Michelle Mero Riedel’s carefully composed garden in Oakdale is always ready for its close-up.
The beds and plots are kept meticulously weeded and deadheaded, and she doesn’t hesitate to move a plant that has grown too tall for the plants around it.
“I really like a tidy garden,” said Mero Riedel.
As a professional photographer, Mero Riedel relies on having a photogenic subject right outside her door. Her garden serves as a backdrop for high school and business portraits, and she uses it to illustrate the articles she writes as a regular contributor to Northern Gardener magazine.
“My photography studio is back here,” she said, gesturing with her hand at her blooming backyard.
Mero Riedel’s yard was a blank slate when she and her husband, Paul, built their house in 1996. “It was a cow and corn farm,” she said. “It has nice rich soil.”
She soon became a passionate gardener who uses her eye for design to create artful gardens, carefully composed with mass plantings to create blocks of color and varied foliage to lend texture.
The front yard has multiple gardens, including a dramatic tropical bed filled with canna, castor bean, coleus and kale — both dino and red — which she uses as a foliage plant.
There’s also a pollinator garden filled with native plants and abuzz with bees.
But the sprawling backyard, which adjoins a wetland, is where she created her “oasis” — an expansive flowing central garden framed by paths and more gardens at the perimeter of the yard.
“I wanted less grass and more garden,” she said. Her husband built a pond with a little waterfall that creates a centerpiece. They hired a landscape architect to design a series of “curvy pathways, an outline” for the garden, Mero Riedel said. “I filled in the rest.”
Hungry for information
By 1999, Mero Riedel had become a Master Gardener.
“I wanted access to as much gardening information as I could get my hands on,” she said. And she wanted to share that information by teaching gardening classes and speaking to garden clubs.
She also became a big fan of garden tours. “I like to see people putting effort into their gardens,” she said. Her garden has been featured on many tours, and she visits others every growing season. “I’m looking for great [plant] combinations ... unique ideas I can incorporate. I take notes on my phone.”
In her garden, you’ll see some unusual plants, such as Hippo red polka dot plant, with speckled foliage of dark green and blood red. “I have a relationship with Proven Winners, and they send new introductions to me,” she said.
But mostly she fills the space with common garden-variety plants, including sedum, daisies, ligularia and bee balm. “I don’t have anything rare or expensive,” she said. “It’s not necessary. Affordable plants are just as beautiful.”
She loves silver sage, which she grows from seed. “It’s my top favorite nonflowering plant,” she said. “Well, it does flower, but it’s Zone 5, so not much. It’s furry. You just want to touch it.”
Most of her backyard garden is in partial sun, but she has an area shaded by mature oak trees that she’s come to embrace.
“At first I was scared that a shade garden would be boring,” she said. “But I can really play with texture.” She mixes in some sun-loving plants. “I like to test the light limits,” she said. “I force ’em to work together, and they do.”
In addition to the plants, Mero Riedel’s garden is punctuated by whimsical and nostalgic objects, including heirloom horseshoes, an old milk can that belonged to her grandfather, a lantern, a car spring, a boat propeller and a collection of vintage metal toys from her husband’s childhood.
When he inherited them, he asked, “What are we going to do with these?” Mero Riedel recalled. “Garden art, I said.”
She also collects unique pots, such as old tobacco pots that she finds at antique stores and containers that look like tree stumps, which she fills with succulents.
Blue pots are another repeating accent. “A lot of flowers aren’t blue, so it’s a great color to add,” she said. “If I see a pot on sale, I’ll pick it up.”
Not all of her garden is ornamental. There’s a kitchen garden where she grows tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, kale, pumpkins, herbs, carrots and onions, along with a few flowers to attract pollinators.
And tucked on one side of the house is her “holding garden,” where she temporarily parks plants until she determines the best spot for them.
Currently, she’s trying to add more low-maintenance perennials to her garden. “I’m trying to do a lot more easy-care plants — I’m getting older,” she said. “I take out plants I’m tired of or that aren’t doing well.”
What’s her biggest challenge as a gardener?
“I’ve gotten rid of a lot of my challenges,” she said. If a plant isn’t performing, or if it’s prone to Japanese beetles, aphids or slugs, “I get rid of it.”
Sometimes she even gets an assist.
“Mother Nature did me a favor this year,” Mero Riedel said. “I had a plant that Japanese beetles love. But the cold winter took it out. Problem solved.”