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Every shade of green: Onalaska couple tend thriving garden of hostas

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Tanke Garden 1

Hostas come in every shade of green in the Tanke garden.

ONALASKA — Mike and Robyn Tanke weren’t gardeners when they moved to their house on Larkspur Lane East in 1999. But Mother Nature pushed and nudged the couple toward what has become a secret shade garden that surprises most people who step into their secluded backyard.

Nearly 400 hostas and other perennials form a graceful swoop across the top of their steep backyard. The gardens continue down the edges of the yard to the back of the house.

Tanke Garden 3

Sum and Substance is the largest hosta in the Tanke garden, measuring about 5 feet across.

“When we moved here there was nothing,” Robyn said.

Well, there was plenty of grass, Mike said — and that was the problem.

Because the hillside was steep and slippery, he quickly tired of trying to tame the lawn.

“It was really a challenge to mow.”

Tanke Garden 5

When they look out an upstairs window, this is the view of their backyard.

So they started with a small garden in the center of the yard near the top of their tree-edged lot. They got plenty of mail-order perennials, Robyn said, and planted them, well-satisfied with their first real attempt at gardening.

The garden looked great for two days.

Then the Tankes met the Deer family. Make that the Deer herd. Two days after planting, the deer had eaten those perennials to the ground.

“In two days the deer had wiped it out,” Robyn said.

So they gave up on most perennials, opting instead for the many varieties of hosta. And they kept searching for the right repellent to keep the deer at bay. The latest weapon in their arsenal of protection is Plant Skydd.

Though deer will eat just about anything if they are hungry enough, hostas are not their first choice, and Plant Skydd seems to have encouraged them on to tastier pastures.“My husband faithfully sprays every couple of weeks,” Robyn said, and so far it is working. “We see them in the woods and they walk right by.”

That has allowed the Tankes to spread their hostas far and wide, augmented by ferns, coneflower, some sedums and other perennials. But it is the hostas that rule in this garden. From the giant 5-foot leaf span of sunny chartreuse-colored Sum and Substance to the tiny 5-inch, blue-green Mouse Ears, and just about everything in between, the Tankes have loaded the backyard with a wonderland of hostas.

They figure they’ve got about 100 varieties and upwards of 350 hostas in all. The total keeps rising as they keep finding new ones to add to the garden.

Tanke Garden 6

Left top: When they look out an upstairs window, this is the view of their backyard. Left below: While hostas make up the bulk of the Tanke garden, they do make room for a few other perennials and statuary. Right: Measuring 5 inches, Mouse Ears is the smallest hosta in their garden.

Neither one of them is much good at remembering plant names, but they’ve both gotten pretty good at keeping their garden thriving.

Truckloads of mulch help keep the weeds down and now the Tankes can sit in their backyard and enjoy watching the deer pass right at the edge of the woods, as if they no longer have the price of admission to this tasty buffet of plants.

While many gardeners complain of limited plant choices in a shady garden, the Tankes say they are happy with their tree canopy. The garden is cool and comfortable most of the time and Robyn said they have come to enjoy the many shades of green the hostas provide.

Tanke Garden 7

Tiered garden beds help the Tankes garden on their steep hillside.

And because their garden is mostly filled with well-mulched perennials, they can spend more time enjoying and less time weeding.

“It’s really low maintenance,” Robyn said. “The biggest maintenance is keeping the mulch in place.”

And both of them work on that.

“Mike and I do this together. We both get our hands dirty.”

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