Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Garden at Taliesin in Spring Green © ADD NEW PHOTOER

Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to integrate architecture, landscaping lawns, flowers and trees, vineyard and orchard into one organic idea nestled in the hills here at Taliesin in rural Spring Green.

December 2014

The Wright time to garden

Dig into Frank Lloyd Wright's other legacy.

Story and photos by Jentri Colello Photos courtesy Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

What better way to spend winter than dreaming of sunshine and dirt? And if anyone has devised a clever plan to speed up winter, it's a gardener.

It's easy to lose sight of local gems after living in the same place long enough. Many Madison natives, for example, are not aware that just 40 miles west of Madison is Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin, a homestead he created with a love that only a country kid from Wisconsin's Driftless Area could have developed. It is here, in this self–proclaimed "Valley of the God Almighty Joneses" where Wright formed ideals that changed architecture forever. He also gardened.

"I saw it all, and planted it all and laid the foundation of the herd, flocks, stable and fowl as I laid the foundation of the house. All these items of livelihood came back, improved from boyhood. And so began a ‘shining brow' for the hill," Wright wrote in his autobiography.

The fertile valley, farmed in the 1840s by his mother's family, instilled a deep emotional connection to nature and his place within it. His values echoed those of transcendentalist writers and local ecologist Aldo Leopold, whose famously coined "land ethic" rang true for Wright. Although the land ethic was less applied in years after Wright passed, a long–sighted restoration project underway may be putting Taliesin's agricultural landscape back on track.

Taliesin's current incarnation has a modern twist but is every bit as unique as it was decades ago. With an eclectic student body, faculty and staff, Taliesin residents range in age from 1 to 96 years old, and geographically from Texas to Japan. The architecture school makes for an intersection of creative minds, young and old, some who stay year–round and some just for the weekend.

It is difficult to overstate how much the eldest Taliesin Fellows, many in their 80s or 90s, bring to the Taliesin community. They downplay their importance despite having overseen high–profile projects around the world and having personally assisted Mr. and Mrs. Wright for decades. But with a bit of prodding, they share details about life in the 1950s, often during meals held daily in the same dining hall where Wright lectured to apprentices over Sunday breakfast.

During the 1930s when the Wrights began the school, apprentices adopted a way of life that, an approximation of which, is maintained today. Students in the graduate program at Taliesin have been assigned duties in the kitchen, in the theater and in the vegetable garden. Black–tie events inviting community members into Wright's living room still dot the calendar. His birthday is still marked with a big celebration each June, and chefs use his favorite cake recipe.

A typical morning for students may begin with a walk down the same road Wright followed over the hill from Taliesin to Hillside School. They fix breakfast to moving rehearsals of a classical quartet. Powerful harmonies in Taliesin's choir drift from Hillside's cavernous theater to an expansive drafting studio, also called the "abstract forest" for its window placement and a truss system designed to emulate sunlight filtering through a forest canopy.

These features contribute to Taliesin remaining a vibrant community. Wright would appreciate this, and that certain aspects of the estate's natural landscape have endured as well. Sandhill cranes send unique calls across the pasture. Barn swallows dip in and out of geometric forms he built, making nests under sand–plaster soffits. Arid prairies remain, hosting native plant species unique to Spring Green's unglaciated landscape. There is, however, one crucial element of Taliesin that was laid to rest with Wright: a diverse and sustainable approach to agriculture.

Considering how much Wright valued nature in his personal life and for its role in his architecture, foregoing organic land stewardship after he died was a great disservice to the estate.

"For 500 years what we call architecture has been phony...It wasn't innate. It wasn't organic. It didn't have the character of Nature," said Wright in his 1957 interview with journalist Mike Wallace.

When Wallace inquired about religion and which church Wright attends, Wright said, "I go occasionally to this one and then sometimes to that one."

His preference was the one we can all find by walking outdoors. "But my church, I put a capital N on Nature and go there," he said.

Taliesin in the 1950s

Any of the Taliesin Fellows can provide a brief history of agriculture on the estate, but Frances Nemtin remembers vividly her time in charge of the fields after Wright asked her and her family to replace a tenant farmer in 1952.

"We took over a big operation — a dairy herd with 30 milking cows. Mr. Wright's grandson, Eric, took care of the chickens. There were about 400 Rhode Island reds," she says.

Every few days Nemtin took her children to the hen house to gather, wash and package eggs for Taliesin West.

"We sent 40 dozen per week by train," she recalls. Cows and chickens were kept at the Midway Barn, while riding and carriage horses stayed up at the main house.

Nemtin loves to recount the years she and her young family cultivated the vegetable gardens. Her eldest son, Brian, led younger kids in garden duties during the summer. There were about 10 children on the estate in the early 1950s, including those from visiting families. Wright's wife, Olgivanna, established 2–hour work shifts for them so they could harvest vegetables for the Fellowship. Apprentice and abstract artist, Ling Po, oversaw the children's work time until Olgivanna would invite them in for tea.

Two–hour work shifts required of architecture students assigned to weekly garden maintenance, are an arrangement carried over from this time. The vegetable garden was located in one section of the historic contours just feet from Hillside Kitchen where the produce was used by Taliesin's resident chef. As a part of Wright's legacy, an interdisciplinary curriculum strives to teach a self–sufficient way of life. Basic horticulture skills pair nicely with students' obligations in the kitchen.

