Tammy Nelson didn't really know her neighbor, but she knew her garden. And so she nominated it for a New Hope community award.

"The beauty and the smells from this yard make me happy every time I walk by. They have a koi pond too," Nelson hastily jotted in ink on the entry form. She listed the address, but under "name," she wrote: "We spoke once but I forget."

The neighbor is Catherine Navalta, who discovered that she'd been nominated only when judges came to take a look. Now, she is the winner of one of New Hope's RAVE awards for her lush garden of mostly perennials, meticulously planned so something is blooming all season long.

Winners are honored with a plaque or engraved garden rock at a City Council meeting, but that's not the main point.

"The idea behind it is to build community spirit and let people have a way of recognizing their fellow New Hopians who may be doing something a little extra or special in the city," said Curtis Jacobsen, the city's director of community development. New Hope bestows five RAVE awards each year: for outstanding property maintenance; gardens; landscaping; remodel or renovation; and environmentally sensitive improvements.

Natural nurturer

On a recent afternoon, Navalta shared some of her garden's secrets.

She acknowledges that she's a born nurturer. She nurtured four children, now all grown. As a registered nurse, she nurtured patients rehabilitating from brain trauma and strokes at Hennepin County Medical Center. And she nurtured her gardens — flowers in the front yard, vegetables in back.

"For me it's therapy. When I am in my garden, I cannot even feel the time," she said.

Navalta, 64, recently retired but she used to work the 3-to-11 p.m. shift. She'd come home at night and sit in her quiet, dark garden.

"It's only at night that I can smell the flowers," she said.

Growing up in the Philippines, she learned to garden from her mother, who also grew flowers in the front, vegetables in the back.

"We had gardenias. When I smell gardenias, I think of my mother," she said.

Navalta and her husband came to the United States in 1990 and bought their New Hope home in 1991. She spent time at the library researching what flowers would thrive in Minnesota's climate. She started planting two years later — moving the existing hostas to make room for more showy blossoms. She planted mostly perennials that bloom in waves from early spring through the fall.

The hellebores bloom first, followed by tulips, daffodils, magnolias, azalea, clematis, cornflowers, dahlias, roses, lilies, hibiscus and phlox — to name a few. She dabbles in some annuals — impatiens, cosmos, marigolds and petunias. She harvests those seeds to replant the next year.

"I want it to be carefree," she said.

Shared duties

Still, she spends an hour each day watering and noodling in the front and back gardens. She spends more time on the weekends, moving plants about, pruning and tending.

Her husband helps.

"Because I have the green thumb, he does the digging and I do the planting," she said.

Navalta keeps photo journals of her garden, to document what thrived and what floundered. Flipping through the pages also gets her through the long winter months.

When she found out that she had won the award, she thanked her nominator, Nelson, with a bouquet of flowers and some garden chitchat.

"She calls it her 'no work' garden, which is ridiculous," said Nelson. "Her yard is gorgeous; it makes me happy."