When the gardens at the home of Michael Trokan and Rita Tenorio are opened for the Riverwest Secret Garden tour this month, tour-goers will be in for a surprise in the backyard, where this couple tore down their garage and created a tiny garden paradise.
There’s a circular patio made of small pavers, a tiny patch of perfectly manicured grass, flower beds filled with brightly colored flowers, raised beds for vegetables, a small glider for relaxing, and a tiny shed accented with bits of gingerbread.
But the two didn’t stop there. They meticulously landscaped every other inch of space around their home on a lot that measures just 40 by 80 feet.
“I love gardening. I have always had an avocation for it. I retired some years ago, so now I have the time. I enjoy watching the plants grow, and I love sharing our garden with people,” Rita said.
“People enjoy seeing the front yard because we have a lot of flowers, and we always get comments from people walking their dogs in the neighborhood,” Mike said.
“But on the tour, they can see the backyard. It’s like a secret garden. Our lot is small, but we have done a lot with that small space,” he added.
In spaces around the patio, they planted flowers for color all season. The plantings include hostas, astilbe, daylilies, roses, lamium, Japanese anemones, spiderwort, coral-bells, zinnia, clematis, dianthus and different kinds of sedum.
In their front yard, the couple created a terraced garden and filled it with mostly perennials, some annuals, herbs, garden art and pots. There are zinnias, daylilies, coral bells, hostas, different kinds of sedum, spotted dead nettle (lamium), vinca, thyme, sage and oregano.
“There are two levels to the rock garden. Now most of the rocks are hidden by the plants,” Mike said.
They also planted in the narrow strips of earth on both sides of their driveway. On one side are flowers; on the other are tomatoes, parsley, broccoli, cucumbers, garlic and dill. There’s also a prickly pear cactus with bright yellow flowers.
Mike, who has a talent for woodworking, built a fence, mainly of cedar, that surrounds their backyard and runs along both sides of their property. He also made decorative gates, a portable raised bed and trellises.
Now retired, Rita was a bilingual educator with Milwaukee Public Schools. At the end of her career, she was principal at Fratney Elementary School. Her husband, who is also retired, was the business manager of the publication Rethinking Schools.
Their gardens aren’t the only surprise on their property.
They updated the exterior of their 1894 cottage-style home with fish-scale siding at the top of the front, and then Mike made railings with a curved design in a vintage look. They also added gray siding and accented the home’s trim in white.
Inside, the look headed in a different direction.
“Inside, we wanted a different look, so we tried to open things up,” and did it in an Arts and Crafts style, he said.
The home was updated in the 1920s or ’30s, but the work wasn’t well done and wasn’t in keeping with the home’s original style, Mike said. After he and Rita married in 1994, they began making changes. The couple have two adult sons, Jozef and Chris.
Over time, interior walls were removed and windows were replaced. They also added skylights, nine solar panels on the roof, new four-panel oak doors and built-in shelving.
“In 2003, we did a major remodeling. We bumped out the back of the house and raised the roof. That’s when we took down part of the garage but kept part of it and turned it into the storage shed and removed the concrete in front of the old garage,” he said.
That addition increased space in their kitchen, where they now have a round table that overlooks their backyard, and on the second floor added a third bedroom and a second bathroom.
Mike did much of the work himself.
“I gutted the house with the help of some family members, then a remodeling firm came in and did the framing and wiring. They installed the windows and did the drywall. Then I took over and I taped everything, painted, added the oak trim throughout the house, added laminate flooring in the kitchen, oak flooring on the second floor in some areas, tile floors in both bathrooms and refinished the oak floors in the living room and dining room.
“A good friend is a cabinetmaker, and he made quarter-sawn white oak cabinets for the kitchen,” he added.
Mike also added unique architectural elements.
When you enter the home through the front door, which is original to the house, the style of Frank Lloyd Wright can be seen. There, the ceiling is lower and there are bowl-shaped planters on shelves at the tops of short walls on each side of the entryway.
Beyond that, in the living room where the ceiling is higher, he put two long pieces of stained glass in the ceiling, and then added lighting on each side of the panels to highlight them.
In the dining room, windows have half-circle arches on top. In the new second-floor bedroom, there’s a moon sunburst accent made of wood over the window that Mike made to match the room’s closet doors, which he made with curved tops.
The couple recently talked about their home and gardens. The gardens, but not the home, will be open for the tour on July 18.
