When I moved into my house 16 years ago, I found myself in a quandary. Having a passion for plant diversity and harmonious garden combinations, I felt a little constricted by the amount of space available to garden. My humble 40×80’ lot was already monopolized by the 1889 Victorian I now call home, with a small front yard, back yard and narrow side yard filling what was left. I knew I would have to make the most of every square inch of space. There would be no room for turfgrass since my list of “must haves” consumed several pages of notebook with mental notes adding to the list.
The front would be a public space with bold plantings to be viewed from the street and sidewalk. This garden includes a slightly mounded boulevard garden extending the small front yard to the street, creating a sense of depth, but also more space to garden. Likewise, container gardens create additional planting opportunities. More importantly, my container groupings bridge the gap between home and garden by spilling out onto the front porch and into the garden.
The backyard would become a private oasis—a retreat from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. I designed and built an island-like rectangular stone patio surrounded by a narrow “moat” of water – a perfect residence for my Japanese Koi and a way to include water into an already full garden. Carefully selected pottery and garden art create focal areas and interest, where needed, throughout the garden. And of course, more captivating container combinations, that like the garden, evolve through the seasons.
The side garden was more challenging. I wanted this garden to be an experience, not just an expressway between the front and the back. The space was narrow. The light was bright. The destinations were clearly defined. My job was to psychologically broaden the space, make the best use of the sunlight, and make the space into a destination that would tempt guests to linger as they passed from the public to the private areas of my garden. Although I needed to enclose the space, I couldn’t bear the idea of a tall solid privacy fence. It would make the already narrow space claustrophobic, and would shade the garden from the precious southern sun. Hedging material would take up too much real estate. I opted for a decorative period style cast iron and wood fence to border the side garden connecting to a taller wooden privacy fence which surrounded the private back garden. It was fitting to the architecture of the house and the visual weight of the fence was enough to define the space without caging it from the outside. I chose an irregular stone path to lead visitors through the garden. Although a straight walk, the irregular stepping stones slow traffic and invite one to experience every step of the way. A variety of repeating ground-covers organically soften the hard edge of the stone, yet are durable enough to handle the occasional trounce of a foot.
Contrasting colors, textures, and forms create each combination, which leads to the next combination. Contrast is the easiest way to produce effective plant combinations—a bold textured leaf next to a smaller one; a mounding form contrasting with a spiky upright plant; or, by partnering cool and hot colors (opposites on the color wheel). Repetition of color, forms, or in some cases, plant varieties, tie it all together, connecting front and back, left and right, while directing the viewer’s eye through the garden. This repetition creates a consistent harmony as one’s eye picks up familiar notes along the way (dark foliage, bright foliage, upright forms). In my garden, flowers play second fiddle to the bold characteristics and utter beauty achieved with the use of foliage first. Hardy herbaceous and woody plants harmoniously coexist with non-hardy tropicals, annuals and succulents. This boldness gives scale and meaning to the garden as it relates to my two story home. I like lots of plants, but the ones chosen for my garden are the ones that work to earn their keep and serve a purpose in the overall sense of design I like to maintain. Common plants can be appreciated in someone else’s garden, leaving the stars to shine in all parts of my limited space. Plants that cannot sing for their supper are moved elsewhere or take a trip to the compost pile where they will eventually contribute something worthwhile back to the garden. This allows for an ever-changing pallet of plants and endless plant combinations to feed my creative energy and keep things fresh and new.
In my garden, every season brings something new – and more time to dream, experiment, and implement my own ideas. A garden is never finished, always evolving, just like the person who tends it. It is our job to make the most of the gardens we tend along with the lives we live, reaping the rewards the garden offers and the lessons learned along the way.
Scott Endres is co-owner of Tangletown Gardes and Tangletown’s Wise Acre Eatery on 54th and Nicollet in South Minneapolis. He gardens in Minneapolis’ twin city, Saint Paul.