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Continued: Beautiful gardens: A labor of love

  • Article by: LYNN UNDERWOOD , Star Tribune
  • Last update: December 25, 2012 - 8:55 PM

Two years ago, Michelle Chambers Blair and Brian Blair were knee-deep in water, building a boulder wall for a pond in Michelle's back yard.

"Out of the blue, Brian said, 'This is where I want to marry you,'" said Michelle. "He had a vision of what this yard could become."

The couple decided to invest the thousands of dollars they would have spent on a reception hall into transforming the suburban Champlin lot into a lush setting for their summer 2011 wedding.

A year later, Michelle and Brian exchanged vows near a statue on the edge of that pond. Guests strolled down brightly painted paver walkways past table-size hosta and delicate ferns arranged around Michelle's whimsical birdhouses. At twilight, they danced beneath trees Brian had strung with hundreds of twinkling lights.

"We will always remember that special night whenever we step into this yard," said Michelle, "and we created it all ourselves."

Michelle had her own idea about the potential of the large, heavily wooded lot when she bought the home in 2000. The back yard faced wetlands, and the property backs up against walking trails leading to Elm Creek Park Reserve.

"I knew I was going to do something special with it," she said.

Michelle, who grew up on a grain farm in Michigan, had learned how to identify trees, bushes and plants while riding the family tractor.

"And every weekend I would be on my hands and knees next to my grandmother, caring for flowers and hearing about all the varieties," she said. The Champlin property was the first time she had a chance to dig into her passion for growing.

But first she had to clear out buckthorn, brush and dead trees. Then she started transforming the overgrown wet woodland lot by transplanting wild morning glories, grapevines and Virginia creeper from other parts of the yard. She added her grandmother's heirloom iris and peonies for bursts of spring color. Finally, she laid sod to house her young sons' play set and sandbox.

By the time Michelle met Brian in 2009, her boys were teenagers, and the long-abandoned sandbox was filled with weeds.

Pond plans

Michelle knew she wanted to replace the sandbox with a pond. The only obstacle was the price tag. Brian was the one who challenged her to go the DIY route.

"When we got an estimate for $35,000, Brian said we could do it."

That winter, the couple researched their first joint garden project by reading books and watching videos on how to build a pond from scratch. In spring, they rounded up Michelle's teenagers and some of their friends and hand-dug a deep bowl out of rock-hard clay. Their design took the shape of a heart, with "his and hers" waterfalls. They found boulders for the wall on Craigslist, driving the SUV on endless trips to farms to haul them home.

Brian installed the plumbing for the waterfalls, and Michelle chose aquatic plants and placed potted ferns at the top of the falls to hide the mechanics. They estimate that the 3,000-gallon pond, stocked with more than a dozen koi, cost $2,000. It's now the showpiece of the back yard.

"Ponds are like a moth to a candle," said Michele. " I just love the sound of the water and the reflection."

When Michelle turned 50, she decided to dig and build her "50th pond" all by herself, just to prove she could. To keep it simple, she installed only a pump and a hose to propel the waterfall in the 1,700-gallon pond. For a creative touch, she laid limestone steppingstones on packed clay to be able to "walk on water." "It's different and pretty and now it's easier to clean the pond," she said.

Partners in planting

The wedding pond project helped Brian, an information technology specialist, discover he was hooked on creating back-yard beauty. "I never knew I liked gardening until I met Michelle," he said.

Even after their wedding day, the couple continued to spend every weekend improving the garden-scape. They erected wood and iron arbors above meandering walkways connecting sunny perennial beds, shady hosta woodland gardens and compact water features that Michelle calls "puddles."

Michelle works in marketing and design and has an experienced eye for creative composition. "The garden is a different palette, using natural tools, versus the computer," she said. "What I love about it is that it's a blend of creative, physical and your heart and soul."

The two make a good team because they complement each other's skills and abilities, said Michelle. Plus she doesn't expect Brian to do all the heavy lifting.

"I'm not afraid to roll up my sleeves and haul rocks and dirt," she said.

The Blairs will never have to put their garden on a tour to share it with others. Because it abuts public trails, it's admired by dog walkers, joggers and bikers, who often stop and ask questions about design and plants. Michelle has even seen artists set up easels along the trail and paint her garden.

"I'm the most hated man on the block," joked Brian. "Wives show it to their husbands and tell them what they want."

The appreciation from passersby and neighbors makes the many hours watering, weeding and planting worth it, said Michelle.

"I need a new 'wow' factor," she said. "I really want to build a moat with plants around the patio."

So far, Brian has nixed that idea, but that doesn't mean it might not happen.

"He might wake up one day and it will be there," Michelle said.

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619

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  • Photo gallery: Beautiful garden winner: Labor of Love

    Tuesday December 25, 2012

    A Champlin couple transformed their back yard from a sandbox to the setting for their wedding reception.

  • Michelle Chambers Blair and Brian Blair's garden.

  • MICHELLE'S GARDENING TIPS

    • "Good soil is the first step to a great garden," she said. Improve and nourish soil with organic materials such as peat moss.

    • Use recycled materials whenever you can. Michelle edges her beds with concrete chunks hauled from a construction site. She bought fieldstone for the ponds on Craigslist, created steps from cement sewer rings and fashioned a bridge from recycled milk jugs.

    • Visit your city's compost and yard waste site in the fall for discarded perennials. "I've found hosta, lilies and ferns there," she said.

    • Peruse Pinterest for gardening ideas. "It's inspiring for garden accents," she said. "Click on photos for links with step-by-step instructions."

    • Tap into local garden club and plant society expertise. Michelle belongs to the Minnesota Water Garden Society. "They are sweet, gentle folks and always willing to help you," she said.

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