Gene Waldowski designs his gardens the same way he paints.

“Full of color and contrast,” said the artist and retired high school teacher.

With his wife, Lois, as collaborator and resident wisecracker, Waldowski has created a shade-lover’s delight at their home in Ramsey. More than 120 varieties of hosta provide a backdrop for brightly colored cultivars and Gene’s creative hardscapes.

The couple bought their woodsy property in the northern Twin Cities suburb in 1967, shortly after they married. The yard was so shady that it was hard to get grass to grow, Lois said.

Back then, the couple didn’t know a lot about shade plants. And they were more focused on jobs and child-rearing than working in the yard. Inspiration came in the 1980s after they visited a nursery in Waseca that was overflowing with hostas.

“We didn’t realize how many types there are,” Gene said. “Hundreds of thousands of them. We saw how you could use hostas to create a beautiful garden, even in the shade.”

Natural intervention

Nature helped push the couple toward a more deliberate plan for their garden, after Dutch elm disease claimed a number of mature trees, and a 1997 storm took out several colossal oaks.

Today, the Waldowskis’ yard is a showcase for hostas and other plants that thrive among the shadows of towering trees. Leafy hostas of every size and shape are carefully placed to create a composition. Pale yellow hostas contrast against a sea of deep greens and dusty blues.

In the fall, the couple enjoy the fragrant perfume of plantaginea hosta. The largest variety is a four-year-old Empress Wu hosta, which will grow to more than 5 feet wide when mature.

Two hosta varieties are Gene’s own, cultivated from seed about 15 years ago, though he hasn’t taken the time to get them certified and officially registered. One is a medium-sized hosta he describes as “puckered blue,” both for its color and its cupped leaves, which hold water. The other has subtly variegated leaves that range from dark to light green. If he had to name it, he’d go with, “Chiaroscuro,” which in art is the use of strong contrasts of light and dark for dramatic effect.

“We hardly ever buy one now,” Gene said of their vast hosta collection. “It has to be uniquely different.”

The gardens, which were featured on a 2004 tour sponsored by the Minnesota Hosta Society, reflect Gene’s creative flair as well as his proclivity for exactness. He taught art and math until retiring in 1997 from Park Center in the Osseo school district.

“Yep,” he laughed, “both sides of the brain.”

His artistic skills are reflected in the pottery, sculptures and whimsical concrete casts of frogs and toads that he created to accent numerous garden areas. Square tiles that he designed flank a sizable three-level flower bed with a water fountain in a ceramic vase, also made by Gene.

That same tile pattern appears elsewhere in the yard — as a back wall to a stately fountain near the street and along a terraced flower bed cut into a hillside.

In one of many displays of Gene’s logical yet creative mind, a garden area is set off by numerous distinctive steppingstones, each with a grooved circular pattern. He made the stones by pouring concrete into the inexpensive plastic trays that sit under potted plants.

“One bag of concrete, and you get six or seven of them,” he said.

Despite his love of the hosta plant, Gene admits “there’s only so much you can do with them.” To amp up the color and contrast, he cultivates annuals in his greenhouse. This past spring, he planted 720 annuals that he started from seeds, 356 coleus from cuttings and 110 caladiums from bulbs.

A gardener’s roots

Gene grew up in Danvers, Minn., population 130. His mother, who liked plants and dabbled in the garden, was an influence. But mainly, Gene said, small-town living just made him “used to raising stuff.”

He met Lois in 1963 when he arrived at what was then called Capitol View Junior High School in Little Canada. He was a student teacher, and she was in her first year of teaching. They became a team, which has continued into their garden, where their partnership provides balance.

His approach is structured; hers is more free-form. They both like to experiment and don’t sweat it when things don’t work out.

“You don’t learn if you don’t try new things,” Gene said.

Gardening, he added, has been good for their marriage.

“Except when we don’t agree,” he added.

Lois, who likes a sense of order, keeps a log of every hosta they’ve ever purchased, noting the year they bought it and where it came from. The list now fills three books.

“I like to keep track of what I have and what its name is,” she said. “I don’t like it when he buys things and he doesn’t know the name of it.”

They also differ on how to place hostas in the garden.

“I like to leave them alone, while my husband likes to put his plants close together,” Lois said. “That’s the math background. That’s why I like grasses better than he does.”

Since retiring, the Waldowskis have spent most winters in Florida, where Gene golfs — and doesn’t think about gardening. Their son, who lives in Coon Rapids, waters the plants that Gene saves inside the house — dozens and dozens of them, according to Lois — so he can make cuttings come spring.

Their life as snowbirds makes for a short gardening season in Minnesota, Gene said, but he always looks forward to returning and getting dirt under his fingernails. “It’s just so peaceful here.”

A quote he read years ago sums up the joy he gets from the outdoor work. A woman was asked why she gardened.

“Her response was, ‘She grew vegetables to nourish the body and flowers to nourish the soul,’ ” Gene said. “I feel the same way.”