When Frank Fitzgerald feels like socializing during the summer months, he has the perfect Instagram-ready venue right out his back door.
His outdoor dining room includes a long, custom-made table, set on a brick “rug” surrounded by a perfectly composed garden that looks like a Monet painting sprung to vivid life.
“It’s a setting,” said Fitzgerald, a landscape architect and plant collector, of his south Minneapolis garden, one of six chosen from more than 150 nominations received by the Star Tribune last summer in the annual Beautiful Gardens contest. “For me, it’s about creating garden rooms and how you define them.”
Even the charming garage with divided-pane windows was designed and built with the garden in mind. One contractor Fitzgerald interviewed pointed out that he could build it on the cheap, noting that it was “just an alley garage.” “No!” said Fitzgerald. “It’s a backdrop for the garden.”
When the weather’s warm, Fitzgerald and his partner, John Evans, make full use of the garden as a social space, hosting gatherings from small casual cocktail parties to larger full-blown dinner soirees.
“People like being in the garden,” he said. “I just like that they enjoy it, hanging out in it.”
Fitzgerald spent 15 years transforming the yard of his 1909 foursquare into the garden it is today. It flows seamlessly from the front yard down the side yard and into the glorious back, which is now fully planted with foliage and flowers — and not a blade of turf grass. Up front, there’s just one small square of lawn, about 5-by-4 feet.
“That’s what John takes care of,” said Fitzgerald of his non-gardening partner.
Fitzgerald, however, has been fascinated with growing things since he was a child in Sabin, Minn., a small town near Fargo. “As long as I can remember, I had gardens everywhere — my aunt’s and uncle’s next door, my grandparents’ house a block away, and at home,” he said. “My mom loved roses. She didn’t garden. I did roses for her.”
He did have a garden mentor, an aunt. “She took me under her wing to teach me about plants and gardening.”
Even armed with decades of horticultural know-how, his garden continues to surprise him. “Plants don’t always do what you think they will.” He tweaks the mix to get the heights, colors and textures just the way he wants them.
“My aesthetic has evolved,” he said. “I love plants, but how do you put them together so they’re beautiful? I’m constantly refining.”
Here’s how Fitzgerald has created his magical outdoor environment:
Foliage first. When choosing plants, leaves come before flowers. “I start with foliage,” he said. “Blooms last two or three weeks. I’m always thinking about ‘How do those foliages look together?’ In front, I have a lot of blue foliage. The side garden has a lot of chartreuse contrasted with darker foliage.”
Room to grow: When Fitzgerald bought his house, it came with a small garage and a driveway that ran along the side of the house and ate up valuable real estate for plants. So he tore out the garage and driveway, and built his new garage on the alley. “It’s all about more garden space,” he said.
Creative repurposing: When the driveway was removed, so was its drain grate. “I came home, and this was propped against the side of the house,” he said. ‘What do I do with it? How do I get rid of it? Oh, I’ll turn it into a water feature.’ ”
Unusual plants: Fitzgerald’s garden includes common hardy perennials, but he accents them with distinctive plants that you don’t see as much in Minnesota, like mukdenia, an Asian plant with pink-edged leaves. “All winter long, I pore over catalogs,” he said. “I mail-order from nurseries to get unusual stuff.” He overwinters tropical plants, cleaning and drying the bulbs and placing them in pots full of peat moss. “My basement is stuffed with plants.”
Vertical statements: Fitzgerald punctuates his garden with tall, slim columnar trees, such as DeGroot’s spire arborvitae. “I had to look all over to find one with a single stem,” he said.
Creative containers: In addition to the plants in the ground, Fitzgerald makes lavish use of containers. He has more than 100, hanging from trees and accenting his porch and patio. “I don’t travel in summer,” he said. “I need to water my pots.”
Nightscaping: Plants with pale variegation in their foliage highlight the garden and draw the eye when darkness falls. Fitzgerald likes Japanese forest grass. “White stands out,” he said. “There is brightness in the evening.”
Strategic hostas: The popular easy-grow shade plant tends to be overused in many Minnesota gardens, but Fitzgerald has found a role for them in his. “I’ve softened on them,” he said. “The chartreuse ones brighten up the walk. They add texture and foliage, but not too many together.”
Dynamic dining furniture: No run-of-the-mill picnic table here. Fitzgerald designed his oversized outdoor dining table, with legs to match his indoor table, and hired a woodworker friend and neighbor to build it. Then he painted it a dramatic blue-black. In winter, he keeps the table outdoors but covered, to protect it from snow and freeze-thaw cycles.