Building a Refuge

An architect's yard has grown into a garden of delights

Photo by Beth Skogen

While the cobbler’s son may have holes in his shoes, the residence of architect Chris Nicholson is anything but unadorned.

“I got started planting and I just couldn’t stop,” says Nicholson, who recently retired from his position as a regional architectural manager for ERDMAN’s Madison Office.

When Nicholson first arrived on Madison’s west side, his home looked like others in the Walnut Grove neighborhood—crisp, upscale and stylish. Then, Nicholson started putting a shovel to the dirt. He found that he liked growing things—a lot. He liked having his hands in the soil. He liked building something unique out of plants and stone. He liked the way it transformed his property.

Nicholson started small. He planted a few hostas and fruit trees, put down some riverbed rock. But this was the start of something larger. He built terraces and islands. He added low-growing evergreens and flowers of every description. But what really brought Nicholson’s horticultural empire into full flower was his grandchildren.

Against the backdrop of the Nicholsons’ earth-toned, Prairie-style home, one can see touches of whimsy—especially in the backyard. Here, statuary perches on the ledges of terraces. There, a bench sits beneath a tree, perfect for reading a book on a hot summer afternoon. Think of a fruit and find it growing here—figs, grapes, apples. Hostas have proliferated from dozens to hundreds. Slabs of sandstone are sunken into the soil, looking as if they were hewn from the banks of secret streams. Everywhere there is a sense of refuge.

The result is an eclectic landscape, a Mediterranean oasis smack-dab in the middle of the Upper Midwest. It’s the perfect play-ground for a game of hide-and-seek. The ideal spot to cool off and sip a glass of lemonade. It’s often lamented, today, that children have too much screen time and too little nature. But the cure is simple as can be: take them to a place like Grandpa Nicholson’s. Better yet, build it and they’ll come.

John Motoviloff is a Madison-based writer and outdoors enthusiast. Read his Trail Mix column on outdoor recreation here

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