Just like grandma used to grow

  • Article by: LYNN UNDERWOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 20, 2012 - 2:48 PM

A granddaughter's sprawling cottage gardens honor the two grandmothers who passed down their cherished plants and wisdom.

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As a girl, Kate Podobinski loved to eat peaches picked fresh from her Grandma Brown's trees. "There's nothing that tastes as good as a homegrown peach," Podobinski said.

Now she eats fresh peaches harvested from her own tree, a Red Haven planted near her south Minneapolis garage. Grandma Brown isn't the only influence on Podobinski's landscape. Her sprawling cottage gardens are filled with sedum, daylilies and phlox, lovingly handed down by Grandma Berkholtz, her other garden-loving grandmother.

Podobinski inherited her passion for growing from both her green-thumb grandmas. She grew up visiting them in Iowa, and their gardens offered an exotic escape from her suburban cul-de-sac in Bloomington.

"In the suburbs in the '60s, flower gardens were not cool," she said. "All the yards just had foundation plantings."

Grandma Brown was an artist and integrated her eye for color and style into her large perennial beds on her farm. "I learned about designing a garden with color from her," Podobinski said. "And how to layer that with foliage and texture."

Grandma Berkholtz, who was originally from Latvia, saved seeds, used organic gardening methods and composted before it was trendy. "I was fascinated by her clematis and roses, and planted Sweet William and zinnia seeds that she saved."

But she was most impressed with how Grandma Berkholtz transformed her tiny city plot into waves of colorful perennials, which were the envy of the neighborhood.

"She knew how to make something out of nothing," said Podobinski.

Establishing a new plot

Years later, Podobinski faced the challenge of her own small plot when she married her husband, Mark, and they bought an older house in Minneapolis' Bryn Mawr neighborhood in 1989.

Their yard was 28 feet wide and 100 feet deep and covered with grass, landscape rock and a couple of peony bushes. Nevertheless, Podobinski was excited about the possibilities.

"I wanted to put in a flower garden, just like my grandmother's, that had a sense of style even though it was only a small lot," she said.

But first she planted a magnolia tree near the fence for some structure. And near the house, she added a redbud sapling dug up from Grandma Brown's yard. After the long winter, she looks forward to the two trees' successive lush pinkish-purple blooms in May.

Over time, Podobinski filled her newly dug beds with easy-to-grow plants handed down from the grandmas, including sedum, bleeding heart, irises and heirloom purple phlox. Grandma Brown gave her a piece of a flowering quince that is still flourishing today, even though it's a Zone 5 shrub. Podobinski is sure her yard is its own microclimate because she's had good luck with Rose of Sharon, too.

After her three children were grown and didn't need the yard for play, Podobinski expanded and widened the beds with a new mission: create three seasons of color.

She walked around the neighborhood to see what was blooming when. Before long, tulips and hyacinth were sprouting in her gardens in the spring, lilies and foxglove in the summer and purple aster and 'Autumn Joy' sedum in fall.

"Our seasons are too short," she said. "I try to make each one interesting."

Ready for roses

It took several years for Podobinski to gain confidence to take on Grandma Berkholtz's hybrid tea roses.

"I was afraid to try hybrid teas," she said. "So many people said they were hard to grow." She finally dug a bed in the showiest spot of the yard and planted three roses, including her grandma's favorite -- deep red fragrant 'Chrysler Imperial.'

"I was surprised at how well they did," she said. "I never tipped them before winter. I just covered them with soil, straw and leaves." Today the rose garden is overflowing with 20 hybrid teas mixed with easy-care shrub roses defined by a boxwood border. "The fragrance reminds me of my grandma's garden," she said.

Although her English cottage garden took root from her grandmothers' knowledge and divided plants, Podobinski's back-yard beds evolved to reflect her own style and taste.

"I like when the garden doesn't look so planned," she said. "When it's more free-flowing, it extends my back yard and makes it look bigger than it really is."

She allows foxglove, rose campion and phlox to sprout and spread throughout the beds. Her color palette is mostly cool: purple, blue, pink and yellow flowers, with pops of neon pink and vibrant orange.

The backbone of her colorful plantings is the charming Old World paver walkway assembled by serendipity. About 20 years ago, the city was repaving Central Avenue and gave away the weather-worn bricks for free. The Podobinskis loaded up the station wagon, brought dozens home and laid a paver path stretching from the front yard to the garage in the back.

"The reclaimed pavers add texture and definition to the garden," said Mark, who appreciates the garden's beauty through the camera lens, photographing every season.

Podobinski has lost both her grandmothers, but she considers herself lucky that both lived long enough to admire her mature cottage gardens.

"I call it a memory garden," she said. "It's really meaningful to me, because it holds parts of each of them."

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619

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