for Metro Times (Detroit, USA) on Aug. 23, 2008
Tom Milano and one of his microcosms of Michigan flora.
For people growing up in poor neighborhoods in the city, nature is usually something ugly, little more than the weeds smothering fields or sprouting from sidewalk cracks.
Eight years ago, Detroiter Tom Milano, 60, wanted to show his eastside neighbors a glimpse of the beautiful side of nature by creating a thick pond garden in the front yard of his old brick bungalow home. The display was so well received that creating gardens for others turned into his unusual job.
The gardens he puts together contain almost entirely native plants, creating a miniature representation of the state's flora and a microcosm of Michigan's environment.
"I like to suggest to people to keep it as natural as possible and use Michigan indigenous plants. They attract butterflies and insects because they've all evolved together. So the more indigenous plants you get, the more you're kind of restoring the balance of wildlife in your own way."
He calls his business Portals to Paradise, "to show that you can create paradise anywhere, and this world was really meant to be a paradise," he says. "We should focus on how to restore things to the way they were, so these are little windows to paradise, seeing how the whole earth can be."
Business is mostly word-of-mouth, spread by neighbors and people who discover the original garden as they pass by his house.
His outlook flows from his association with the Hare Krishna temple at the Fisher Mansion on Lenox, near his house. He's a self-described "spiritualist" who is an all-around handyman when he's not making Michigan wildlife gardens, often in unsightly areas.
Milano and girlfriend Andromeda Palazzolo, 31, are an eccentric pair. Milano used to walk the streets of Grosse Pointe with his pet opossum on his shoulder, drawing stunned attention. The couple eat cat-tails from their garden and consume thick milkweed pods that grow there, a side effect of which, Palazzolo says, is a natural high. The two are writing a vegan cookbook together.
The Michigan pond gardens Milano creates are a mix of stone and wood borders, small ponds with frogs and lily pads and little goldfish, bushy wildflowers and, sometimes, trickling waterfalls. Some have benches or small boulders to sit on in the midst of it all. He can create small gardens for as little as $300 or sprawling, elaborate ones for $3,000 or more.
Nature, though, takes a little getting used to in some parts of the city.
"Kids will try to catch the fish and do different things," Milano says, laughing. "I'll come out and explain 'It's here for you just to look at.' They'll come with jars. They go around too and catch the insects and butterflies. I say 'No, no, here it's a sanctuary. Everything lives, and you just kind of protect it.'"
The kids are slowly learning. "They really appreciate it, respect it, they look out for it, they tell other kids," he says. "It's been really interesting, the social dynamic, especially with the young people, how many kids really learn a lot about nature from it. I did it to teach the kids to respect nature and personal property, and that's what happened."