“Being the science geek, I looked up Witch Hazels, and there was all this information about them blooming in the fall and winter,” says the retired science teacher. He traveled to the Lake Erie area to visit an outdoor nursery specializing in Witch Hazel trees. “I saw all these Witch Hazels in bloom — oranges, yellows, reds. Spectacular colors! And it was February.”
Witch Hazel trees and shrubs became a major part of the evolving landscape plans for the former 1960s Homearama house Schilb bought 35 years ago. Schilb and wife, Audrey, removed dying spruce trees and a Norway Maple to make room for new plantings and pathways.
There were never formal plans for the yard, says Audrey.
“We don’t trim the trees,” she says with a laugh. “When a tree gets large enough that the grass under it starts dying, we just add another garden bed.”
Now the 12 varieties of Witch Hazel trees share space in the half-acre yard with a 40-foot blight-resistant American Chestnut, a 40-foot Bonfire Sugar Maple, a Tricolor Beech, a Paperbark Maple and a 50-foot Bald Cypress. An enormous Sweetgum tree is center stage in the backyard.
When spring arrives, five different varieties of Redbud trees and several Dogwood varieties paint the yard pink, fuchsia and lavender. Hellebores and Crepe Myrtles add to the color palette.
“I’m a hosta-holic too,” says Schilb, a longtime member of the Miami Valley Hosta Society. More than 160 varieties grow throughout the yard.
The Schilbs’ yard was selected as a 2014 tour site for the Great Lakes Region of the American Hosta Society. Expecting more than 100 guests, Schilb says he and Audrey — and grown son, Alex — went to work to upgrade the yard soon after 2014 began.
“We started in January,” says Audrey. “Thankfully, that winter was pretty warm.”
The tour prompted the Schilbs to address a backyard issue: runoff from the church parking lot directly behind them.
The family crafted a dry creek bed lined with colorful lake stone and hostas to channel the excess moisture to a rain garden of water-loving plants. Alex and several of his friends moved the enormous anchor stone into place with a minivan. More than 400 bags of mulch topped off the project, Audrey says.
But, before they could finish, one morning they discovered yellow utility flags across their property. Though it was not included in their deed or plat map, a gas pipeline for a nearby neighborhood —16 inches in diameter, Schilb says — ran through their backyard.
To keep the line free from root damage, utility officials insisted on removing 10 trees. “We couldn’t believe it,” says Audrey.
But the couple talked the utility into waiting until after the hosta tour. And fortunately, by then, Schilb says, he was able to transplant some of the affected trees, including four Witch Hazels. Three survived the move.
Today, Schilb, 73, says he still enjoys working in the yard almost daily. After retiring from Oakwood Schools, he worked for Five Rivers MetroParks for 11 years, including 10 years at Cox Arboretum as well as time at Wegerzyn Gardens. While at Wegerzyn, he helped staff build their Witch Hazel collection, which he now curates.
“They have more than 120 varieties,” he notes proudly. He gives regular talks on the winter bloomers, which can be quite fragrant. (The next Wegerzyn Witch Hazel walk is slated for Saturday, Feb. 17.)
“Vernalis Witch Hazel can be intoxicating,” Schilb says. “They smell like hot cinnamon buns. And you can smell them 30 feet away.”