Some gardeners dabble. Others are dedicated. Marian Fischer is a category unto herself.

How so? Let us count the gardens: There's her formal rose garden with more than 150 high-maintenance hybrid tea roses; gardens devoted to annuals, perennials, native wildflowers and hostas; a 250-foot dry streambed accented with blooming plants and evergreens; a large vegetable plot, and even an orchard.

Together, that's about 3.5 acres of gardens, all so meticulously kept that you'd think Fischer relied on a groundskeeper and crew. Actually, it's just her and her husband, Larry. During the gardening season, they devote 60 to 80 hours a week to their landscape, with Marian putting in the lion's share.

Why is she such an overachiever? Why did Michelangelo paint? To Marian, the land is her canvas, and flowers and foliage are her medium.

"I believe gardening is the highest form of art," she said. "That's not a popular philosophy. I offend people. But a garden uses all your senses. Gardens take forever to learn." And gardens are, by their nature, ephemeral. "One bad winter, and your whole composition is gone," she said.

"This is more than a hobby; this is an obsession," said Larry, who does the mowing and helps his wife put the roses to bed each fall, digging trenches and burying the plants according to the Minnesota-tip method.

Larry, who loves to cook, also tends the vegetable garden. Marian, who loves flowers, tends just about everything else. "I can go to the store and buy vegetables, but I can't go to the store and buy beauty," she said.

The beauty that now surrounds the Fischers on their 10-acre property near Waseca, Minn., has been a long time growing. When they bought the place more than three decades ago, it was a weedy field with a few roses planted in front of the 1881 farmhouse.

Gradually, the Fischers transformed the once-humble homestead into a lush oasis, planting trees, gutting and expanding the farmhouse, and creating garden after garden.

"I think I was born to be a gardener," Marian said. "I've loved flowers and nature since I was a child." Growing up on a dairy farm in Iowa, the oldest of seven children, nature was her escape from the clamor of a busy household. "I like peace and quiet," she said. "Outside it was quiet."

When she and Larry had children of their own -- two sons -- she raised them to savor the natural world as she had. "I would not let them sit in the house, even when they were young," Marian said. If they wanted to watch Saturday-morning cartoons, they had to do it in a "wired" treehouse. "So at least they were outside."

The strategy apparently worked; both sons are now gardeners themselves, and they and their friends congregate at the farm every fall for a big Oktoberfest, featuring a barn dance, bluegrass band and apple-pressing. "We are blessed with so many wonderful young people in our lives," Marian said.

From field to woodland

From the beginning, Marian had a strong sense of what kind of landscape she wanted. Adding trees, for windbreak and shade, was a top priority. "I'm not into this restored prairie thing," she said. "I was a child of the prairie, having spent so many hours in the hot, sticky field. I'll go visit a prairie, but I don't want to re-create one. I prefer shaded woodland."

But she was still searching for ways to create the beauty that she thirsted for, even as others were starting to take notice of the Fischers' efforts. In the mid-1980s, the couple's garden was included on a tour as part of the Minnesota Horticulture Society's convention. Little did Marian know that she was about to meet a mentor who would have a profound impact on her and her garden. Before the tour, the society's director at the time, Glenn Ray, owner of Masterpiece Landscaping, came to preview their garden. Later, she went to hear him speak. "He talked about the fragrance of the lilac, and he said it with such passion," she recalled. "Fragrance is really my thing."

A few years later, when she was on a mission to make her landscape more interesting during the winter months, she remembered Ray, looked up his phone number and asked if he did consulting, which he did. Marian has vivid memories of his first critique. "He said, 'Why did you plant everything in straight rows?' I said, 'I'm German. I grew up on a farm.'"

She soon decided that Ray had the aesthetic sensibility she needed to lift her gardens to a new level. "I am a gardener. Glenn is an artist. It was obvious to me that he had what I didn't."

So she started hiring him every year, to refine her garden and do some of her pruning. One year, she showed him a heavily wooded area where farmers had been piling boulders for decades. "Glenn said, 'You have a gold mine!'" Marian recalled.

That was the beginning of the dry streambed, a project four years in the making. Ray considers it "the jewel of her garden."

The Fischers and their sons remember, and still laugh about, the painstaking process of building it. "Glenn is really fussy about the position of boulders," Marian said. "He could spend an hour on one boulder, turning it this way and that, then say, 'Sorry, that boulder isn't going to work.'"

Early in their partnership, she followed his advice to the letter. "I don't argue with Glenn. I would limit my horizons if I did," she said.

But over the years, she has gotten bolder and more outspoken, she said. She's redesigning one of her gardens now to reflect more of her own aesthetic. "We're remaking this into a Marian garden rather than a Glenn garden," she said. "I want flowers and beauty. He wants structure and form. We're working on it."

Ray doesn't mind. In fact, he's gratified to see her inner artist emerge. "She's a wonderful student. When I met her, everything was in lines and squares. She had no confidence artistically. Now she's part of telling me what she does and doesn't like. She has developed an eye."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4787