What was once a Sheboygan County dairy farm and then a property on which show horses were raised for more than 50 years has been transformed into a landscape with more than 70 acres of natural features interspersed with a variety of other attractions.
Christopher Farm and Gardens was a 37-acre residential property five miles north of Sheboygan when it was purchased in the spring of 1997 by Illinois-based businessman Jay W. Christopher. At the time, the property had 650 feet of Lake Michigan shoreline, an old concrete farm silo, a pole barn, a machine shop, a ranch-style house, and a three-quarter acre fishing pond.
Subsequent property acquisitions and development give the now 400-acre property - 300 acres of which are leased nearby dairy and cash crop farmers - more than 6,000 feet of lake shoreline. Within the portion of the property that has been embellished, there are 20 acres of native prairie and woodland plus nearly 60 acres of flower plantings, raised vegetable garden beds, fruit orchards, five fishing ponds stocked with bluegill, bass, and walleye, walking paths, a railroad route, a complex swale system, and multiple other features and attractions.
From the southwest section of the property, in which the railroad is situated, the Sheboygan area community garden along County Highway LS in within view. Less than two miles directly north of the Christopher Gardens is the Kohler Co.'s world-famous Whistling Straits golf course.
According to its mission statement, Christopher Farm and Gardens was established to "promote the enjoyment, understanding, and conservation of the native plants, trees, animals, and the Lake Michigan shoreline found in the habitat of Sheboygan." Thousands of perennial and annual plant species can be found on the property.
The property layout identifies gardens or walkways for such flowers as peonies, lilies, lilacs, astilbes, cut flowers, roses, and evergreens - all of which are represented by several varieties. Other themed, defined, or named areas and facilities include an Asian garden featuring a Japanese teahouse, a koi pond with over 150 fish, a gazebo, a tennis court, a single par two golf hole, three sets of beehives with two in each, and a "Bear Walk" in a woodlot populated with life-size animals made from various materials.
A grape arbor has four varieties of grapes which have very different settings of fruit - from heavy to sparse - for harvest this fall. New this year was the addition of a laying hen flock of about 15 birds which began to provide eggs by early summer.
Tied to Christopher's hobby interest in railroads, the property also has a railroad track (16-inch gauge width) complete with a passenger boarding platform station and a walkway crossing. In early summer, some of the four railroad vehicles - dubbed the Dairyland Express - which run on the track were under repair.
A very evident feature in all areas of the property is the huge number, multiplicity of color and type, and many sizes of stones which form borders for the ponds and which are placed in many other spots. Ledge limestone rocks were obtained from the Buechel Stone quarry at rural Chilton in neighboring Calumet County.
One distinctive attraction at the gardens is the blue-colored stone depiction of the five Great Lakes combined with other shades of stones outlining the states which border the lakes. There is also an amphitheater stage facing a green space at which special events can be held. Many types of statuary are placed throughout the property.
The more than three miles of walking paths consist mainly of paver and flag stones. Visitors are advised that a walking tour to see all of the sections of the garden takes about four hours.
To care for the gardens and other aspects of the property, Christopher Farm and Gardens has eight full-time and 12 part-time summer employees. Most of the latter are college students.
Landscape and Property Manager Mike Scharl is assisted by specialists whose responsibilities are designated. There is a full-time arborist along with others who are responsible for the annual plants, vegetable and orchard areas, bulbed flowers, the greenhouse, and roses.
The rose plant specialist is Debbie Schroeder, who is one of several employees of the Sheboygan landscape contractor Greenscape Lawn and Landscape LLC, which has been hired by Christopher Gardens since 1999. She served as the walking tour guide for an early summer visiting group from the Calumet County Master Gardeners Association.
TOO MUCH NATURE
Referring to the more than 18,000 spring blooming bulb plants at the gardens, Schroeder observed that the daffodils which account for a significant portion of that total need to be considered as only an annual plant because of how many of them are eaten by the deer which visit the property. Even on the raised vegetable beds, some of the pea plants had been nipped by rabbits.
The plant selections and construction practices at Christopher Gardens were chosen to have visual appeal during all four seasons. With the lighting installed around the ponds and other features, Schroeder noted that the night scenes differ quite a bit from those during daylight hours.
Because of her assignment to care for the roses, Schroeder doesn't get to see much else in the gardens on a daily basis. But she noted that when she gets to other areas she usually sees something new or that she hadn't noticed earlier.
Several remnants of the property's history have also been observed. During the construction, some horse shoes from the earlier Hintz Horse Farm were discovered.
On the renovated property, an antique Dempster windmill's structure provides crawling space for plants, a wire grain bin does likewise, and cupolas from the farm buildings have been integrated into the design. The existing buildings were converted into other uses, including a conservatory, greenhouse, and conference room.
According to the Christopher Gardens' Web site, numerous animal and bird species have been identified on the property. These include 36 species of birds, 14 types of animals, five of ducks, and four different reptiles.
Jay W. Christopher, who was on site and who talked briefly with the Calumet County visitors, is the founder and owner of the Thatcher Technology Group, which specializes in sales performance management software. His wife Doris founded The Pampered Chef home party business in 1980.
Christopher is a graduate of Valparaiso University, to which he has given significant philanthropic support. Alumni of the Indiana-based university come to Christopher Gardens for special events, including one scheduled on Saturday, July 27.
In the local community, Christopher is a supporter of the Meals on Wheels program. Schroeder indicated that a portion of the vegetables and fruit grown at the gardens is given to area food pantries.
With an admission fee, group tours can be arranged by calling 920-377-1608. Individual requests to visit require a phone call to 920-377-1388. An event request form is available on the www.christopherfarmandgardens.org
Web site. A gallery of pictures can be found on the www.sheboygangreenscape.com