Two tall silver birds perch on slender legs at the edge of a pond. One buries its long beak in the soil while the other looks toward the water. A blue spruce, green creeping juniper, white rocks, and a red coleus paint the scene. It's too perfectly planned to be nature. It looks like what it is: a gorgeous garden built by artistic, dedicated gardeners who love what they do.
But there's another side to this perfection. The silver birds are installed at water's edge not only because they're beautiful, but also to scare away their real-life counterpart: a great blue heron that eats the koi that swim in this perfect pond.
Though Debra and Aaron Lerner's backyard is beautifully landscaped from edge to edge, they still have work to do. Their task now is to figure out how to thwart those who would nibble, chew, and munch away at their pond paradise.
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From mess to majestic
Ten years ago, the backyard of this home in Golden Valley, Minnesota (a suburb of Minneapolis), was weedy and overgrown.
"It was full of buckthorn and ostrich fern and it was a shaded mess," says Debra. "We put an addition onto the home, and through that process, the backyard was completely destroyed, and it was a good thing."
Bit by bit, they rebuilt the yard. Hardscaping came first, including a 12-foot-wide koi pond with a twin waterfall. The pond sits next to the patio and is the focal point of the bowl-shaped backyard. It also provides a sense of calm.
"The best thing is the relaxation," says Debra.
But that sense of calm comes at a cost. "You have to enjoy working hard to have something like that, or hire a service," she says. "That goes for everything with our garden. If we didn't enjoy it, it wouldn't look like it does."
The way the garden looks with splashes of color from bright red coleus, evergreens of different shapes and sizes terracing the hillside, artfully placed grasses and groundcovers, and the stone-lined pond and waterfall in the center you'd bet that there's a garden designer and a master plan hidden in the wings. But it was designed by two amateurs with a can of spray paint.
"We just talked about what we wanted," says Debra. As their vision developed, they marked off areas with spray paint. "It was completely off the cuff."
Challenges and changes
Debra owns a retail pharmacy in Northfield, a small town south of Minneapolis. Aaron is vice president of an independent leasing firm. Before their son Zachary was born, in 2009, they spent most of their free time in the garden, working and also relaxing.
"We'd be out there every single night eating dinner," she says. "Now we're probably working out there ten hours a weekend. It's a significant cutback."
The amount of time in the garden isn't the only thing that's changed over the last few years. As the garden matured and filled in, pests have become a bigger problem.
"Initially it was the deer," explains Debra, "but my husband put up a deer fence. Now it's the predators on the fish: heron, raccoon, mink. A decoy worked for a year or two, but then the heron figured it out. The shiny silver birds should work for a year or two."
Unfortunately, one predator had a feast in the koi pond this winter. "I saw the mink over Thanksgiving," she says. "He was submerged in our pond for quite some time." They also saw the mink (and his trail) in the snow many times this past winter.
"We were naive to think just a few fish would be gone," she says. "We were in shock for days that he ate all 27!"
Rabbits also dined well in the Lerner garden over the unusually long and snowy winter.
"With the snow being so high, the evergreens have taken on a new look this spring," Debra says, laughing. "They don't have the bottom 2 or 3 feet anymore. So that's a bit of a challenge there."
Plan B and beyond
True gardeners that they are, the Lerners are quick to turn a loss into positive change. With all the fish gone, it's the perfect time to put in a new water system for the pond.
The chemical-free filtration system has a pump in the middle of the pond and a skimmer at the top. They'll restock the pond with goldfish and watch them carefully.
As for keeping the mink from further feasting, their options are limited. "The only thing we can do going forward is an electric fence or a live trap. With a toddler, I'm not sure we will do either," she says.
Though the loss of the koi was devastating, says Debra, she learned a valuable lessonÑone that gardeners learn over and over.
"It reminds you that as much as you think you can control this stuff, you really can't. You have one bad year and you have to go to plan B."
In the end, though, there's no question that the Lerners have the garden they want: a beautiful, peaceful place filled with color and movement.
"What we really wanted to achieve was constant color throughout the season, from May to October," she says. "We were able to achieve that with the evergreens, coupled with perennials. We like the tranquility of the waterfalls."
Garden at a glance
Size of lot: 95 ft. by 150 ft.
Size of garden: 60 ft. by 60 ft.
Location: Golden Valley, Minnesota
Years in house: 11
Years gardening: 10
USDA Hardiness: Zone 4
Watering technique: Irrigation system
Original soil: Sandy
Soil amendments: None
Fertilizer: 18-18-8 mix from a local nursery
Average annual precipitation: About 31 inches
Hours spent in the garden: Pre-Zachary, about 25 hours a week; post-Zachary, about 10 hours a week.
Favorite plants: Gold thread cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Filifera Aurea'); Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra); and bergenia or pigsqueak (Bergenia spp.)
Most persistent problem: Predators
Best advice for a beginner: "Every beginning gardener should start with a good set of pruners. With good pruners, you can have things looking really sharp all the time."
Best pest defense
When you create a garden, critters often act as if you've put out a delicious buffet just for them. Here are some defensive strategies Aaron and Debra Lerner have used in their suburban Minnesota garden:
Herons and other fishing birds: Try a decoy. The Lerners first used a plastic blue heron. "It was somewhat unsightly, but effective for years," says Debra. When the real heron figured out that the decoy was fake, they installed silver bird sculptures. She figures they will deter the heron for a few more years.
Deer: Deer ate foliage in the Lerner yard for years. Then Aaron put up a deer fence. Problem solved.
Rabbits: To foil hungry rabbits, Debra uses a concentrated liquid spray made of garlic and egg whites. "It works great," she says. "It smells for about 24 hours, but after that humans can't smell it."
Elizabeth Noll is managing editor of Gardening How-To. Tracy Walsh is the magazine's art director.