Tom Lukens has been to a lot of places over his long career in horticulture and business. Now, the president emeritus of Golden State Bulb Growers is creating “a beautiful place to simply be” along the West Fork in the Kickapoo Valley.
“I believe human beings are motivated by sharing experiences,” said Lukens, who continues to serve as a senior sales rep and technical consultant for the Moss Landing, California, Golden State Bulbs company, and has started Nature Nooks Retreat.
“That motivates me here. I believe this place gives you a sense of belonging which is good for us. We’ve built the buildings to not only be energy efficient as possible, but to bring the outside to you when you are inside.
“The biggest thing is to share the experience. I’m not going to make a ton of money in this, but the motivation is to protect and enhance biodiversity, the carrying capacity of the stream and land and to create a means to share it.”
Lukens has a tourism rental unit within a pole barn that existed in 2003, when he bought the 95 acres where Nature Nooks sits, and a new energy-efficient barn building which also can be rented.
In the coming months, Lukens plans to build two more rental units -- one that will resemble a chicken coop and another a grainery. Both will also be energy efficient and will use green construction.
“The goal is to give the place the look of a farm homestead,” Lukens said. “I didn’t want to develop something that did not fit in with the surrounding nature and community.”
The sharing at Nature Nooks, by no means, stops with people. Lukens has spent much of his time, resources and labor in developing the stream and surrounding land. Certainly, it has increased habitat for trout, a tourism attraction in the Kickapoo area and other parts of the Driftless Area.
But, Lukens also did not want to create what he calls a “trout ditch.”
“I refer to it as a riparian corridor,” he explained. “We have developed and enhanced habitat for turtles, snakes, frogs and other animals that live naturally along a stream. I noticed early on the bio-diversity that already was here, and have tried to help that thrive.”
The result also has been that the fishing is great along the mile long stretch of the West Fork that runs through the Nature Nooks property. Plus, the retreat also is a great place for “bird watching, nature observation, hiking, kayaking, swimming, skiing and more,” as Lukens’ business card reads.
Driftless Area Project head Jeff Hastings, Trout Unlimited, UW-Madison researchers and others have helped Lukens in his development of Nature Nooks and have embraced his bio-diversity approach to stream restoration.
The green construction starts with Lukens’ home, a 1,440 sq. ft. structure that resembles Frank Lloyd Wright designs and is intended to make as small a carbon footprint as possible.
Through the use of passive and active solar, hydronic heat in the floors, energy efficient windows and materials and a little bit of wood, Lukens was able to operate the home without “a drop of petroleum” last winter.
He estimates the solar part of his system cost about $34,000 more than conventional heat systems would, but he received an $18,000 tax credit and will recover any additional costs through energy efficiency.
Lukens also has worked with local contractors and has used local materials whenever possible.
“It starts by not building a home with more space than you need,” Lukens said. “This space is plenty for our purposes. By using local materials and labor, you also save costs, contribute to the community economically and leave less of a footprint because of transportation.”
Lukens also has followed many of the same principles in the building of the barn rental unit. He did go out of state for Structurally Insulated Panels (SIPS), made of recycled wood, for the walls. “I couldn’t find anybody in the area who was working with SIPS at the time so had to go to Minnesota,” he said.
The SIPS are very energy efficient and include an air envelope that allows for insulating qualities and air circulation in the walls.
When beams and other woods were needed, Lukens used local salvage lumber from the area.
The rental unit within the pole barn -- which Lukens calls his “Stealth” unit -- was basically built within an existing structure. “Some of what was there didn’t allow for some of the things we did in the house and barn, but we still strived for energy efficiency,” Lukens said.
One of the unique qualities of the unit is that the decks fold up in the winter to make the building back into a pole barn. “It provided for security when I was still living most of the time in California, and also allows us to winterize that unit and shut it down in the winter,” Lukens explained.
In addition to the buildings and streams habitats, Lukens is developing prairie areas and planting hundreds of trees on the property. He looks at Nature Nooks as a constantly evolving area, much like nature evolves.
It also has been evolving for an estimated 11,000 years. Artifacts found on the property indicate that the land had been seasonally occupied by Native Americans and others.
Lukens has traveled the world for his work and still travels some for his part-time work with Golden State Bulb Growers. Golden State specializes in begonias and callas, a form of lilies. The company produces millions of flower bulbs and cut flowers on more than 1,000 acres in California’s central coast. The company is considered the premier source for colored callas in the world.
But, Lukens finds himself devoting more and more time to his 95 acres in the Kickapoo Valley of Wisconsin and says his heart is now at Nature Nooks.
A graduate of St. Olaf in Minnesota, Lukens first was introduced to the Driftless Area by his brother, Jim, who was a professor at UW-Madison and avid trout fisherman. He never forgot the area and the Midwest after he moved to California for business.
His ex-wife also had ties to the state, so when it became time to start planning his exit from Golden State and the next stage of his life, he looked at the Driftless Area.
“It is such a unique place, with diversity in its nature and people,” Lukens said. He also feels it is a natural place for combining a love of nature and place, with sound green business practices, to build that “beautiful place to simply be.”
“People need a place to renew themselves, to connect with nature and the world around them,” Lukens said. “I am constantly checking what we are doing here against our charter, which reads, ‘to protect and enhance bio-diversity and carrying capacity and to create a means of sharing an appreciation for and a profound sense of belonging to nature’. As the owner and steward, I am pleased to share as much of this richness with whoever wishes to come here.”
Over time, Lukens hopes the retreat can host seminars from various groups, school groups and others wanting to study nature and green construction, as well as people just seeking that beautiful place to be.