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By Mary Lahr Schier | Photos by Tom Roster
A veteran gardener creates a new landscape for the next phase of her life.
rish Johnson spent more than 25 years designing, planting, and caring for the grounds around the unusual earth-bermed home she shares with her husband, Bob, in rural Dakota County. Not surprisingly, she felt both panic and nostalgia as she watched heavy equipment smash the firepit where her toddlers made their first s’mores. Workers yanked out the bridal wreath spirea her daughters often used to make flower crowns, along with hundreds of shrubs, trees, and perennials Johnson had carefully planted and cultivated over the years. “Having an existing landscape removed in its entirety is a big move, visually and psychologically,” says Trish, a Master Gardener. “Except for what I potted and saved, it was gone in a
Trish Johnson’s new landscape complements her home and the countryside around it.
matter of days.” Despite the upheaval, Trish would do it again. By starting over, Trish and Bob got a fresh landscape that will take them into retirement and beyond. They have reshaped the outdoor spaces around their home into a series of decks and gardens that feel comfortable whether it’s just the two of them having coffee in the morning or a crowd of 60 for a backyard barbeque. Their new landscape gives them a cabin-like retreat without the drive, and expands their living space enormously for at least six months a year. Moreover, the new landscape complements and enhances the appearance of their distinctive home, and most important to Trish, it blends seamlessly into the countryside around them.
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Trish and Bob bought the property in 1979, and over two years, built the passive-solar, four-story house. Though modern in design, the home’s use of natural materials gives visitors the sense that it simply rose from the rolling fields around it, like a rock outcropping or a bluff. In the 25 years they have lived there, Trish and Bob have purchased land around them as it became available, returning cropland to prairie and woods. Currently, they own 100 acres. A few years ago, Trish and Bob decided to remain in the house after retirement. That decision and the aging of the landscaping Trish had installed over the years prompted the choice to start from scratch. They contacted several landscape architects to help them with the project, which they knew would be large, complicated, and expensive. After interviewing several, they settled on Jordan-based landscape architect Herb Baldwin. Trish immediately sensed Baldwin’s sympathy with the property. “He didn’t look at the house and say, ‘well, you need this or this.’ He said, ‘this is a beautiful piece of land,’” Trish recalls. As a gardener with 30 years experience, Trish was a knowledgeable and opinionated client. She loved Baldwin’s affinity with the property and his scheme for making the most of it, but had her own ideas as well. “Gardeners want one of everything,” she says, “while landscapers have a vision. They are thinking about masses of colors and shapes and forms. Herb had strong opinions and ideas, but I never felt he was browbeating me to do something.” Trish vetoed certain plants: no Tollefson’s juniper or Amur maples were allowed in her garden. (A compromise allowed five—but on probation.) She endorsed Baldwin’s idea of a lower-maintenance landscape with fewer
A plexiglass window over the cabana lets light in and keeps rain out.
types of plants and a more dramatic use of water and rocks. “It was hard to say good-bye to 30 peonies and 45 daylilies, but I wanted a garden that was a little easier to keep up,” she says.
Big Plans, Lots of Dirt
After deciding to go ahead with the landscaping project in early 2005, the Johnsons and Baldwin spent the next six months planning. Trish saved all of Baldwin’s fluid drawings of the planned garden, reminders that from the mud and debris around her something wonderful would emerge. Demolition on the property started in fall of 2005, with decks added that fall. The rest of the work was completed from April through November 2006, with some finishing work done in early 2007. Trish recalls that early in the spring of 2006 the foreman from Landshapes Inc., the Minneapolis-based contractor that did the landscaping, came to her door. “Hello, Mrs. Johnson, I’ll be with you for most of the next year,” he said. Says Trish, “One thing that kept me going was I never felt I had been abandoned. They always had somebody working on something.”
Changes in hardscaping and plants indicate changes in function.
Trish takes a rare break.
Bottom: Rugged materials enhance the kitchen.
Clockwise from top left: Karl Foerster grass; Liatris spectata ‘Alba’ from Trish’s white garden; copper-capped pillars add a vertical accent to the water feature; wooden grates provide a geometric element to the deck and can be expanded as the trees grow; perforated copper leaves create sound and reflect light.
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Landscape with Art
The scope of the Johnson project demanded that kind of attention because it involved reshaping parts of the land around their home. The biggest change in the property was the addition of a 1.5 acre pond south of the house. The area had been a field, and the Johnsons had always wanted a pond. Fortunately, they needed fill to raise the elevation of the land around the house to create lawn spaces as well as water features that link the house to a new pool area about 100 feet away. After taking soil borings around the proposed pond site, the Johnsons found a location with heavy clay soil. A second well was dug to fill the pond and provide water for irrigation. The pond is tapered to 15 feet deep in the center, and with only a slight addition of Bentonite, it holds water well, Trish says. The pond’s interior has ledges of rocks and upturned stumps from the landscape removal, creating the ideal environment for the 700-plus fingerling fish Bob added in October. A small island in the pond was planted with red-twig dogwood and Siberian iris. Trish uses a john boat to get to the site to perform maintenance. The fill from the pond raised a portion of the lawn 6 feet, enough to give Trish a broad expanse of grass in an area that had held the family’s swimming pool. (The old pool was buried in the process.) In addition to the major excavation of the pond, the landscape plan called for the addition of limestone retaining walls that connect the dramatic water features, plantings, and stonework around the house and pool. At the top, near the house, sits a copper reflecting pool. It holds 11 copper leaves, created by Anurag Art in Stillwater. The perforated leaf sculptures allow water to drip onto the pool surface, creating soft sounds and patterns of light. From the reflecting pool, water appears to move down a stone-lined brook, next to a path leading to the new swimming pool. Finally, the water falls over a limestone ledge and into the pool. Though the feature appears seamless, it’s three separate systems, each with its own pump. That’s not the only artifice around the pool. Two large stones overhanging the pool are not stones at all, but poured concrete that stone artisan Michael Hancock colored and shaped to mimic the look of the Cannon Falls limestone around the brook and pool. On the other side of the pool is a new outdoor kitchen and cabana designed by the Minneapolis architectural firm of Yunkers Associates. The large cooking and dining area is under an octagonal shaped roof with a skylight in the center. As impressive as the property is, Trish has a practical streak. The burnished-block building behind the kitchen contains a bathroom, changing area, and mechanicals for the kitchen and pool. This structure was built much like those found in state parks. “I wanted to be able to come out, hose it down, squeegee it off, and be ready for the season,” says Trish.
