Kathy Freeman got an explosive start in gardening.

When she and her husband, Bill, bought their St. Paul home almost 50 years ago, the yard wasn’t anything to boast about.

“There were three peony plants and one vine,” she said.

She dabbled in the yard a bit, planting a few trees, while she stayed home to raise their son. But it wasn’t until 1992, when the house next door blew up, that she really dug in.

The badly damaged house was condemned, and the Freemans bought the lot, then split it with the neighbors on the other side.

That left Freeman with lots of empty space to fill. She turned to the ladies of the neighborhood (as they were called back then), all of whom had lovely gardens and were only too happy to share cuttings with her.

Soon, she was scouring garden centers and hitting up local garden experts for advice. Along with her neighbors, she took garden classes, joined garden clubs, went on garden tours, and even went through Master Gardener training, though she was too busy at church to put in the volunteer time to get the certification.

Without really meaning to, Freeman became a garden expert herself, the one neighbors turned to for advice and cuttings. Her garden became a regular stop on local garden tours, and is one of six chosen from more than 150 nominations received by the Star Tribune last summer in the annual Beautiful Gardens contest.

Almost three decades after the explosion, Freeman is still gardening, just as passionately, if somewhat more simply.

Her garden isn’t the type that jumps out at you; it’s not a riot of color and pell-mell plantings. In fact, it might take you a few minutes to figure out why it’s so impressive. Then, you realize that her garden has all the things the best gardens have — seasonlong bloom, coordinating colors, a natural flow. It’s well designed, meticulously maintained.

It’s also something gardens rarely are, and rarely stay: complete. We talked with Freeman, 75, about tough love in the garden, how to create visual impact and how to garden smarter, not harder.

Elements of design

One of the delights of Freeman’s garden is her mastery of texture, repetition and movement.

While she uses a variety of textures, she carefully edits the color palette and repeats the patterns to create a sense of continuity from the welcoming front yard, through the private side yard, to the densely planted backyard.

Conifers and boxwoods frame the boundaries of the yard, helping to create enclosures, where she relies on plants of graduated heights to carve out garden rooms.

“I wanted it soft and curving,” she said “You’re not supposed to be able to see your garden all at once. It’s supposed to reveal itself slowly.”

Making an impact

“I’m not a one-flower person,” said Freeman. “I’m a grouper.”

That’s how she gets visual impact in her garden.

“Don’t buy one of everything,” she said. “It’s hard to pull it all together, and it’s not as soothing.” Instead, she recommends buying plants in uneven numbers — three, five, seven, even nine or 11.

She also recommends limiting the number of different plants you buy.

“Choose a couple different kinds of plants, and then choose different varieties of those plants.”

That’s how she creates continuity.

Color in the garden

Not only does Freeman limit the type of plants she uses, but she also controls the colors. Her current garden is a mix of a few basic hues, primarily pinks, purples and burgundies, with soft yellows and creams “to subtle it down.”

“Choose your colors, and follow through with them,” she advised.

But that doesn’t mean she forgoes contrast. Freeman liberally dots her garden with one surprising color. “I love lime in the garden. It pops just like white does,” she said, “but lime works better with burgundy.”

She gets season-long color, not only by choosing different types of plants (as many gardeners do), but by using varieties of a single plant that bloom at different times of the growing season.

Chaos and control

Freeman exercises a healthy measure of control in her garden.

“I don’t like messy flowers,” she said.

That means she’s a fierce deadheader and pruner. She also shows little mercy with plants that struggle.

“Plants have to earn their keep,” she said. “If one gets overgrown or gets too messy, it doesn’t get to stay.”

Filling in with annuals

Some gardeners like to give their plants plenty of breathing room. Not Freeman. Her perennials are closely packed together. She also strategically tucks in annuals around the roots of trees, where perennials won’t grow.

White impatiens are her husband’s favorite flower and “the first thing we buy when we go shopping,” she said. Together, the two of them fill containers of impatiens and other annuals to place along the edge of the garden.

Keeping a record

Freeman has kept meticulous records of the evolution of her garden, in two massive three-ring binders neatly organized by type of plant. “People used to stop by and want to know what such and such a plant was,” she said. “The books were a way for me to give the correct info.”

Now they’re a way for her to track how she’s simplifying her garden, by relying on fewer, tougher plants.

“I look back and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m not planting that anymore.’ ”

Gardening slower, smarter

Freeman claims she’s slowing down, saying her garden is in “maintenance mode.”

Last spring, she didn’t plant any bulbs, she says, almost as if she’s proud of the fact. And she drove right past several garden centers — without stopping. She had planned to pot up fewer annuals, but, well, once she got started. …

She has started accepting a bit of help in the garden. Bill (who’s had a stroke and two knee replacements) mixes the potting soil for the containers and helps fill in with annuals.

“Plus, I’m getting smarter,” she said. “I don’t do so much that I fall into bed” at the end of a hard day in the garden.

Because she suffers from arthritis in her feet and ankles, Freeman uses a kneeler and takes regular breaks to “elevate the legs and get the ice packs out.”

And she still spends most of her warm-weather waking hours in the garden. Often, she sits in the shade, just enjoying the beauty she’s created.

“The garden has evolved, and so have I,” she said. “What was a wide-open, sunny space became a shady one. That’s what happens in a garden. I feel content.”

But come warmer weather, she knows she’ll be back in the garden again.

“I’m not happy until I can cut back and deadhead,” she said. “I can feel kind of down or achy, and I get out here and I forget all about it.

“Gardening is what keeps you going.”

@StribCNelson