Tom Schmidt and Jeff Lillemoe have a simple philosophy for their garden: It’s more rewarding when it’s shared with other people. Unlike private gardens hidden behind fences, walls, or hedges, Tom and Jeff’s blooming, boulder-strewn slope is out in front for all to see.
Near the hip urban Uptown area of Minneapolis, the couple’s prairie-style house sits on the corner of a residential street and a well-traveled running and biking path. To make their garden hospitable, Tom and Jeff developed a spot next to the path where people can sit down, rest, or put on their in-line skates. “People are there all the time sitting and enjoying the garden,” Tom says.
Their 50- by 300-foot garden wasn’t always so public. A few years ago, before Tom and Jeff owned the house, there was no running path. Evergreens and other large plantings provided privacy for the south-facing garden. But when city administrators decided to build a recreational pathway where an old railroad line used to run, the previous homeowners had to acquiesce. That’s because the whole south side of the yard is owned by the railroad company and leased to whoever owns the house. When the city put in the path, all the privacy plants were removed—along with 20 percent of the garden—and the yard suddenly became visible to everyone who used the path.
Despite the lack of privacy, there are advantages to having such an exposed garden. Unlike backyard gardeners, Tom and Jeff get the benefit of positive feedback from complete strangers. “Whenever we’re out working in the garden, people running or walking by say, ‘Nice garden!’ or ‘Thanks for the hard work!’ We love that,” says Tom. And during the neighborhood’s annual art fair, Tom says he often finds groups of people standing on the sidewalk and looking at the garden.
The sea of textured greens was beautiful when Tom and Jeff took over the property, but they wanted to put their own handprint on it and improve some areas. For example, the original garden bloomed in monochromatic waves, but Tom and Jeff wanted a greater variety of colors through the year. They planted low-maintenance bulbs, shrubs, and perennials—tulips, daffodils, azaleas, and irises for spring; peonies, daylilies, roses, and bellflowers for summer; and black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, and sedums for fall. They also removed some paving-stone walls that were deteriorating.
Boulders were the most expensive part of Tom and Jeff’s garden upgrade. The slope isn’t steep, so boulders weren’t necessary to hold the bank, but both gardeners liked the way large stones add variation and texture to the garden. “They give us the ability to create little terraces,” Tom says.
It was one thing to decide on boulders for the garden, but quite another to place them properly in relationship to each other and the plants in the garden. For expert assistance, they called landscaper Glen Ray, who had worked on the garden in previous years. Glen chose the boulders and oversaw their placement. Each one weighs between one and five tons. “Think of boulders like plants,” he says. “They have to look natural in their surroundings.”
To complement the boulders, Tom and Jeff bought new foliage plants with a variety of colors and textures. Now low-growing junipers, ornamental grasses, and dwarf conical evergreens complement and contrast with larger plants like pagoda dogwood, Japanese maple, pines, and arborvitaes. “Combining plants of different textures is what I enjoy most,” Tom says. “And I love sharing that with other people.”
Neighbors appreciate the favor—and they return it, too. Folks in the immediate vicinity enjoy the garden so much they’ve formed a sort of unspoken “garden watch” to keep an eye on the garden when Tom and Jeff are away. The only time a neighbor reported suspicious activity, however, was the time a stranger wandered through the garden picking flowers. Tom didn’t mind. He says he hopes the flowers lifted the person’s spirits. That is, after all, what sharing a garden is all about.
Garden at a Glance
Location: 50- by 300-foot south-facing slope in an urban neighborhood of Minneapolis.
Hardiness: Zone 4.
Average temperatures: In July: 74ºF. In January: 12ºF.
Average annual precipitation: Rainfall: 26 inches. Snowfall: 45 inches.
Watering: Every day, using regular hoses and sprinklers. Special attention paid to annuals and containers. Consumes most time in summer.
Mulch: 20 cubic yards of shredded bark every year, delivered from a nursery in a huge dump truck. Tom and Jeff enlist a few friends and spread it all in one day.
Soil make-up: “Amazing,” Tom says. It’s possible the original owners amended this soil, and mulching with shredded bark keeps it full of organic matter.
Fertilizing: None, except in containers.
Weeding: Boulders, mulch, and mature plants keep the weeds down. “We just pick weeds casually as we walk through the garden each day,” Tom says.
Favorite element of the garden: Texture.
Favorite texture plant: Sedum (all kinds).
New additions: Rose bushes and gold-hued evergreens.
Best pest control: Two Bernese mountain dogs, Maggie and Louis, who chase away rabbits and other munchers.
Favorite plants that won’t grow: Foxglove and lupine. “I love these plants, but they never survive. There’s something here they don’t like,” Tom says.
Favorite garden tasks: Shopping and planting.
Photos by Greg Ryan and Sally Beyer.