In 1989, Connie and John Young bought the suburban dream: a new house on a large lot at the end of a cul-de-sac in a brand new development. The catch? Their yard, like all the yards around theirs, was landscaped with only new sod and a few staked saplings.
Although Connie was a novice gardener, she was determined to transform her big back yard into an artfully designed fusion of flowers and shrubs, the kind she'd seen in older neighborhoods.
"I wanted to prove that I could have beautiful gardens like you see in the city," she said.
While she was at it, she set herself another goal: She wanted her gardens to be flush with blooms from spring to fall so she could arrange fresh floral bouquets from the cuttings to give to family members and friends.
Twenty years later, only a fraction of that large lot is grass. The rest is densely planted, free-flowing, cottage-style perennial, annual and herb beds designed by Connie, now a Hennepin County master gardener.
"It's a wonderful place to escape and not think about anything except where I can move my peonies so they get full sun," she said.
Connie's desire to turn her yard into a floral display has its roots in her childhood. She grew up on an Iowa farm and her grandparents, who had a greenhouse where they cultivated and sold geraniums, introduced her to flower gardening.
"My grandmother was from Czechoslovakia and didn't speak English," said Connie. "But I learned by watching her weeding and watering."
Before the Youngs moved to Bloomington, however, Connie had only dabbled in gardening, potting up a few patio containers. To prepare for her first real venture into gardening, she attended some University of Minnesota extension classes. "I loved the botanical names and got hooked," she said.
She started with two small beds in the sunny corner of the yard and filled them with easy-to-grow perennials such as monarda, daylilies, shasta daisies and malva. "Then I plugged in begonias for color," she said.
John took on the role of chief laborer, first digging out the hard-packed clay and adding rich black soil, then laying the Chilton stones and aged reclaimed pavers, which shape the gardens and give them a vintage flair.
"I don't know a lot about plants. Connie has the talent," said John. "I would goof it up."
After the first successful gardening season, the couple carved out a new bed every year -- John digging, Connie planting. Eventually, they had so many beds that it became difficult to mow around them. That's when they decided to connect the ever-growing beds to create a single, flowing garden.
The grass isn't entirely gone. "I still like some grass," she said. "It sets off and softens the gardens."
Connie said the evolving design for her yard is inspired by classic English cottage gardens as well as a favorite local haunt -- Noerenberg Gardens in Orono.
"Arla [Carmichiel, the head gardener] is fantastic," said Connie. "I try to copy her plant colors and the way she creates vignettes. Her color combinations are very soothing and peaceful, not jarring or garish."
Connie has developed her own take on color, texture and shape, pairing the fine foliage of Russian sage with spiky pink clary sage and pink and orange zinnias the size of tennis balls.
And she accents the front of some of her beds with a favorite Noerenberg staple, the tall and airy Brazilian verbena, because it's easy to see surrounding plants through the foliage.
In order to have cuttings for her floral arrangements from spring through fall, Connie's plant choices are also guided by bloom cycles. That's why she grows tulips and peonies in spring; phlox, coneflowers, monarda and heliopsis in summer, and a variety of sedums for fall. She uses hosta leaves for bouquet accents. Connie's all-time favorites are hardy, long-blooming hydrangeas, especially Limelight and Annabelle.
In fact, when the Youngs' daughter, Laura Brown, was married two years ago, she held her mother's hydrangeas in her wedding bouquet and the wedding party photos were shot among Connie's glorious August gardens. All those years of digging, planting, deadheading and weeding reaped more than blooms for Connie's floral arrangements. "It was special because John and I were able to create a beautiful setting for her."
The gardens have been a part of Laura and her brother's lives in another way, as well.
"We would tease her when were growing up that from April to October, we would have to fend for ourselves," said Brown, who nominated her mother's garden. "It's her true passion."
These days, Connie scouts for gardens to be featured on the Fraser Garden Tour, a fundraiser for people with disabilities, and plants beds at the entrance to Fairview Ridges Hospital in Burnsville.
She found herself giving gardening advice so often that five years ago she started a small garden design business, Gardens by Connie, for people "overwhelmed when they go to a garden center and don't know a perennial from an annual," she said.
Now that Connie has the gardens she longed for 20 years ago, she has a new goal for her garden partner and herself.
"She wants a water feature," said John. "I think I can build that."
Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619