When Sheryl Hybert was house-hunting several years ago, her real estate agent showed her a cozy 1920s home in north Minneapolis’ McKinley neighborhood. Hybert liked the house. But the yard next door sealed the deal.
“I saw her garden,” said Hybert, recalling her first look at Renee Allen’s lush landscape. “The Realtor took me back to meet Renee, and I said, ‘I want to live next door to her.’ I’m a gardener, and I recognized a kindred spirit.”
The two women quickly bonded, sharing plants, tips and an infectious enthusiasm for gardening that reverberates up and down their block.
They dig up plants and shrubs to share with neighbors and swap with nearby gardeners via the Twin Cities Perennial Exchange Facebook group.
“There’s always something that can be divided,” said Allen, who gave one neighbor a compost barrel to help get them started. “That’s the cool thing — gardens bring people together.”
Today, it’s hard to tell where Allen’s garden ends and Hybert’s begins; both women have filled the boulevard and just about every inch of their front yards with plants, many of them natives chosen to provide food, water and shelter for birds and beneficial insects. (They’ve posted signs announcing “Pollinator Habitat” and “Wildlife Habitat.”)
“We don’t use any chemicals,” said Allen, who keeps bees in her backyard.
But while they have a lot in common as gardeners, they also have their individual styles and quirks.
“We have similar plants, but every garden takes on the personality of whoever’s tending it,” said Allen. After living in her home for 24 years, she has the more-established garden, including a tidy cottage-style garden in front showcasing irises and peonies that have been in her family for generations.
“I can walk in front, and every plant has a memory,” she said. “It’s as good as looking through a photo album.”
Hybert favors a slightly wilder look. The giant smoke bush in her front yard has “gone wacky,” she said, and her gooseneck loosestrife is “taking over. I’m going to be pulling it up to exert some control. I tend to like the natives, and I have a lot of things that spread. She [Allen] likes it nice and contained.”
Allen said she has evolved as a gardener through trial and error. “When you first start, you want things that fill in. But those spreading things are too much work,” she said.
Hybert has learned that less is more with some plants. “She’s taught me it’s OK to pull something,” she said.
Both Allen and Hybert started their gardens from scratch. When Allen moved in, there was no garden, just a “mud pit. Everything sloped toward the house.”
She was determined to create a garden. “I’ve always had a fixation with plants,” she said. “I’d had a couple gardens, small beds here and there, but it wasn’t until I moved here that I caught the disease.”
Her first step toward creating her garden was to add a big accent rock to her front yard and plant a beloved cherry tree. She now has seven fruit trees, including cherries and apples, and makes her own jams.
“I’m a tree freak,” she said. “I have 14 trees. I can’t put one more back there,” she said of her heavily shaded backyard, anchored by a giant elm that she protects from disease with expensive treatments. “It’s a pet, like my dogs,” she said. “The thing that would bring me to absolute tears is if I ever lost the elm.”
Other than that, she doesn’t pamper her plants. “They get tough love,” she said. “They adapt or they die.”
Hybert’s yard was “all grass, a blank slate,” when she bought the house. “The first thing I did was the alley,” she said. “It was scary, and full of garbage. My friend is a landscaper, and he brought fantastic rocks.”
Allen, too, gardens in their alley, where she grows hops on a trellis. Not to make beer. “I just like the way it climbs.”
Hybert added a fire pit to her backyard. “I had to have a fire pit because Renee had a firepit.” she said. And inspired by Allen, she’s planted more trees. “She’s my garden mentor,” she said.
Both women love whimsical and rustic garden art. Allen hangs old, weathered picture frames on her fence. Hybert has a Thai-inspired “spirit house” with an altar tucked into a corner of her yard and a shimmering patchwork of wine and beer bottles pushed into the ground to form a glass mosaic.
“I got the idea in Mexico,” she said.
Together, the two garden buddies have weathered trials and tribulations. The tornado that hit north Minneapolis in 2011 took the roof off Allen’s backyard gazebo, and blew a neighbor’s cedar tree onto Hybert’s fence. Their block had no electricity for a week.
But neighbors came together to help one another clean up and repair damage, working by day, then firing up their grills for backyard barbecues in the evening. “It was a great community-building event,” Allen said.
That cooperative spirit is one of the things they love about their neighborhood.
“Living on the North Side, it’s a challenging part of the city,” Allen said. “We create our own little oasis. There are incredible people here, who care about this place.”
Hybert added: “And some amazing gardens.”