Birds of many species feel right at home nesting in the wetlands and woodlands of a Dellwood yard. Gardeners Reid Smith and LaWayne Leno have made sure that feathered guests from wood ducks to chickadees, as well as butterflies and other wildlife, are always welcome at their 1½-acre property.

It took Smith and Leno years of hard work to transform their suburban lot into a wildlife sanctuary, with restored wetlands surrounding two ponds.

On a sunny August day, the two men strolled among tall miscanthus grass, big bluestem and yellow cup plants. Smith pointed to the predator-proof wood duck houses suspended on poles protruding from the earth.

“In the spring, wood ducks fly in and lay eggs,” he said. “When the babies follow the mother to a bigger lake, the wetlands give them hiding places.”

The comfy nesting spots are among 25 birdhouses scattered throughout the property, and “all of the houses are filled with families,” said Smith. “Once the birds find a desirable habitat, they will keep coming back.”

With a landscape mix of 100 different native plants, the many bird houses and a water supply, the Smith-Leno property was designated a Certified Wildlife Habitat and Advanced Bird Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation in 2014.

“I didn’t work toward it,” said Smith. “But when I pulled up the list, I far exceeded the requirements.”

The other half of their acreage is another story — multilevel terraced gardens that encircle the 1990s home, which is nestled on a hillside.

Flagstone steps lead up sun-drenched flower beds — each exploding in vibrant color.

“I do what other people say you shouldn’t do,” said Smith with a southern drawl. “I overcrowd and plant densely. I’m after flower power.”

The transformation is all the more impressive given what Smith and Leno started out with. When they bought their Prairie-style home in 1998, it came with a suburban lawn and a wetland full of weeds and trash.

The two piano teachers had been living in city condos, most recently in downtown St. Paul, while they pursued their music studies and careers. (They currently give lessons out of their home, Dr. Reid Smith Piano Studios, as well as at Twin Cities academies.)

But both had gardening in their blood.

“I grew up on a dirt road in North Carolina and really missed the gardenias and azaleas,” said Smith, who tended a hybrid tea garden as an 8-year-old. “I could only have a few plants on the condo balcony.” Leno was raised on a farm in North Dakota and helped with the family vegetable beds.

When they decided to settle into a house, Leno had his eye on a Victorian in Crocus Hill, while Smith gravitated toward modern architecture with plenty of acreage.

One evening, Smith visited their current home and property, which abuts a Dellwood golf course, and found himself enchanted by the fireflies and frogs singing in the ponds.

“When I bought the land, it felt like I was coming home,” he said.

Garden symphony

The first year, Smith and Leno enlisted Prairie Restorations to start the rigorous process of turning the buckthorn- and thistle-infested wetlands into a bird sanctuary.

The Minnesota ecological restoration company mass-planted native grasses such as big bluestem and sedges, bordered by the existing towering cottonwoods.

Smith tackled the perimeter, packing it with 150 varieties of wildflowers, butterfly weed, blue wild indigo and other natives he found at Prairie Moon Nursery and Landscape Alternatives.

One day, Smith was standing in the restored wetlands, gazing up at the house, when he envisioned his garden blueprint. The previous owner had laid a long boulder wall to divide the yard from the wetlands.

“I had the idea to continue the boulder wall and carve out terrace gardens into the hillside,” he said.

The men ordered truckloads of rocks — so many that a neighbor asked if they were building a castle. Then their landscaper shaped the rock terraces according to Smith’s design.

Each summer, they dug out sod and planted sections of the multitiered beds, turning them into a harmonious mix of texture, color and form.

“The entire garden is like a symphony,” said Smith, a Julliard graduate who compared the different tiers to a movement in a musical composition.

From the wetlands, flagstone steps climb up to native woodland and perennial beds bursting with bee balm and intense yellow Maximilian sunflowers. Smith also intermixed heirloom cowpeas — a tasty Southern specialty.

Next to the house is a sunny patio filled with more than 50 tropical pots, creating a tranquil setting and “Zone 10 ambience,” said Smith. A potted favorite is the hybrid tea ‘Fragrant Cloud,’ “still considered the most fragrant rose ever,” he said.

The flagstone path guides you to another perennial paradise of cleomes, showy LA lilies (a hybrid cross between Asiatic and Easter lilies) and scores of shrub roses spilling over a boulder wall. Dozens of hardy hibiscus grow up to 6 feet tall and deliver massive flowers in August. “Some say Zone 5, but I’ve had success with them,” said Smith.

A final set of stairs leads to a hidden top tier, which Smith called “the crescendo of the garden.” There, the men often have lunch at a bistro table surrounded by wild prairie roses (the North Dakota state flower), masses of purple Russian sage and coneflowers.

The table is perched at the top of the hill for the best vista of the gardenscape unfolding below. “You look to the west, and the long colorful annual borders are such a surprise,” said Smith.

The gardeners each play a role in the day-to-day and long-term success of their landscape. Leno pitches in with spring and fall cleanup and does all the weeding. “It’s like a Zen activity — I zone out and do it,” he said.

Smith is the passionate grower, designing the beds, picking the plants, digging the multitudes of holes and adding organic fertilizer.

For big impact, he buys 30 instead of three of one plant variety. “I like the exuberance of it — plants can overlap, and it’s never too much,” he said.

He admits his careful composition can easily turn into “controlled chaos,” with plants appearing in unexpected places. “But I let the volunteers do their own thing,” he said.

Smith and Leno have finally fulfilled their mission of not only growing gorgeous flowers — but also creating an eco-friendly habitat for birds and wildlife.

And the icing on the cake is how much fun they have feeding baby bluebirds, orioles and cardinals. They use live mealworms, which are shipped to their home each week.

“In the morning, we eat breakfast on the patio and put out mealworms for the birds,” said Leno.

“It’s hard to be down in the dumps when you see all the color, birds and activity,” added Smith. “It’s great to be alive.” 

@LyUnderwood