In recent years, the roughly 10,000– square–foot kitchen garden was maintained by hand and without use of chemicals. Shifting annually, the layout incorporated a good deal of flowers and companion planting. Overseen by an in–residence staff member and three architecture students, the garden supplied much of the produce used by the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. Although the kitchen's reliance on this plot may shift next year, and students may not have a hand in growing food for Hillside Kitchen, Taliesin's most recent vegetable garden coordinator hopes it will remain a site for perennial fruit and horticulture education.

Taliesin's transformation today

When the preservation crew maintains buildings on the estate they refer to records from 1959, the year Wright died. Until recently, however, the land was not managed with the same approach.

"For years it was just corn and beans and a lot of chemicals," says Gary Zimmer, a local farmer responsible for Taliesin's recent organic certification status.

Zimmer has introduced big plans to restore all cultivated land on the property to a state that not only meets but exceeds standards of sustainability from Wright's day.

Formerly a teacher and land use consultant, Zimmer founded Midwestern BioAg, a firm committed to teaching sustainable land management skills to conventional and organic farmers. While helping growers obtain higher and more nutrient–rich yields, he advocates for methods that negate use of chemical fertilizers, encouraging a system that works with nature instead of against it.

Responding with concern for environmental issues brought to light by Rachel Carson, Zimmer started down this road by rethinking the farming practices he grew up with and how they contributed to runoff, erosion and waning biodiversity. He spent a good portion of his 30 years in the area establishing Otter Creek Organic Farm, an embodiment of his passion for "mineralized balanced agriculture." Of course this approach to farming by replenishing much and wasting little is not new, but Zimmer aims at reaching both large–scale producers and the increasingly popular two–person farming operations equally.

In addition to being a research center, Otter Creek produces cheese from humanely raised cows and meat from certified organic Angus herds, all grazed a responsible distance from any stream. The soil is kept healthy and the animals too, suggesting that the health of one cannot exist without the other.

How Zimmer finds time to travel the world lecturing about farm management is a mystery until you meet him face–to–face. Five minutes with the bright–eyed man brings an unmatched, contagious energy. He lives for guiding today's farmers in combining the best of their current system with the best of age–old organic practices. His books, his lectures and every casual chat in the field carry the same message: if we care for the soil, the soil will reciprocate.

Zimmer's most recent advancement in the restoration project came one year ago with the arrival of two in–residence farmers from Minnesota.

"Frank Lloyd Wright had an amazing mind that changed the limits of what people thought was possible. Taliesin may be the greatest laboratory for architecture of our time, but I think it can also become one of the greatest laboratories for a better earth," says John Middleton, one–half of the team running Fazenda Boa Terra.

Middleton runs the recently certified organic farm at Taliesin with his Brazilian wife, Lidia Dungue. Zimmer's plan has them transforming the same 15 acres cultivated in 1959, to vegetable production.

The couple was recruited to initiate the first phase of large–scale growing this year, and have so far planted three acres with organic vegetables commonly found in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares. Using aerial photographs and GPS coordinates, Zimmer and the young farmers worked to retrace exact locations of the contours planted by Wright, reportedly the first one in the area to utilize contour strips for erosion control.

The partners are on the same page in terms of approach. Zimmer's plan has at least one third of the cultivated land resting at all times.

"You can't continually farm it and expect not to burn carbon and damage biology," Zimmer says.

Fazenda Boa Terra and Zimmer strive for minimal tilling with equipment that penetrates the surface just enough to allow water in, and for use of green manure crops like clover, buckwheat and rye, which allow for nitrogen fixation and roots that penetrate depths of the soil strata that many vegetable crops cannot. This prevents compaction and enables nutrients to be drawn closer to the surface for use by successive crops.

A fourth player in this restoration plan is Jerry Kohls, chef and co–owner of the Taliesin visitor center's Riverview Terrace Cafe. Like Zimmer, Kohls' interest in sustainable food systems dates back to a time long before slow food culture became mainstream. Both were involved with a cooking school proposed for Taliesin by respected Madison restaurateur Odessa Piper.

Kohls dreams of great things for the Spring Green area and has wanted to open a restaurant there for over 30 years. The 2014 season was his first and a successful one. Kohls purchases as much produce from local organic farmers as possible.

"In the heart of the growing season we are operating at 80 to 90 percent," says Kohls.

Zimmer and Kohls have plans to continue a partnership so that Taliesin produce and livestock can provide the bulk of the restaurant's needs in the future.

Some are surprised by the amount of effort poured into maintaining Taliesin's on–site community, and some question whether Wright would even go to such lengths to preserve the structures he constructed long ago. After all, when he was asked to choose a favorite design of his, he replied, "The next one."

But when it comes to preserving the health of his land and the greater ecosystem, it seems obvious what Wright would choose for Taliesin.

"Taliesin should be a garden and a farm behind a real workshop and a good home," Wright wrote.

Jentri Colello is a local photographer and was the vegetable garden coordinator at Taliesin through the 2014 season.