Jeanne Thatcher went to college intending to become an art teacher. But teaching jobs were scarce the year she graduated, so she ended up becoming a medical lab technician instead.
All that artistic training hasn’t gone to waste, however. As a gardener, Thatcher taps into her knowledge of shape, texture, light and color to create a blooming landscape as carefully composed as painter Claude Monet’s famed garden in Giverny, France.
“I have a huge attraction to flowers,” Thatcher said. “I like splashes of color everywhere, and I’m inspired by Monet and Impressionism. I’ve been in his garden. It’s always in my mind. I don’t have lily pads, but I have the color like he has. Just different flowers for a different climate.”
While many gardeners limit their palette to a few favorite hues, Thatcher likes — and uses — all colors, relying on her understanding of color theory to combine them in pleasing ways. “I never really had a plan,” she said. “I know that certain colors work well with each other — but I don’t think about it a lot.”
Garden trends come and go, but Thatcher sticks to what she finds beautiful. “My neighbor says it’s an old-fashioned Grandma’s garden,” she said. “That’s what I would call it — a little of everything. A lot of people don’t have traditional gardens anymore. I like that mine is different.”
Thatcher started gardening in her Austin, Minn., back yard about 15 years ago, when her three children, now in their 20s, were old enough to require less-than-constant care. “When I had little kids, I didn’t have time,” she said.
She started small, then gradually expanded, eventually taking over almost the entire back yard.
“It kept getting bigger. I wanted to get rid of all the grass, but my husband said, no, we need a place for the dog,” she said with a laugh.
Over the years, Thatcher has made hardscape enhancements, including a curved garden path, a water feature and a few garden sculptures, but not too many. “I want the flowers to be the emphasis,” she said. Her garden is about 90 percent perennials, including colorful hardy species such as bee balm and coneflowers. She uses annuals, such as petunias, which thrive in her full-sun garden, to define and accent. “I love a border, and I want one that’s low,” she said.
She doesn’t hesitate to dig up a plant and move it if she thinks it will fine-tune the aesthetics of her landscape. “I move things a lot. I’m never afraid to move,” she said. “I do it in the early morning or at night, so it’s not such a shock to their system.”
Her garden is now so picturesque that it’s become a go-to destination for special occasions. “We’ve had engagement photos and graduation parties back here,” she said. Last year, she opened up her landscape to the community as part of the Spruce Up Austin tour. “People said it’s such a surprise — you don’t know it’s back here,” she said.
Over the years, Thatcher has learned how to make the most of her soil, which is clay. “I have to amend it a lot. I’m on an incline, so that creates erosion. Every year, I add more dirt and peat moss.”
Still her soil remains too heavy and damp to sustain every plant on her wish list, including blanketflower, a bright-colored perennial in the sunflower family that failed to thrive in her growing conditions. “It grows in the desert, but my garden is too wet,” she said.
Soil isn’t her biggest challenge; critters are. “We live along the creek, so a lot of rodents come; they want to get cool,” she said. While they’re cooling off, they tunnel under her garden, damaging plants at the root. “You can feel your feet sink into the tunnels,” she said. “The plants get droopy and sick.”
To deter rodents, she uses garden stakes that vibrate and beep. “The gophers don’t like them.”
As for the hungry deer that jump the fence and munch the tops off her lilies, Liquid Fence has become her go-to defense.
Then there are the slugs. Thatcher battles them with beer, pouring a little into the bottoms of cut-up plastic cups that she sets near plants she wants to protect. “The slugs fall in and drown,” she said.
As for stronger measures, Thatcher mostly avoids them. “If I use a lot of pesticides, the butterflies and bees don’t want to come,” she said. “One year, I had 150 monarchs. They were migrating and stopped in my garden. I want ’em to keep coming.”
Her garden also attracts a lot of birds: “cardinals, finches … even an eagle who hangs out … owls in the trees at night, and lots of nests with babies.”
Their presence makes up for the visitors she’d rather live without, such as the Japanese beetles that ravage her roses.
When Thatcher gets annoyed at creature-caused destruction, she reminds herself what someone once told her at a garden store: a garden that attracts wildlife is a healthy garden. “That’s one way of looking at it,” she said. “If I was an insect, I’d hang out here. I have a big enough garden that I can share a little with nature.”
With so many flowering plants, the garden produces enough blooms to stock a florist’s shop, but Thatcher has resisted making it a cutting garden. “I like to keep them out here,” she said of her flowers. “But I have started cutting a little.”
Last year, she made some bouquets for friends. “I should bring them into my home more,” she said. “Just like the garden, I’m changing and evolving.”
She’s also dabbling in other artistic pursuits, including creating her own garden art. “I have a stained-glass studio in the house. That’s my winter thing. Now that I don’t have little kids, I want to get more into artwork. When you have a family, it’s so time-consuming.”
But gardening is still her favorite form of artistic expression. “I like the spiritual part,” she said. “You can relax and be thankful. Gardening can be so frustrating, but the reward is so awesome. It reminds you of how blessed we are, surrounded by such beauty.”
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784