Garden Tour: Heart and Soil | Midwest Living

Garden Tour: Heart and Soil

A lifetime of study has taught one Wisconsin gardener that the key to a bountiful harvest is reinvesting in the soil itself.
  • A trip to bountiful

    A cedar pergola allée shades the near-magical fern-lined walkway to Hattie Purtell's abundant veggie garden. 

    Before Hattie movied to the 5-acre Wisconsin property, she grabbed a shovel to check out the soil. "We’d lived on clay for 15 years, and I’d put a lot of time and effort into that soil," she says. "I certainly didn’t want to sell it and buy more clay.” Fortunately, she hit loamy pay dirt—though she much prefers the term earth. (“Why do people call it dirt?” she asks with indignation. “It’s earth! It should be respected as the key to everything!”)  

    One look around Hattie’s lush vegetable, prairie and flower gardens is convincing. 

  • Nurtured earth

    Vertical supports yield extra garden space while giving vining plants better air circulation and space to roam. 

    On Hattie's land, cabbages grow larger than beach balls, raspberries rocket for the sky and a volunteer pumpkin vine rises from the hay bale-lined compost pile like an otherworldly species on steroids. “People want instant success, and they buy large plants and plunk them in the ground,” Hattie says. “But that’s not where to invest your money and time. If the earth isn’t nurtured, your garden is growing on empty. A plant’s health and ability to resist pests is dependent on the nutrients present in the soil.”

  • Ongoing learning

    For Hattie, the desire to nurture land and wildlife runs as deep as her ongoing wish to learn. In her 50s, she returned to college to become a botanist. In her 60s, she studied biodynamic agriculture methods in the book Rudolf Steiner: A Biographical Introduction for Farmers. In her 70s, she traveled for one weekend a month to attend workshops at the Pfeiffer Center in New York—a practicing biodynamic farm devoted to teaching those principles. 


  • Living in harmony

    Purple Italian, wrinkly Savoy and cone-shape Dutch cabbages dot the garden. “A few have bug bites,” Hattie says. “But I don’t care; I share.”

    Organic gardening practices form the core of biodynamics, which views each garden or property as one living organism in which all the plants, animals, insects and soil work together to be self-sustaining. “The idea is to create your own compost, rotate crops and, when you have a pest or disease issue, to make your own spray remedies,” Hattie says. “It’s a big circle of life, and round and round you go.” 

  • Sprout it from the rooftop

    The chicken coop’s green roof is covered with drought-tolerant plants like sedums, alliums, grasses and campanulas.

    As she learned biodynamics, Hattie added cold frames, a beehive and a chicken coop for hens that eat pests and contribute droppings that go back into the garden. She also started vermicomposting, building a cinder-block-wall area in the garage to house earthworms that produce nutrient-rich castings from fruit and vegetable waste. Near the chicken coop, she grows plants like stinging nettles that are useful in biodynamic mixtures that can be sprayed to boost photosynthesis in the plants and microbes in the soil. In the veggie gardens, she rotates crops, composts with each new planting, and adds herbs and flowers to attract beneficial insects. 

  • Natural pest control

    Swedish Flower hens assist with natural pest control by eating bugs.

  • Rustic look

    Rustic structures suit the wooded property. 

  • Peaceful space

    A peaceful seating area nestles beside a pond in the perennial garden. The sense of harmony that biodynamics brought to the rest of Hattie’s property also pervades the perennial beds she and Matt Kastell of Monches Gardens recently designed. The two started by sitting in the future flowerbed sipping tea and imagining a peaceful space.

    Playing off the existing cedar pergola allée, Matt added a second cedar pergola covered with Dutchman’s-pipe vine by the patio pond and two large willow benches. Throughout the natural-style flowerbeds, Matt and Hattie worked with existing native trees—no matter how “scrappy.”


  • Tall blooms

    Towering meadow rue’s wispy purple blooms can reach 20 feet. 

  • 5 steps to better garden health

    Follow these five steps to nurture your garden’s ability to resist pests and diseases.

    Select the best Don’t use seeds that are dried up or stunted; weed out slow-growing plants that won’t thrive. Save seeds (go to Iowa’s for instructions), or buy from a biodynamic source, such as

    Invite beneficial bugs Attract bees that’ll pollinate plants and insects like ladybugs and praying mantis that’ll prey on pests. Begin by adding flowering herbs rich in pollen and nectar, such as catmint, verbena, lavender and nasturtium. Grow several in a central spot or add a few around the base of fruit and vegetable plants.

    Rotate crops Don’t grow as much as you can by using fertilizers to force growth. You’ll get healthier, tastier produce if you rotate crops annually to avoid nutrient deficiencies. For instance, tomatoes and potatoes make high demands on a soil’s nutrients, whereas peas and beans actually help restore the earth’s fertility.  

    Compost Any attempt to add decomposed leaves, grass clippings, eggshells and other organic matter will jump-start the vitality of your garden.

    Use field sprays Mixtures of manure and plants (like horsetail, nettles and oak bark) boost compost, nurture soil and protect plants from pests and disease. Buy sprays at

  • Savoy cabbage

    Garden delights

    Hattie favors Savoy cabbage for sauerkraut. Click or tap ahead for more of her garden favorites.

  • Coneflower color

    Yellow coneflower dots the nearly 1 acre of prairie. 

  • Earthy kale

    Lacinto kale, also known as Tuscan or Italian kale, adds an earthy taste to soups and pastas. 

  • Double-duty dill

    Dill pulls double-duty as an herb and magnet for good bugs. 

  • Tasty tomatoes

    Deeply ribbed ‘Costoluto Genovese’ tomatoes are highly flavorful eaten fresh or preserved.

  • Cheery zinnias

    Drought-tolerant dwarf zinnias add cheery color from summer to frost.

  • Watering hole

    Frogs and butterflies frequently visit this little watering hole.  

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