A Leafy Eden
One man’s vision converts a pasture and swampland into a forested oasis
Photos by Chris Bucher (except where noted)
"I knew from the start what I wanted here and long before we moved to the property, we began planting trees and making improvements,” Don says. “I’ve made a few mistakes over the years, but I always had an idea in my head of what it could, what it would look like.”
From pasture to forest
Standing in the leafy shade of a 50-foot-tall, mature walnut tree that the Reddens planted more than 50 years ago, it’s hard to conjure an image to match Don’s description of the parcel’s early years.
“My friends dubbed it ‘The Swamp,’ because it was an unimproved patch of scrubby pasture with a few honey locust trees and a watering hole where we’d hang out on weekends,” says Don, a retired Conrail engineer.
The Reddens began planting trees almost immediately, but a remnant grove of old walnut trees are all that remain of the original 1,000 they brought in.
“Those were my first mistake,” Don says. “Wrong soil. But I learned by trial and error.”
Discovering that the walnuts weren’t suitable, Don began planting oak trees that he grew from acorns.
“Why, I’d put an acorn in my pocket when we were on a trip somewhere, and that’s where most of these oaks have come from,” he says, pointing out to the uninitiated the varieties of lobe-leafed and unlobe-leafed oak trees that would make any arboretum proud.
The five-acre property now supports a mature stand of several oak varieties, including white oaks identified by their mostly rounded lobes to red oaks distinguished by mostly spiny, pointed lobes. There are also willow oaks and shingle oaks, which have pea-sized acorns and oblong-obovate leaves without the telltale lobes of better-known oaks.
As the original walnuts die off, Don replaces them with oak seedlings hatched from acorns of the first cohort of oak trees, although to harvest them he has to fend off the gray squirrels that also make the park-like sanctuary their home.
From sump to sumptuous
On top of reforesting the landscape, Don and Beverly also took charge of the water run-off on their sloping hillside to create a series of ponds where the swamp once dominated.
The larger pond with its landscaped stone wall and spectacular waterfall was the focus of the Reddens’ most recent round of property improvements. Because of the size of the project, Don called in professional help: Kevin Werbrich of Werbrich’s Landscaping of Cleves, Ohio.
“You can’t really imagine what was here before because we altered the shape of the land completely,” Werbrich says. “Although there was natural drainage, I would say that the land here was pretty rustic when we started the pond renovations.”
The Reddens moved to the property some years ago, sighting a house midway up the slope between the original “swamp” and the farm fields that border their acreage. But the landscaping was amateurish, in Don’s view, and he wanted professional help pulling together the disparate elements.
Werbrich began by figuring out where the water was currently going and where it should go for easiest maintenance of the ponds that Don had carved out of the low-lying property zone.
“Our first question is always ‘Where does the water go?’” says Werbrich. “Only after we understand the topography do we talk about the design, appropriate materials, colors and textures to complement the landscape, and so forth.”
Implementing the design called for Don to remove about 8,000 ballast stones he’d purchased for $5 each when they were removed from a river landing in Cincinnati to make way for the Serpentine Wall. Werbrich felt they were too small for the scale of the water feature he envisioned, and many of them have found reuse outlining the Orient-inspired channel garden that leads some run-off from the top of the property into the large pond.
The waterfall and stone retaining wall that replaced the ballast “pavers” uses over 200 tons of sandstone. As a focal point, the waterfall draws you into the property and provides a musical backdrop as you sit in one of the shaded seating areas located at the best vantage points in the leafy utopia.
A sylvan refuge
Werbrich’s landscaping extended to a new entryway, new driveway and walkways that guide visitors into and through the property, along with a large patio adjacent to the house and a series of restful benches for savoring the views all around.
From the access road, a “statement” entryway opens to a gently curving driveway that directs visitors up to the house at the heart of this happy valley.
Exploring the property along the walkways, the homeowners can easily make their way from the Oriental channel garden to the main pond and the lotus pond beyond, passing a wide range of plants and shrubs that add visual interest to the scenery all year long.
“At one point we thought we would fill in the lotus pond,” says Beverly, a retired accountant who leaves most of the property management and design to her husband. “Now, we’re glad we didn’t.”
The lotus pond is home to Penelope, a Canada Goose, her new husband, and their flock of goslings, as well as to a range of water-loving plants. The protective and territorial Penelope has returned for many years, chasing away any other geese trying to stake a claim on the inviting park and ponds.
The geese and some rescued gray squirrels are just part of the wildlife population that has come to call Swampy Acres home.
Peacocks—now banished—were a hassle, one of Don’s lessons learned. While songbirds are welcome, eagles and hawks that pick off the goldfish, koi and bass aren’t. Deer are kept out with perimeter fencing, but wily raccoons have been known to break in and scamper across the lawns.
A wood duck returns every year to a nesting box hung in the walnut grove. Unfortunately, as soon as the ducklings fledge, they’re gone until the next mating season. In the meantime, “park rangers” Don and Beverly Redden relish each year’s unfolding seasons while they maintain the welcoming, woodsy Shangri-la for themselves and the park’s wild inhabitants.