Fourteen years ago, Debbie and Brad Young scrutinized the 5 acres of land they had just bought in rural Cokato, Minn. The farmstead was dotted with ramshackle buildings, including a granary and a pork smokehouse.

“Owners over the years raised a little bit of everything — cows, pigs and chickens,” said Debbie.

The property’s early 1900s farmhouse badly needed a new kitchen. Overgrown scrub trees and scraggly bushes covered the grounds. The only inkling of a garden was a clump of tulips that a previous owner had planted under a windmill.

Most people would run from this exhausting fixer-upper. But to the Youngs, “it just felt like we belonged here,” said Debbie. The experienced gardeners considered it an exciting new adventure.

With that blank slate of land, “we were limitless at what we could do,” she said. And there was plenty of space for Brad to create his dream “mini-arboretum.”

Today the granary is long gone. Lush purple, pink and white perennials and blue-green boxwood hedges embellish the English country-style garden across from their farmhouse.

A white pine arbor beckons you to wander by prolific blooming beds and smile at a whimsical bronze sculpture encircled by stonecrop as dense as a doughnut.

With a fresh coat of paint and a charming new cupola, the old smokehouse-turned-tool-shed anchors a garden of late-spring performers, from iris to peonies. The Youngs’ garden is one of six chosen from more than 150 nominations received by the Star Tribune last summer in the annual Beautiful Gardens contest.

The Youngs are so pleased with their transformation that when Brad retires, they might just turn the grounds into an outdoor wedding event center. “We’ll call it Paradise Gardens,” he said.

Daylilies for days

The Youngs had moved to Cokato from St. Michael, Minn., because their grown children were leaving home. They decided to buy a smaller house — but only if it had a bigger yard to hold their ever-expanding gardens. “We’re a little nuts that way,” said Debbie.

They’ve designed, planted and tended beds at every one of their homes for the past 40 years; the Cokato property “will be our last,” she said.

The couple also worked for 25 years at Springwood Gardens in Jordan, where Karol Emmerich hybridizes northern-hardy daylilies. In fact, Emmerich gave the Youngs dozens of castoff daylilies that didn’t make the grade; they’ve now exploded into a kaleidoscope of color in mass plantings next to an old cow-milking barn. “It’s so bright that at its peak, you need sunglasses,” said Debbie of their lily beds.

After tearing down the ancient granary board-by-board, the couple plotted their showcase arbor garden so they could view it from the deck and a planned addition to the house. “We wanted to look out at something pretty,” said Debbie.

They had a good start with divisions of lilies, hydrangeas, peonies, hosta and a few maple trees from the yard of their St. Michael home. But first Brad, who has a landscape business, had to fire up the heavy machinery to dig out nettle and buckthorn.

Before planting, they amended their clay soil with peat, compost and manure. “Your plants are only as good as your soil,” said Brad. “We never have to fertilize.”

Brad built the pine arbor, flanked by two urns overflowing with neon pink Knock Out shrub roses, to mark the entrance to a sunken garden room. The Youngs’ prize-winning palette mixes texture, height and shape — while repeating Debbie’s favorite bloom colors — purple, pink and white.

Eye-pleasing symmetrical plantings include Quick Fire hydrangeas, waves of purple coneflowers next to Russian sage and variegated weigelas.

The lily lovers filled in with fragrant Orienpet and Asiatic varieties that are bursting with color in July. The garden’s structured formal feel “unifies the whole space,” said Debbie, “and meets my need for tidiness.” Blue-green boxwood hedges add European flair.

Thick twining Blue Moon wisteria, evoking a plant from “Jack and the Beanstalk,” climbs up a 10-foot-tall wooden pergola, providing dappled shade at the rear of the sunken garden.

“I told Brad I wanted the pergola to be curved,” said Debbie. “He likes the challenge.”

But the showpiece of the arbor garden is a playful bronze sculpture of children awed by an insect, and surrounded by dense sedum. Brad bought the garden art for Debbie for their 25th anniversary, and today it has a place of honor above a pond of waterlilies and goldfish. “I like its Old World European feel,” she said.

Color it beautiful

The Youngs have strategically mapped out the perennial beds to deliver continuous blooms for season-long color.

In May and June, peonies and irises take center stage. In July, it’s purple coneflowers, bee balm, phlox and balloon flowers. Then the sedum varieties and New England asters pop in the fall. Each morning, “I can’t wait to go out and see what’s blooming,” said Debbie. “It’s an obsession.”

For 42 years, the garden-addicted Youngs have been partners in planting, sharing the chores in their ever-evolving landscape. “We’re a team,” said Brad. “If she quits, I’ll have to sell the farm.”

Spring chores are the most demanding — from hauling and spreading truckloads of mulch from Wright County Recycling, to cutting dead foliage, to dividing and filling in bare spots.

“We both look at each other and ask ‘Why do we do this to ourselves?’ ” said Brad.

But Debbie knows the reason. By mid-June, the couple revel in the rewards of their serene Zen-like setting.

“That’s when you appreciate how pretty it really is,” she said.

 

@LyUnderwood