A retired doctor in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has spent a decade crafting his wooded landscape. Each falll, he relishes the warmth and color of his garden masterpiece.
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David Baker home Ann Arbor
Credit: Bob Stefko

On bright October days, David Baker sits on his patio perch, overlooking his 1-acre hillside property, and takes in the tapestry of colors.

A Kentucky coffee tree showers a warm glow with its intricate compound leaves. Across the lily pond, heart-shape redbud leaves cast a golden reflection in the water. Nearby, a weeping Japanese maple spills its lacy, red-leaf branches toward the pond. Another tree, a blazing red-orange stewartia, begs attention at the patio's edge. Beyond, a canopy of brilliant maples creates a backdrop for his garden's layers of fall color, including purple asters, ornamental grasses and berry-loaded viburnums, a tempting snack for migratory songbirds.

River rock garden in fall
Inspired by his teen years working in the Smoky Mountains, David built a stream that cascades and pools for 150 feet over a bed of gravel, river rocks and boulders. David often spots birds bathing in the water, including a pair of visiting mallards.
| Credit: Bob Stefko

While many of us handily plant a spring garden when stores overflow with early flowering varieties, designing a fall garden is trickier and requires thinking forward. To create his, David—a retired physician in Ann Arbor, Michigan—adopted the advice of the late British garden writer Christopher Lloyd. Lloyd challenged gardeners to invest in two plants that bloom after June 15 for every spring bloomer. David read the tip decades ago and today relishes the fruits of that strategy. "Fall is the longest of the gardening seasons in the Midwest," he says. "Most people don't realize it and think summer is the longest, but, in fact, fall in this garden starts mid-August and runs to mid-December."

sun through Kentucky coffee tree
david baker sitting in garden
stone bench by stream
Left: Sun filters through the Kentucky coffee tree by a bluestone patio. David buys his trees and plants from regional sources, such as Wildtype native plant nursery in Michigan, because he finds plants grown in the north tend to be hardier and better adapted to his growing conditions. The steps on the right lead to a bridge over a stream. | Credit: Bob Stefko
Center: Credit: Bob Stefko
Right: A stone bench offers a resting spot along the path that traces the stream. | Credit: Bob Stefko

When David first saw his sloping 1-acre property, it was autumn, and the vibrant maples grabbed his eye. "I looked up the hill from the real estate sign," he says, "and thought, 'What a great place to make a garden.' I only hoped the house was OK!"

gravel garden seating under pergola
David turned a sunny lawn along the driveway into a gravel garden. He mounded mason sand and limestone gravel and planted native prairie perennials like gaura, little and big bluestem, prairie dropseed, and native aster. Containers hold tropical cannas, and the pergola is draped in clematis 'Bill Mackenzie'.
| Credit: Bob Stefko

Luckily, the 1926 Colonial-style home was lovely—and surrounded with an abundance of established hardwoods, such as maple, cherry, and black and white oaks. He started by clearing the property's invasive buckthorn and tree of heaven, then created pocket gardens around the home and down its hillside. Today, an upper bluestone patio sits above a lily pond. A naturalistic stream installation winds like a thread from a meditation garden to the pond and on down to a rain garden. Stone steps descend from the patio to terrace gardens and a lower woodland garden. In a lone sunny spot along the front drive, a gravel garden is outfitted with a pergola-covered seating area and a stylized prairie with native plants that continue the fall show.

stone stairs in wooded garden
Credit: Bob Stefko

David, who retired 10 years ago, studied botany at the University of Michigan before deciding to pursue a medical degree. (Botany jobs weren't particularly plentiful.) But he never gave up his love of gardening, which he describes as helping "reclaim Eden to wholeness."

norway spruce frames in meditation garden
Norway spruce frames a meditation garden by the house. (This is the view from David's kitchen sink.) In the lower right, you can see the source of the streambed—a carved boulder with water pouring from its neck.
| Credit: Bob Stefko

Over the years, he's created four gardens and gathered valuable lessons along the way. This one feels like a culmination of a lifetime of learning. "You have this stupendous kaleidoscope of colors," he says of its fall personality, which shifts with each passing day—and from every different vista.