A man with some land

Landscape architect becomes his own client for a change

Mike Gerken, a landscape architect who works out of his home for a firm in Chicago, has transformed the once-plain lawn at his Old West Lawrence home into a collection of curved beds and hardscapes. I

Mike and Kate Gerken live near me, and I pass by their home fairly frequently. So I’ve witnessed the gradual transformation of their little garden. What was once a simple patch of grass framing their petite home a couple of seasons ago has blossomed into a collection of curving flower beds, fascinating lawn contours and impressive hardscapes.

I was biking past one day when Mike was working in the yard, and I stopped to learn more. I’m glad I did. It turns out he’s a landscape architect who works out of his home for a firm in Chicago.

He and his wife ended up in Lawrence when she was offered a job with Kansas University’s study abroad program. The couple had been here before and loved Lawrence, and when Mike approached his boss in Chicago, they arrived at a solution that allowed him to work long-distance.

Mike’s position at JR’s Creative Landscaping in Chicago is a landscape architect’s dream come true. He works exclusively on residential properties with budget ranging from $10,000 to $1 million. He flies to Chicago once a month for three or four days at a time – a bit longer in the spring when projects start pouring in.

“I love doing residential because of the turnover, the scope, and an individual’s wants and needs make it always changing,” Mike says. “My favorite project would have to be a home in Naperville (outside of Chicago). It was about an $800,000 project where they wanted an infinity pool, full-court basketball, batting cages, full-court sand volleyball. It was an impressive venture.”

Mike received his education at Iowa State University. His initial interest in landscape design stemmed from being a golfer during high school and college; originally, he though he’d design golf courses.

Far from any 18-hole courses, or even the enormously budgeted outdoor schemes of his clients, Mike Gerken has been taking on his own garden at his first home.

“I’m actually learning about weeding, figuring out why something works, where it does well. I think it is helping me with my designs as well, but really I am just finding that I like to be out in the yard,” he says. “I’ll spend a couple hours a day out here either weeding or watering or mulching. I’ve incorporated the basic concepts I use in design, with shrubs and perennials with a constant color and interest throughout the seasons.

“The rest is just being out here and working.”

He removed a massive cottonwood tree that was taking over the skyline, unearthed a pencil-straight sidewalk that ran the length of the house, erected a beautiful new fence and a sturdy, stone light structure, and uprooted many plants to make way for new flora.

He laughs as he recalls the vision for his new yard forming before he and Kate even moved into their home.

“I have an addiction to plant buying,” he says. “We had an apartment for six months while we were looking for a house, and I was buying plants and loading up this little porch.”

My favorite aspect of Mike’s garden is how he treats the lawn. Most people just look at it as negative space, filling in the blanks or serving as the only landscaping period. Mike has accentuated the small bits of lawn he has by giving them distinct shapes and making the lawn as much a part of the design as the flower beds. Not only does this keep an onlooker’s eye interested in the flowers and the fescue, but it honestly makes the yard appear larger.

“In a landscape there is a lot of space. If you only sow one plant, your eye will generally go right over it,” he says. “If you group in three or five, it creates a strong color palette and your eyes and mind will stop and rest.

“For instance, if you create a square shape, your eyes go around and around the square and never stop. When you have a triangular shape, your eyes will rest, particularly in the beginning of a landscaping project when you are working with a lot of negative space before the plants fill in.”

Mike thinks in terms of height a lot as well, and the various angles from which people will view the garden – from the sidewalk, the street, inside the home. He seems genuinely excited finally to be getting dirty in his own space and creating his outdoor haven.

“My favorite aspect would be just learning more about the process,” he says. “I know I can make something just as I’d like and make it a reality.”