Gardener's bloom ambition

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 6, 2010 - 6:02 PM

A Stillwater woman was surprised to find her "best self" in her garden.

Oprah's mighty influence drives book sales, diet fads and even votes. But who knew that her power extended all the way to a garden in Stillwater?

The talk-show queen lit a spark that inspired Sarah Buerkley to reinvent herself -- and her landscape.

Ten years ago, when Buerkley was a new mom and disenchanted with her original career in fashion retail management, she attended Winfrey's "Live Your Best Life" touring seminar. "She said, 'Close your eyes, and see your best self,'" Buerkley recalled. "I had a vision of me on a hill, with flowers all around me."

That vision ignited Buerkley's new life as a gardener.

She didn't have much experience. But she had recently planted a container garden at their new home, and found she enjoyed choosing and arranging the plants. "I decided I needed something for me," she said. So she started poring over gardening books and experimenting.

"My boys were outside all the time, so I'd be outside, too: planting, weeding and reading books," she said. As she gained knowledge, she gained confidence. Soon she was helping her neighbors plant their window boxes.

When she ran out of garden space at home, she decided she needed a bigger canvas. She and her husband, Scott, began looking for land, and finally found an 11-acre plot a few miles away.

"It was a farm field, with no trees, and a little ravine in back that nestled into the woods," Buerkley recalled. "I wanted to do gardens in front, so you would drive through them to get to the house. And I wanted different garden styles and themes. I had the gardens planned before the house."

In just five years, Buerkley has transformed that farm field into a series of gardens that cover about two of their 11 acres. She has a cottage garden, a cutting garden, an herb garden, a vegetable garden, a rain garden, a knot garden and a "wild" garden filled with native plants and the butterflies they attract.

Her favorite spot is the patio garden, with its "weeping wall" water feature. "Anytime you add water, birds come around," she said. "We get hummingbirds, finches, wrens, bluebirds, cardinals, blue jays and woodpeckers."

Buerkley has developed her own garden aesthetic, based on bright colors and creative combinations.

"Cottage gardens are my passion," she said, "but I like to mix in tropicals," including cannas (which she over-winters), mandevilla, banana plants and elephant ear.

Buerkley gravitates to pinks and fuchsias, but likes to try different accent colors. "I try to shift a little every year; [last year], I pulled in oranges with the pinks," she said. To unify her palette, she keeps all her garden art in the same tone: dark. "I like bronze and rusted iron," she said. "It looks like it all goes together."

But Buerkley didn't just build a garden -- she also became a Washington County master gardener and built a thriving garden design and installation business, Sarah's Cottage Creations.

It started with helping her neighbors with their gardens. Then a bigger challenge presented itself. "I got the opportunity to bid on doing all of Liberty's [Liberty on the Lake] community gardens," she said. "It seemed so huge. I said to Scott, 'I'm going to need a trailer.' He said, 'Let's pull that old one up at the cabin out of the weeds.'"

They did, she got the contract, and business has bloomed ever since. Her yard has become her showroom, demonstration garden and laboratory. "It's turned out to be that, although I never meant it to be. I have to practice somewhere," she said with a laugh.

The busy season

Now gardening isn't just her "best life," it's her whole life -- at least during the growing season.

"In the spring, you work really hard. I spend about 12 hours a day, six days a week on other people's gardens," she said. "I only spend about six hours a week on mine."

Not that she minds. "My work doesn't seem like work. I get to play all day," she said. "Some days I come home and think, 'I can't believe this is what I get to do.'"

Even her sons -- Ross, 13, and Shane, 10 -- have gotten into the act. Her older son is ready to join her crew, she said. "Shane is more into herbs and the cooking part, making pizzas. I don't want to force it on them. They see the rewards, and they're begging to work.'"

During the winter, Buerkley is happy to do something other than garden. "I do family stuff, snowboarding. I volunteer at church."

But come springtime, she's eager to resume her gardening life. "On the 'Best Life' tour, they said, 'If you do what you like to do, the money will come.' It's happening," Buerkley said. "My whole life, I thought I was going to be a designer in fashion. I didn't realize it would be designing with plants."

Oprah would be proud.

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

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