First came the addition, then the patio, dramatic waterfall, and pond. Eventually, Debra Lerner transformed her backyard into a tropical paradise.
It’s not unusual to hear gardeners describe their favorite pastime as a gift. Debra Lerner really means it.
Neither she nor her husband, Aaron, had much interest in plants when they combined households eight years ago. His Golden Valley house, a streamlined sixties-vintage contemporary with lots of square corners and white surfaces, became their home. It needed updating and enlarging to accommodate two people’s clothes, cars, books, furniture, and kitchen gadgets.
The addition might as well open onto the backyard, they figured. It’s an unusual yard, bowl-shaped, with the house resting on the bowl’s bottom. A patio off the kitchen seemed like a good idea; the couple could entertain there and have plenty of privacy. They added a separate patio for the master bedroom, too.
A garden was still absent from the to-do list when they found a contractor to build the patio out of New York bluestone. Aaron decided to decorate the steep slope facing the house and patio with a waterfall spilling into a pond. He chose Fond du Lac stone for the requisite retaining walls and stairways.
The couple agreed on a division of labor: Aaron would keep the waterfall and pond clean and in good working order (no small task), while Debra would take care of the plants. These, too, came into their lives almost as an afterthought. She didn’t expect to become an avid gardener, but when you have a waterfall you don’t just roll out sod on either side of it. She needed special plants to do justice to the dramatic feature that now filled the backyard and was its focal point, framed in window views from almost every room in the house.
She paid a visit to Tangletown Gardens in Minneapolis and got to talking with Dean Englemann, co-owner and founder with Scott Endres. She was as impressed with the duo’s business acumen as she was by the exceptional plants they carried. “I run a family-owned drugstore, and we have essentially the same business model,” she says. “Like Tangletown, we don’t try to compete with the Wal-Marts or Walgreens. We fill a niche. We give people personal service. We really care about our customers.”
Englemann and later Endres became mentors to Debra. They discovered they shared more than a business model. Their design ideas meshed perfectly. She wanted a garden that would complement the clean lines of the Lerners’ ultra-modern house. “I wanted an all-foliage garden, and that’s their specialty,” she says. “I also wanted my garden to be at its peak all the time and not to be always changing.”
When you use as few annuals as she does, that’s a challenge. Perennial gardens are all about change. June is peony time, in July the roses and lilies come on strong, and autumn is when the Japanese anemones finally get around to blooming.
Endres introduced Debra to plants that have excellent foliage and structure, plants with subtle color differences that would slowly but surely turn the Lerners’ backyard into a tropical paradise. She learned how to contrast shape and texture—for example, placing a round globe blue spruce next to a blue upright juniper or a finely cut, lime green–colored foliage plant like ‘Tiger Eyes’ sumac near a floppy-leaved Bergenia cordifolia—and to mass plants to create more impact.
The Lerners applied a similar, subtle design aesthetic when they furnished the patio with sleek stainless-steel chaises and a dining table and chairs from Design Within Reach. The consistently cool but soft colors, similar to those of the stonework, add to the garden’s overall serenity and cohesion.
The Lerners are fortunate that their garden receives direct overhead sunlight much of the day. The pond is filled with water lilies that bloom most of the summer. The shadier perimeter is home to a growing collection of woodland plants.
“I used to assume that shade meant one thing only: hostas. There’s a general misconception that nothing else grows in the shade. I’ve learned that quite the opposite is true,” says Debra. “You have wonderful choices. Shade plants are almost prettier.”
Containers are her canvas for flashier compositions. “I have maybe 15 or 18 containers,” she says. “Those are pure fun.”
Mainstays of the waterfall area include golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’), false cypress, Colorado and globe blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Glauca Globosa’), low mounding junipers, and ornamental grasses (blue oat grass and blue fescue). An elegant weeping juniper adds height and movement. The native perennial Baptisia australis has beautiful blue flowers in early summer, but it’s the graceful stems with their facing rows of perfectly oval-shaped leaves that Debra appreciates most. Another favorite foliage plant is bergenia, whose leaves are, to her eye, more handsome than those of the finest hosta.
Debra follows the more-is-more philosophy throughout the garden. When she came across ‘Loyalist’, a standout hosta with milky white leaves trimmed in green, she planted five in a group. She massed ‘Angel’s Blush’ hydrangeas, sedums, and many other garden stalwarts with season-long appeal, permitting a few annuals into the garden this past summer only when the sedum gave out and she filled the holes with yellow calibrachoas, red Coleus, and variegated geraniums.
“I tend toward yellow when adding flower color,” she says. It harmonizes well with the many gold and chartreuse plants she grows. With hydrangeas, she wisely sticks with white-flowered varieties. Her fondness for this popular genus began when she planted a tree form of PeeGee hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) against a white exterior wall beside the patio.
Nearby, along the patio’s edge, are velvety gray lambs’ ears, ‘Tiger Eyes’ sumac (she prunes it to keep it relatively small), some iris, and the long-blooming shrub roses.
Last summer, to complement a stunning espaliered crabapple tree that grows against the front façade of the house, she massed 30 ‘Annabelle’ hydrangeas on an adjacent slope. Once the crab is done blooming, the hydrangeas take over in midsummer; lime green when their tiny flowerets are still in bud, the large panicles slowly turn ivory and then gold in the fall.
The pond at the base of the waterfall now features not only those original water lilies that keep multiplying and must be thinned to prevent them from covering the pond’s entire surface, but also such water-loving plants as ‘King Tut’ papyrus and giant elephant ears (Colocasia gigantea). These tropicals are more exceptions to her all-perennials policy, as is perhaps the most spectacular of all her garden treasures: ‘Perry’s Giant Sunburst’ lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), also known as the Sacred lotus.
If Debra were to select her signature specimen, this might be it—even though it breaks every design rule in her garden. There is only one, and it blooms freely for most of the summer. A flower, not a leaf, is the main attraction. It is not perennial here.
But what a perfect diva it is. The fragrant bloom rises up as high as five feet from the thin round pad. The lime-green bud opens creamy yellow; the many-petaled flowers measure more than 12 inches across and last just four days. Tangletown special orders a new one for the Lerner garden every spring.
Bonnie Blodgett, author of Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing—and Discovering—the Primal Sense (2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), publishes The Garden Letter.
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