Trish Johnson’s garden is exciting to see even when nothing is blooming. One reason is the art she has arranged throughout the landscape. Trish buys from individual artists—she has a pieces by Peter Woytuk, Bruce Mainquist, and Andrew Carson. She also commissioned Minneapolis artist Holly Vrieze to design and create metal sculptures that are part of the pergolas, arches, and buildings in the new landscape. She buys from catalogs and garden stores, too. Whatever it is, though, the art is likely to be iron. “Sometimes my kids ask me if we’re growing plants here or rusty iron,” jokes Trish. “I love sculpture in the garden. You get the vertical element and sculpture works in places that pots don’t. It also adds winter interest and I’d rather look at a sculpture than brown plants.” Art can also solve design problems. The brook that travels from near Trish’s house toward the pool more than 20 feet lower needed a vertical element. The solution Trish and landscape architect Herb Baldwin found is inventive yet perfectly natural within the scene: stone posts topped with copper caps. —M.L.S.
Planning a Big Project?
Trish Johnson offers suggestions for homeowners considering a major landscaping project. • Do your research. To know what you want, visit other gardens, look at magazines, and watch what other people grow. Study hardscaping options, too. Trish visits the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum several times a year to observe plants she may grow in the future. • Get help. For a major landscape renovation, consulting with a professional will prompt new ideas. Even if you plan to do most of the work yourself, consider having a designer look at your property or do a rough sketch. (See page 28 for more on planning a landscape.) • Work with people who understand that the project is a collaboration between your ideas and theirs. Check references. Interview several before making your choice. • Expect dirt. Ripping up a landscape will be messy, possibly for months. • Know your budget. Know your budget and share it with your landscape designer to make sure the plan is in line with what you can spend. You may be able to reduce costs by doing some work yourself or by stretching the project out over more than one season. —M.L.S.
Creating Zones and Gardens
Creating a massive landscape requires that it be divided and defined. “I like the subtle emphasis on space transitions that Herb has incorporated,” says Trish. “He creates textural change in the hardscape to indicate a chance in the landscape use.” Sections of the landscape are defined by stones, wooden decks, and crushed rock. Ambience also changes from space to space.
Clockwise from top left: Sedum grow around flag stones; the family fire pit; trees to grow through the deck; a copper frame and bright pots create a charming sitting area.
The areas around the entry to the house are more formal and shaped, using New York blue stone or wood decking material with trees growing through geometric slats. Iron work, art and a large iron-adorned pergola give the areas winter interest and formality. Farther away, the look gets more informal, with rocks interspersed with naturalistic looking plantings of shrubs and grasses. Near the cabana and its kitchen sits Trish’s vegetable garden—six neat raised beds separated by crush rock paths. This garden, where she grows berries, green beans, lettuces, tomatoes—“just the things we’ll eat”—is also convenient to
the house and its east-facing deck. “The idea is to be able to walk down in your slippers and pick raspberries for breakfast without getting your feet wet,” says Trish. On the other side of the cabana, Trish nurtures an orchard of apple, apricot, and plum trees. Another hillside is covered with American plum and below that serviceberry. Trish wanted to create “huge swaths of shrubs and trees that will be a visual and green barrier,” she says. Then finally, the landscape goes positively wild with the pond and prairie plantings that surround the main house and gardens. Where the planned landscape and prairie merge, she has planted a mix of no-mow fescue and taller grasses to add texture, as well as habitat for birds and animals. Around the west side of the property are several smaller, distinct gardens. An herb garden sits just outside Trish’s greenhouse, surrounded by heatabsorbing, dry-laid stone walls. Beyond that is a formal garden, edged with Korean boxwood, then an arbor covered with roses, honeysuckle, trumpet vine, and kiwi, and finally, a white garden filled with lilies, liatris, and other white plants. With the new landscaping in, Trish has vowed to leave it alone for a year or two, to let the landscape develop without meddling. After that, who knows? She’s a gardener who likes to experiment, trying shade-loving plants in sun, pushing zones, looking for new ways to shape her environment. For now, though, she is blissful about her new landscape. “We would do it again in a heartbeat,” she says. Mary Lahr Schier is editor of Northern Gardener. Read her blog at www.mynortherngarden.wordpress.com.
Fill from a newly dug pond helped raise the property’s elevation so hardscaping and plantings could be added.
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