Cordelia Anderson and John Humleker believe in hobbits.
That’s why, over the past 10 years, they’ve created fanciful gardenscapes in the front, back and side of their south Minneapolis home.
They transformed the back yard into a tranquil getaway where they can listen to a waterfall and watch koi dart in a pond while sitting in a bright teal and orange “hobbit house.” Beyond a twig arbor, they’ve planted the side yard with a variety of wispy weeping trees.
Lastly, Anderson and Humleker designed their front-yard gardens to share with the neighborhood, encouraging kids to hunt for gnomes and fairies, and inviting passersby to view a rushing waterfall from a stone bench.
But the couple’s most amazing accomplishment is the way they created their free-flowing composition of color, texture and whimsy all on a compact city lot.
“When you have a teeny-tiny little yard, how can you make it feel expansive?” asked Anderson. “By creating so many little awesome places that can capture your imagination, it seems much bigger than it is.”
Just add water
Anderson’s passion for water sparked the couple’s first landscape venture: building a water garden in the back yard. “I’ve always wanted to live on water in a warm climate, and I love the sound of waterfalls,” she said. “Well, at least I got the water part.”
The couple dove right in without researching pond installation or taking a class. They dug a hole, piled rocks to create an incline and installed a pump. Not surprising, the pond and waterfall continuously leaked. (Poor design and a low-quality liner were to blame.)
That first failure only made them eager to build a bigger, prettier, more natural water garden, “not just a pile of rocks,” said Anderson.
But this time, they did their research and got bids to have someone else build it — only to discover the projected costs far exceeded their budget. Still, they were drawn to the work of Jeff Mittelmark of Aquatic Water Gardens, so they worked out a more affordable deal. Mittelmark would provide instruction and expertise and they would do the grunt work.
“Jeff helped us with the design to get the water flowing and make it more efficient with the right pumps,” said Anderson.
That pond and waterfall is the centerpiece of their back-yard retreat. Anderson planted a Japanese maple and placed a stone lantern at the top of the double-sided waterfall. They filled the pond at the bottom with aquatic plants, including yellow water lilies, zebra grass and cigar-shaped miniature cattails. Tropical water cannas add height and color along the pond edge.
Seven Japanese maples have a starring role in the landscape for their delicate wine-colored foliage, said Anderson. (She admits she wraps the Zone 5 trees before winter to ensure they’ll make it to spring.)
Beyond the pond, they laid a flagstone walkway leading to a bluestone patio, where they set a “European bistro” table — made of stone — to sip wine. “We found the 290-pound flat stone at Bachman’s and the iron base at the Reuse Center,” said Anderson.
Sadie Humleker, their teenage daughter, suggested the hobbit-like house.
“I thought it would be fun to build it big enough to sit inside,” said John Humleker, who painted the roof teal blue and the door pumpkin orange. It’s become Sadie’s favorite reading nook.
Front-yard fairy tale
Sadie knew her parents wouldn’t stop with the back yard.
“The garden’s not insane — but my parents are,” she said.
So she wasn’t surprised when they turned the front yard into a whimsical land of flowing water, an illuminated stone fairy house and mini alpine plant vignettes.
“We never had a plan,” said Humleker. “It started with a curved stone bench made by a local couple.” Soon they erected a rock wall fountain and planted a shade hosta garden under a birch tree.
The yard’s natural slope drove the design of an impressive 40-foot-long waterfall, which disappears into the sidewalk at the bottom. For the garden retaining wall, the couple used Rock-on-a-Roll, a flexible material that has the look and texture of stone. “You can bend it to hide the liner and help shape the pond, too,” said Anderson.
To complete the garden’s community spirit, Humleker built a Little Free Library for book sharing, using recycled wood.
“It’s nice to have these magical spaces that catch your eye,” said Anderson. “But they shouldn’t compete with the nature of the water, flowers and grasses.”
Humleker and Anderson, who weren’t raised by gardeners, have gradually learned the fine points of design and plant selection through instinct and trial and error.
“When I go to the garden center, I look for color, shape or a feeling,” said Anderson. “I don’t remember plant names. That’s why I have a sign in the garden that says ‘Don’t ask me.’ ”
The “feeling” Anderson has created in her small city plot is deliberately light and fanciful to counter her “toxic” day job, she said.
Anderson has a home-based business involving prevention of sexual abuse. “I can look out the window and see this beauty,” she said. “It’s nice to have a magical setting with healing and calming powers.”