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Designs in Jackson

by Mary Jasch

Two loves inspire an evolving landscape in Jackson, New Jersey - wildlife and large-scale railroading. When Kim and Mike Venezio bought their home 12 years ago, their two-acre yard had just six maple trees. Today, these suburban grounds encompass a Backyard Wildlife Habitat and five acres of woods with a 3,000-foot train chugging through it all. With the aid of a landscape architect, the Venezios are having fun fulfilling their dream garden.

“What property is complete without a train station?" asks Kim, president of the Green Thumb Garden Club of Jackson. “As much as I like to share the garden, Mike loves to share his love of trains."
On Sunday, June 23, the Venezios will proudly show their garden to the public and Mike will take you for a ride on the train. Let's take that train tour now. All aboard!

Mike cranks up the train at the Iron Acres Railroad Station. Kim and this writer climb on and sit like we're riding a horse. The train is 1½ scale, meaning it is 1/8 of the full-sized real train. The track is 7.5 inches wide. The engine is battery-powered with digital sound and pulls two passenger cars, one freight car and a caboose.

The train toots out of the station and runs along the edge of woods and yard, slipping smoothly under a tunnel of juniper with acuba and inkberry. Next to a miniature wetland, pond with waterfall, through the north woods, a stretch of spruce and pine, then crab apples - all around a rich green soothing lawn.

“Everything we have here has some value to wildlife," says Kim as we leave the cultivated world and head into the wild. Black cherry, locust, juniper, maple, American holly and lots of greenbriar, honeysuckle and multiflora rose grow in the woods. The Venezios have plans for a wildflower meadow.

Mike pulls into the train yard shaded by an allee of ornamental cherries that will one day form a tunnel. He is a licensed railroad engineer and volunteers at Steamtown National Historic Park in Scranton, PA.

We disembark and go see the screened gazebo where Kim reads and chills on hot days with the aid of an electric fan. Scented plants surround it: clethra, lilac, honeysuckle, -- all under the shade of a spreading Norway maple. Three young paperbark maples add interest all year.

In the pond, a Japanese maple grows on an island but looks like it's simply floating over the water alongside waterlilies. Painted fern and the yellow native Iris versicolor grow luxuriantly by the waterfall on an upper level. It buffers the sound of traffic.

Kim points out the wild buttercups that have come to live under the maple, flanking the raised flagstone landing where she sometimes sits to watch the stream. In June and July honeybees and butterflies cover the buttercups, she says. Wildlife drink from the stream in winter - squirrel, chipmunk, rabbit, fox, even a ground hog.

“I'm different from most gardeners. I will plant sacrificial plants with berries for deer. I also feed them shelled corn in winter and they leave my plants alone."

Around the front of the house where the train doesn't go, the Venezias planted groupings so people in cars might notice as they zip by at high speed. Native azaleas with a loose habit, a bed with a large Boston ivy-covered maple (“You learn from your mistakes."), hosta, silver lace vine (Another mistake she says - it really does grow fast.), purple-leafed redbud and a babied sourwood fill the wrap-around gardens.

Leo Kissling's four-acre garden began with mostly lawn and large trees with branches that swept the ground, blocking views and taking space. He trimmed branches and cleared put overgrown patches of woodland plants among dogwood and hickories, and interspersed perennials like money plant, iris and columbine that luxuriously grow. He laid down expanses of plastic liners and hauled in truckloads of soil. He sunk bathtubs and filled and surrounded them with water plants. His is an eclectic garden, where the cultivated live with wild cousins.

Thirteen box turtles live in Kissling's garden. He enclosed and planted box turtle habitat and built a hybernaculum for the reptiles around a cinder block box filled with peat, then covered it with soil and planted it “with weeds that I like and cultivated ones in there -- Queen Anne's Lace, teasel, strawberries. In Leo's sunken tubs, spring peeper tadpoles and killifish live around the waterlilies.

He planted plants he got for free, like forsythia, at the edge of his yard along the roadway and says it cured half his deer problem. This is his free garden - all plants were either given to him or relocated from somewhere else. Then there is lawn, and the big garden, edged with bamboo and Rose of Sharon, that runs between the lawn and house and wraps around the side. Delaware River stone paths run through it. “I like the texture. I can walk on it barefoot." He doesn't like things - stones, gardens - with sharp edges. He's more for flow.

Kissling has been at his passion since he was 10 years old. He remembers his grandfather's Victory Garden, and the 3 by 3 foot plot his father gave him, along with a handful of beans and one tomato plant. He was hooked.
“Gardening is my shrink. It doesn't matter how bad my day has been. I come out here and forget about everything. That does it for me."

“Plants are my passion with animals," he says. He also employs an artistic side and likes using natural objects to accent his plants and metal tools to adorn his buildings. His design principles: birds and butterflies and nature for serenity.

Kissling's wife Ginny is the weeder and the eater, he says. He grows everything organically. “I like weeding," she says. “It's very relaxing and a good way to get some tan." She'll be getting her own cutting garden soon, now that loads of topsoil have been dumped out front in a large sweeping asymmetrical shape.

Around back, prickly pear is dieing back under the shade of a tree. Leo will cut back those limbs. He's got a ¼-acre vegetable-herb garden and a stand where he sells plants and veggies on the honor system. By the end of June he'll have stuff to sell. Like the zucchini that turns into baseball bats, Ginny says.

Every morning Kissling makes the rounds before he goes to work. “Then after work as much as I can and before I go to bed." That's passion.

Treasures of Jackson - seven gardens of the Green Thumb Garden Club of Jackson. First Annual Garden Tour will be held on Sunday, May 23rd from 10 to 3, rain or shine. Take a ride on the Iron Acres Railroad through wildlife habitat. The tour ends at a local wholesale nursery, not normally open to the public, for refreshments and a special sale to tour guests only. Tickets: $12/adult, $5/child at the staging area at 310 S. Hope Chapel Road, Jackson, NJ. Website or 732-364-0795

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