Couple display the art of gardening

  • Article by: CONNIE NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 9, 2010 - 4:07 PM

A creative couple rely on a unique form of organic design to turn their front yard into an award-winning destination.

The first time around, Tom and Anna Erbes created a typical front-yard garden in their typical south Minneapolis yard: sod. Raised beds of railroad ties. And foundation plantings of yews, arborvitaes. That was in the early 1980s, when everything from furniture to women's jackets to garden beds was big and boxy.

As the decades passed, the Erbeses noticed two things: The railroad ties were starting to rot and their typical yard no longer appealed to them.

"We said, 'Wow. There are a lot more unusual plants than what we have out there, things that would make me smile,'" said Anna.

So a few years ago, they decided to take a "second stab" at the garden. They rented a Bobcat (with a hired driver) to take out the ties. But they didn't stop there. Tom grabbed his chain saw and started in on the trees.

"By the time we were done, we'd removed almost everything," said Anna.

Most of the trees, shrubs and perennials were gone. They'd even ripped out most of the grass and dug down about a foot, removing the existing soil. But it wasn't until their yard caused a neighborhood sensation that they realized what they'd done.

"When the neighbors came home that night, they said, 'What's your plan?,'" said Anna. "We looked at each other and said, 'Plan? What plan?'"

Organic design

Both Tom and Anna are artists. Tom, a special effects technician, also works in wood, metal, plastic and bronze. Anna, an elementary school principal, does multimedia sculpture. But they knew there would never be a pen-and-ink plan for their yard.

"Neither one of us can draw," said Anna with a laugh.

"We can visualize," added Tom. "And we design the same way. It's kind of organic. We go out in a space and start laying hoses or using spray paint to see how it looks. "

But this time around, their gardening wasn't going to be all about looks. They made sure it had a better-than-solid foundation.

"We brought in so much beautiful black dirt," Anna said. "We started truly from the ground up."

Once they'd covered their front yard with 18 inches of fresh dirt, they got out the hoses to outline what would set the stage for their garden: a pathway. Instead of hard edges and right angles, they designed "something fluid" to encircle the yard. Brick by brick, Tom cut turn-of-the-century pavers and fit them together to create an undulating, wave-like pattern.

Then, they got out the hoses and started in on the raised beds. Anna wanted to plant in raised beds so she could "super amend" the soil. But it was also an aesthetic decision. "Raised beds add dimension," she said, "that makes it so much more interesting than just [planting] flat."

They considered using different kinds of materials to form the beds -- interlocking bricks, stone slabs, wood. But they landed on fieldstones, which they ordered by the truckload. Anna carefully stacked the stones to make mortarless walls for the beds.

And the planting began.

Engulfed in green

Though it has its share of flowers -- stalwarts such as liatris, daisies and coneflowers -- the real stars of the garden are the shrubs. Anna used evergreens -- dwarf blue globe spruce, juniper, weeping spruce, weeping hemlock -- to form the backdrop and added showier shrubs -- silver weeping willows, lilacs and dogwoods -- as accents.

"It's really about texture and the shapes of the different plantings," said Anna. "We have surrounded ourselves in green. What a beautiful way to be engulfed. "

Anna, who does most of the planting, is quick to admit she's no expert. "I may not know what you're supposed to do. I can tell you what I do, but I don't know the official names," she said.

But it's clear that she has a way with plants. She prunes all the shrubs, amends the soil with compost when she plants, and pots up her own colorful combinations of annuals to make the garden pop. And the garden she and Tom rebuilt from scratch is an unqualified success. It's been awarded two Metro Blooms awards and it's become a favorite stop for friends and strangers alike.

"I do more garden tours than the arboretum," said Anna with a laugh. "People come by all the time and say, 'This is our destination for our evening wals.'"

Like many gardeners, Tom and Anna claim to be "done," at least with the front yard. They plan to leave the lush, shaded side yard mostly as it is, filled with spiderwort, Japanese painted ferns and the ostrich ferns that "came with the house." But there's another garden do-over waiting for them out back.

This spring, they plan to start on the back yard, surrounding the new garage/studio combo they built with a New Orleans-style courtyard garden, complete with a wall of shrubs, a wading pool, maybe even a grotto.

Of course, there won't be any plans for this garden, either. They'll probably just haul out the hoses to help their garden take shape. And though they're designing it themselves, Tom, who's had back surgery, plans to "bring in some twentysomethings to do the heavy lifting."

The Erbeses don't mind asking for a little help with the multilevel back yard, in part because they've already proven their mettle.

"We've done it all," said Tom.

"And we're still married," added Anna.

Connie Nelson • 612-673-7087

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