Question: What did your garden look like when you first bought this property?
Rita: The backyard was all concrete. The front yard was all lawn and there were some very ugly bushes. Little by little, we started working on a rock garden in the front and we took out bushes and grass. Every year, we add more perennials. I feel pretty good about our gardens. It’s a huge task. It’s more than just pulling weeds.
Q: Did you install the patio yourself?
Mike: No. We had it professionally done. I was thinking of doing it myself, but I was glad I didn’t. Three guys worked three days straight. We did a circular pattern; in small spaces, it gives greater sense of space.
Q: Did you add more curves in your garden after the patio was done?
Mike: Yes. It took off from there. We wanted to keep the look consistent. We also added curves in other sections of the yard.
Q: How much grass do you have left?
Mike: We have some grass between the sidewalk and the street and a little patch of grass in back where our glider is. I obsess over it. I cut it with a push mower and I edge it.
Q: Was there anyone who influenced you in gardening?
Mike: I grew up gardening. My mom loved gardening. In spring, we used to turn over the soil, pull weeds and harvest things from the garden.
Rita: I have a lot of gardening books. There is one I really like and I use it over and over again. It’s “The Garden Primer,” by Barbara Damrosch. It shows how to garden organically. That’s important to me.
Mike: Organic gardening is very important to us. We have a compost pile and we compost everything. We add our compost to our gardens twice a year.
Q: What’s most challenging about your gardens?
Mike: Figuring out where to put things. We pack a lot of stuff into our small spaces, even alongside the driveway where there is just 17 inches of space on each side.
Q: What is your style of gardening?
Rita: It’s an eclectic mix. The front yard is mostly perennials. In the backyard, we have three garden beds. One is more formal with roses; one is where a miniature flowering crab tree is. We put hostas around the tree. And the last one has perennials that attract pollinators. It has things like milkweed. We mostly put plants together that look good together.
Mike: She is always moving plants around. If they don’t do well in one area, she moves to another place. Or if they get too big for a spot, she moves them.
Q: What are some of the pieces of garden art you have?
Rita: I collect rabbits. They are my favorite little pets. People all around us are talking about how the bunnies come into their yards and eat everything. We don’t have that problem. Maybe it’s because they know they are my friends.
I have about a dozen small to large bunnies in the yard. We also have them in the house. We also have some sculptures and a birdbath that’s pretty. In front, we have a half-helix sculpture that spins.
Q: What is your favorite flower?
Rita: Zinnias because they have amazing colors. I think they are very beautiful.
Mike: I like perennial daisies, but we have trouble growing them. That’s one of my disappointments. We haven’t been able to grow my favorite flower.
Q: Have you been on this garden tour before?
Mike: Yes, we have participated for a number of years. We have been on the tour at least six times.
Q: Tell me about your raised beds.
Rita: We have two beds. We grow beans and corn, lettuce, carrots. Mike made them and they match the fence.
Q: What do you like about your neighborhood?
Rita: It’s a very eclectic neighborhood. It’s really diverse. That’s very appealing to both of us. It was also close to where we worked. We also like all the activities they have here. They have the Riverwest 24 bike race in late July every year. We also like the fact that there are quite a few studios where artists live and work in Riverwest. It’s the kind of place where people are encouraged to utilize their creativity.
Mike: We also have the Skyline Music series of concerts in Kadish Park, and there’s the Locust and Center Street festivals. Also a farmers market. We have a lot of community activities.
Q: How big is your home now?
Mike: About 2,000 square feet.
Q: What colors did you use inside when you remodeled?
Mike: When I first moved in, it was all white. Rita likes color, so over the years we have gradually added more color. We have every shade of green around the house. I find green calming.
Rita: Green also works well because it matches the colors in some of our paintings. We also add color with our artwork. When we go on vacations, we try to bring back artwork. We have gotten things in Mexico, Belize, Europe, Canada and different states. We also get artwork at festivals here.
Q: Any favorite artists?
Rita: We have a lot of painting from a lot of local artists. We like Della Wells and David Lenz.
If you go
What: Riverwest Secret Garden Tour: Tour more than 12 gardens in the Riverwest neighborhood
When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 18.
Tickets: Tickets/maps are $5 the day of the tour in Garden Park at Locust and Bremen streets. Tickets will go on sale shortly after 10:45 a.m.
For more information: Call (414) 562-9025 or see riverwestsecretgardentour.com.