If Joyce Johannson and Brian MacDonald’s garden were a haircut, it would be a mullet. You know — the “business in the front, party in the back” coif favored by old-school hockey players and ’80s rockers.
Up front, the couple’s edible garden is a workhorse, pumping out peppers, parsnips, eggplant and squash into late October. But in back, the garden is a tranquil refuge, pretty enough to host a garden party.
Traditionally, most gardeners do the exact opposite — put their ornamental plants in the front yard and their veggies in the back. But Johannson and MacDonald were forced to flip the script.
“There’s no sun in back,” MacDonald explained. “We didn’t have any choice” — not if they wanted to grow food in a major way, which they did.
Front-yard vegetable gardens, while not the norm, are no longer a rarity. But when Johannson and MacDonald installed theirs about seven years ago, they were well ahead of the trend, especially in their well-manicured neighborhood, Linden Hills in Minneapolis.
“At the time, nobody was doing front-yard vegetable gardening. We weren’t sure people would like it,” Johannson said.
“Vegetable gardens have a way of looking messy,” MacDonald explained.
So they planted an aster hedge to screen their garden from passersby.
“If people want to look at it, they can. If not, they don’t have to,” Johannson said.
Behind the hedge, they installed four L-shaped beds, arranged to form a square, made of Corten steel. The richly colored metal is more modern-looking than traditional raised beds framed with wood — and also more permanent. “Boxes fall apart,” Johansson said.
Then they brought in topsoil, and got down to business, growing dozens of varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs, mostly started from seed under lights in their basement.
MacDonald, an admitted “plant geek,” makes most of the selections.
“Brian is the one poring over catalogs, finding cool stuff — like this mammoth basil,” said Johannson, pointing to a plant.
“The leaves are enormous — as big as your hand,” MacDonald marveled.
Like many Minnesota gardeners, the couple can’t get enough tomatoes. “I just love tomatoes. I could do a whole garden of tomatoes,” MacDonald said. “We have six [plants] here, but I’d grow 40 if I could.”
They nurture some unusual varieties, including tomatoes grown from seeds that a friend brought back from Italy. “They have a beautiful snakeskin appearance,” MacDonald noted. “We don’t know the name. We call ’em ‘Betsys’ ” — in honor of the friend.
Last year, the couple produced enough tomatoes to make four gallons of tomato sauce (“we ate it all winter,” MacDonald said), plus favorite fresh-tomato dishes like margarita pizzas and Caprese salads.
Fresh-picked flavor is their main motivation. “We don’t keep track of whether we’re saving money on groceries,” MacDonald said. “We’re having fun. We do it because the food tastes better. We have something from the garden almost every night, from mid-April until the snow flies.”
They like trying unusual edibles and recipes, tossing nasturtium blossoms into their salads and finding new ways to use lovage. “It tastes a lot like celery. We put it in soups,” MacDonald said.
This year, they grew five kinds of peas — and then held a “pea-tasting” to pick their favorite. The winner? Super Sugar Snap Peas.
The couple’s shared interest in homegrown food helped bring them together in the first place. Johannson was single when she bought the house in 1991. She met MacDonald in the neighborhood and was impressed with his garden. “He was growing pattypan squash at his rental place,” she recalled. “We started dating. It was the dog — and the pattypan squash — that sealed the deal.”
When they got married, Johannson had a garden-themed bridal shower. Instead of lingerie, she received a wheelbarrow and a decorative dragonfly sprinkler.
Today, they enjoy doing garden tasks together, even pulling weeds. When Johannson was a kid, she hated the chore. “It was awful,” she recalled. “Now it’s calming and relaxing.”
Adult beverages help. “We weed at the end of the weekend, with cocktails — weed and talk,” said MacDonald.
The front-yard vegetable garden that they initially thought might not be appreciated by their neighbors has been embraced.
“People have responded really well,” said Johannson. They enjoy showing children where veggies come from and what Brussels sprouts look like, and inviting young neighbors to help themselves to produce. Kids even e-mail the couple their suggestions, such as, “Try growing rainbow carrots.”
Their high-profile food garden has been a catalyst for others. “All our neighbors have started vegetable gardening,” MacDonald said. “We’ve been inspiring people — at least I like to think that.”
Step from the front yard into the back, and the mood changes dramatically — from sunny and busy to a cool and Zen-like calm. There are bright-colored blooms, but foliage, grasses, specimen trees and hardscape also play key roles, creating a harmony of shapes and textures and different garden “rooms.” There’s a Japanese maple, a bit of bonsai and a bubbling water feature. Even the red “Origami” garden chairs have an Asian flair.
“I never thought of this [garden] as Asian, but it does have that feel.” MacDonald said.
The back yard is where the couple go to relax at the end of the day. “The sun sets in the west, in front, and it gets too hot,” MacDonald said. “The back of the house is all shady and nice.”
It’s also where they experiment with plants, mostly perennials but also annuals that strike their fancy.
“The plan here is no plan,” said MacDonald. “If we see something at a garden center, we try it.”
The couple’s sloping back-yard garden has evolved over the years. When Johannson first bought the house, the back yard was “a weedy swale,” she recalled. “I mowed for 10 years, then said, ‘Uncle!’ ”
One of their first projects together was the stone patio that they built at the top of the slope. They transformed the steepest part of the slope into a hillside hosta garden, featuring 30 different varieties.
The lower and side yard came with a huge oak tree, plus lilacs, peonies and irises. To those plants, the couple have added flowering natives, such as cardinal flower, monarda, ironweed and Joe Pye-weed, all designed to attract pollinators. There’s a row of dwarf apple trees, and a square of lawn framed by a band of gravel. “The gravel gives it a modern feel,” Johannson said.
That lawn was planted just last year. They had previously ripped out all the turf grass and replaced it with creeping phlox. But the phlox didn’t survive the winter, and they decided that a little bit of lawn was a good thing. “It really sets off the rest of the garden, and gives our two dogs a place to play and hang out,” Johannson said.
Pots of exotic plants are used as dramatic accents. There’s a Kafir lime (the leaves are used in Thai cuisine), an angel’s trumpet that they overwinter in the basement, MacDonald’s collection of orchids, hanging in pots suspended from tree branches, and even a plumeria, the tropical plant used to make leis. “A friend brought it back from Hawaii and said, ‘I bet Brian can grow that,’ ” Johannson said.
It hadn’t flowered yet, but the couple were optimistic.
“It takes patience and watering. And you’ve got to read about them,” Johannson said.
That’s where being a plant geek comes in handy. “That is a good term for me. I do the research,” MacDonald said. “I read it — and I remember it.”