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The Nature of a Place

“I have wild blackberries everywhere. You’ve got to taste one,” John Mariani says, pointing to a green leafy plant covered in tiny berries.


Wild blackberries are just one of the many perks of Mariani’s sixty acre, Kettle Moraine property in Burlington, Wisconsin. He and his wife bought the property in 2003, and since then, he has completely revitalized the native ecology of the land and completely restored fourteen of the sixty acres back to natural prairie, allowing hundreds of native species of plants to thrive once more. There are hickory trees and oak trees. There are ospreys, owls, woodpeckers and hummingbirds. There are butterflies, bobcats and wolves. This is no manicured backyard.

You may be wondering, who could pull off such a transformation? Well, Mariani had already worked for his family’s company, Mariani Landscape, for 37 years before he left two years ago to start his own, LandServe LLC “Landscapes For Life”. His mission now is to make native plants culturally acceptable in landscaping on private, commercial and public lands to help protect the environment and its wildlife. So naturally, he was up to this challenge.

“Most people in this country do not accept natural landscaping for their residences. They see them as weed patches. I can use native plants in a very traditional manner and care for them in a traditional manner and have it work for people,” Mariani says. Before tackling this major project, John and his family had been living in Lake Forest, Illinois. John and his wife Marie had both grown up in the area; John on his family’s nursery, and Marie on a chicken farm. But after their children went off to college they decided it was time for a change. One day as they were driving, they saw a sign advertising five acres of land for sale. They drove up an old farm road to the top of a hill, and saw a beautiful old barn on the highest point of the property.

“I said, ‘This is it. We have to have this,’” explains Marie. “We had a great need to get back into nature.” Once they returned home, the Mariani’s repeatedly tried to get in touch with the owner. One Sunday, as they were sitting outside on their patio, John said, “Give me the phone. I’m going to call him again,” and to their surprise, the owner picked up. After several in-person meetings, they eventually convinced him to sell the entire sixty acres.

“This was a labor of love for us, and we want to share that with other people.”

 

Since they purchased it, the Mariani’s have been dedicated to restoring their beloved property back to its pre-settlement environment. Today, their land is a mixture of savannah, woodlands, and prairie. It’s a far cry from the old hayfield that it once was, which had been grazed by cattle, tilled by farmers, and overgrown with invasive plants.

The restoration was a conscientious process that began with John Thomas Curtis’s book, The Vegetation of Wisconsin: An Ordination of Plant Communities. Curtis, according to John, started the whole trend of restoring prairies, and he wanted to learn more about Wisconsin’s native plant communities. John purchased one hundred different seeds, mainly from a seed company called Agricol. Then, he mowed invasive plants, burned debris, disked and cultivated the soil, and hired a farmer to plant special soybeans to nitrify and hold the soil in place before he began seeding.

A year after they began their work, there were so many species of native plants on their land that John didn’t even recognize hundreds of them; some of these seeds had been dormant in the soil for 200 years!

As for the building itself, the Mariani’s two bedroom, four bathroom house was also build with the natural environment in mind. John designed it himself, and constructed it to fit the vernacular of the area. It took nine months to build this cedar wood house, but it looks like it has belonged there for years. The building materials are all high quality, local materials, from the fireplaces and chimneys made of limestone, to steps and patios mined from stones from Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin. The floors and cabinets are made of local white oak, and an outdoor deck made of red fired clay, which is over a hundred years old.


The inside of the house reflects Marie’s unique taste. She fashioned the main staircase to look like a horse’s fence and hung decorative Native American blankets from the railing to overlook the living room. Every piece of furniture was passed down from Marie’s grandparents or her mother, adding to the house’s personal charm.

For anyone looking to restore their own property, John says the best place to start is the Public Land Survey System, an online surveying system used to subdivide and describe plots of land, where anyone can look a property and find out about its history. From there, they need to decide what their goal is for their property, investigate the property’s wildlife needs by contacting their state’s department of natural resources, and, if need be, research federal and state programs that can help with funding.

John also recommends contacting an ecologist, before employing a landscape architect like himself, to gain a better understanding of the local, native ecology.
“This was a labor of love for us, and we want to share that with other people,” Marie said.

Photographer: Matt Haas & Grant Goldenstern
By: Danielle Gensburg

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