Wind your way through the housing subdivisions of Woodbury, up a gentle hill, and you come to a pastoral sight: a picturesque yellow farmhouse, with a 19th-century granary painted barn red. Just beyond is a dining patio overlooking a serene koi pond with waterfall. And surrounding it all are acres of colorful gardens.
This is the refuge that Lisa Moran and Peter Rekow have spent more than 20 years creating on a former dairy farm, a vestige of the suburb’s agrarian past.
In her garden, Moran is at peace. “It’s my Zen. I love being outside in nature,” she said. “When I’m in the garden, I’m blissful. I’m in the moment.”
A graphic designer, she enjoys the creative aspect of composing a garden. She designs “by feel,” using garden hoses to lay out the perimeter of each new bed, then planting with an eye to height, color, foliage texture and bloom times to create her composition. “I like an English look — not very formal,” she said, “and I want something blooming at all times, from spring to fall.”
Moran enjoys even the mundane garden chores such as weeding. “I’d rather be cleaning my garden than cleaning my house,” she said.
Rekow is her partner in life — and in hardscape. A mechanical engineer, he came up with the skimmer and filtration system for their koi pond, hand-built their woodfire pizza oven and collaborated with Moran in building the pergola and the long cedar table and benches that have turned their backyard into an enchanting spot for entertaining.
“He doesn’t like gardening,” said Moran. “He’s my project guy. When I tell him I want to add or expand a garden, he cringes.”
It was Moran’s hunger to garden on a grand scale that led them to their home in the first place. Their previous house in Lauderdale had a very small yard.
“I had never gardened before, and I wanted to,” she said. So she started an alpine garden but quickly ran out of space, and told Rekow she needed more.
The old dairy farm fit the bill. “We bought it because of the land, to garden,” she said.
But all that land presented the opposite problem. “It’s been a challenge up here — from no space to too much,” she said. “How do I make it flow and create intimate places?”
At first, their yard was filled with mature oaks, elms and maples, so she relied heavily on hostas. “Someone told me that’s what grows in the shade,” she said.
Then in 1998, straight-line winds took down or heavily damaged almost all of their big trees and changed the character of their garden. “Now we had sun. I was excited to put in sun plants — the sun plants are the showy ones.”
Today, she grows mostly perennials, augmented with annuals for added color. “For a while I was a purist about perennials,” she said. But to get extra punches of color, she began adding annuals, too. Instead of buying them at garden centers, she usually starts them from seed. When she does buy plants, “I get one and divide it,” she said. “It’s the only way to fill up these huge spaces without going broke.”
Over the years, she’s learned to make the most of their heavy clay soil. When she adds a new bed, she “double digs” by hand, using her shovel to break up the lumps of clay, then tops it with compost and mulch. “By two or three years, the soil is pretty good,” she said. “The good thing about clay is, if you break it up, uncompact it, the minerals are great.”
But still she can’t grow everything she’d like to. Asters, for example, have failed to thrive in her garden. “I can’t do acid lovers or plants that love a lot of moisture,” she said. “We’re on a hill, so it all runs off.” (She keeps a “dead file” folder with tags of plants that didn’t make it.)
Moran recently became a Washington County Master Gardener and is now trying to incorporate more plants that provide habitat for bees and butterflies. Last year, she added a pollinator garden filled with native plants, including different varieties of milkweed, liatris, ironweed, coneflowers and rudbeckia.
“It’s like a field of flowers — much less composed,” she said. “I let things go to seed and meander a bit.”
The setting for the couple’s home and garden has changed dramatically since they moved there in 1994. At that time, they were ahead of suburban development and surrounded by open fields. Monarch butterflies fluttered thickly around milkweed plants, and the couple’s two daughters, now young adults, had room to roam. “The kids could run for miles,” Moran recalled. “We knew it would change.”
But when it did change, it also presented an opportunity. Moran had been wanting to add a big water feature. Rekow was less than enthusiastic — until the city closed the road they’d been using, to create roadways for a new housing development.
That forced the couple to move their driveway to the other side of the property, which called for grading and dirt — quite a lot of it. When Moran found out the cost, she was shocked. “Four thousand dollars for dirt! I hung up and said, ‘We’re sitting on dirt. Let’s kill two birds with one stone and dig a koi pond.’ ” This time, Rekow was on board.
Moran laid out the shape of the pond using a garden hose, and they started digging. They had two dump trucks full of rocks delivered to their site. “I did a drawing of how I wanted it to look,” she said.
She measured each rock, numbered them on a grid, painted those numbers on the rocks, then hired a contractor to put them in place. “It was an anniversary present from my husband — the nicest present ever!” she said.
They built the pond with steep sides, to keep raccoons from poaching their koi. “I thought we were as clever as could be,” she said. But it didn’t stop the otters, who ate all their fish in one day. “We came out to find heads on the concrete and scales twinkling at the bottom of the pond.”
Otters aren’t the only critters that wreak havoc in their garden.
“The worst thing about gardening is the wildlife counteracting everything you do,” she said. “I used to have lots of flowering shrubs. I love flowering shrubs! But the animals stripped the bark off. I finally gave up and dug ’em out.”
Hungry rabbits are another garden foe. She uses a repellent called Rabbit Scram, but still can’t hold them off completely. “Volume helps,” she said. “If they eat half my lilies, there are still half of them blooming.”
The vegetable garden is fenced, to deter deer, but squirrels still devour the tomatoes. “They can take 10 percent,” she said. “It’s like tithing.”
A few years ago, their garden even attracted a black bear. “He slept under a tree all day, drank out of the pond, investigated the pizza oven, then wandered away,” she said.
With such a big garden and so many adversaries, can she ever just relax and enjoy what she’s created? Moran enjoys having her morning coffee by the pond, watching the ducks with Finn, their Havanese dog. But mostly, if she’s outside, she’s working — and she doesn’t mind. “That is my relaxation,” she said. “It makes me happy.”