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The fragrant phlox spilling down the slope of Lucy Pacieznik's back yard in Apple Valley have their emotional roots in a forced labor camp in Germany, where her Ukrainian mother first held her as a newborn while imprisoned in 1943.
After World War II, the family of six feared returning to Russia under Stalin, so they made their way to Brazil, where young Lucy remembers her mother spending long hours in the garden. "It was a place where my mother could relax, cry, sing, pray -- forget her hardship."
Pacieznik's garden began under happier circumstances about 35 years ago, yet it's also a place where a person can contemplate, where grandchildren can play, and where birds, bees and butterflies know no hardship.
The dense masses of hosta, day lilies, ferns, bee balm, cannas, four o'clocks, elephant ears and shiso rub companionable shoulders against the oaks and willows that provide both shade and a sense of structure. A grass path appears as a green horseshoe, curving from one end to the other, something like the flight of her favorite hummingbird.
"He comes and goes, flying in this sort of C shape, back and forth, as if wondering, 'Where shall I start?'" Pacieznik said.
Visitors to Pacieznik's garden start at the driveway, bowled over by the sheer square yardage of phlox in subtly shifting hues of pink. The mass is a long way from her first attempt at gardening, decades ago, when she carefully planted tulip bulbs in a straight, evenly spaced row. She began exploring bushier perennials that would cover territory and be economical. "I began on the budget, what with three kids and a husband who was a tailor," she said. Chrysanthemums were lovely, but so late to bloom. Then she discovered phlox, learning when to deadhead it to encourage another bloom, and sometimes a third.
The phlox have since spread to stunning, albeit sprawling, effect. She knows she should divide them, but at 64, isn't sure she wants to tackle the roots. Nor do the flowers seem to mind.
"I just cut them back, mulch them a bit and say, 'Grow another year.' And they do."
Pacieznik talks about her garden with a sense of it being a work in progress that always holds a few surprises. Take the Sum & Substance hostas that dot the back yard's slope, looking like leafy thumbtacks holding down the groundcover.
"Every year, I forget how big they will get, and so I plant my annuals too close and then wonder where they went," Pacieznik said, laughing. "When I divided one and gave it to a neighbor, I told her: Remember, Sum & Substance, three-foot spread. Really."
The garden is a study in the impact of having a few varieties of plants, endlessly repeated. She said she has little luck with plants she buys at garden centers, and so has nurtured the idea of letting the phlox, bee balm and lilies spread as they will. The deep burgundy of shiso, a Japanese herb with strikingly serrated leaves, peeks from beneath hostas, which are regularly divided. She also overwinters the showy elephant ears, which bring a bit of the Brazilian tropics to Minnesota. In the spring, the intense blue of Siberian squill spreads over the yard in an ever-larger carpet.
This relatively carefree garden is the product of some earlier backbreaking work. The hefty landscaping rocks around many of the beds were not purchased and hauled in, but stumbled upon and dug out -- homegrown evidence of why gravel pits were a large part of Apple Valley's early economy.
Found objects are tucked in here and there. Shells that she and her husband, George, bring back from winter getaways in Florida get scattered as the snow melts. A set of ceramic coasters for which she had no use found a place beneath a pine, looking like steppingstones for fairies.
Pacieznik's garden also includes some practicality. On one side of the house, a dozen tomato plants rise from pots, along with chicory, collard greens, kale and horseradish. An old water heater holds rainwater, and bushels of oak leaves settle each winter in her compost heap.
The showy elephant ears provide the garden's greatest meaning -- and the best story. The tropical plants are keepsakes from her mother's garden in Brazil, brought back after one of Pacieznik's annual visits. Her mother, by the way, is 85 and still works her garden two to three hours a day. "It is more beautiful than mine," she said -- and never needs overwintering.
Anyway, Pacieznik knew that you're not supposed to bring foreign bulbs into the country, but she had to try. As the U.S. customs official began opening her bags, she noticed the Russian surname on his name tag and struck up a lively conversation in their native language.
Delighted, he barely eyeballed her things and waved her through.
And that's how emotions take root in a garden.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185