and a new bench installed. With the area cleared, they used the summers of 2020 and 2021 to plant a variety of sun-loving perennials along the top of the riverbank. They chose plants that would grow full and spread down the rocks without interfering with the ability of fishermen to access the popular spot. The entrance area welcomes guests with bright daylilies and other colorful perennials that change throughout the season, supplemented by geraniums that provide brilliant spots of continuous bloom. Perhaps most prominent are nearly two dozen hardy low-growing and small shrub rose bushes that have prolific flowers in a range of colors and fill the air with a sweet perfume. In 2021, the city held a naming contest to designate the area as an official park.

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What’s Next?

Having expanded about as far as they can and planted as densely as possible, what lies in the future? Jim and Jay laughingly agree “there is now plenty of work in just maintaining, replacing, and annual planting. The real joy is in watching it change over the seasons and sharing it with others.”

Since the 1990s, Jim and Jay have hosted numerous garden tours, including the Wisconsin Hosta Society, other hardy plant and hosta organizations from Wisconsin and Illinois, community garden clubs and the Olbrich Gardens benefit tour. In addition, the national Garden Bloggers group tried to visit in 2020 and 2021, but were unable to do so because of Covid, and are rescheduling once again for June 2022.

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1 Comment

  1. A wonderful story of two creative men who are also master gardeners! What a beautiful thing they have done in and for their neighborhood!


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