At the end of a typical summer day, Doug Peine and Christine Scotillo lounge in wicker wingback chairs, resting their tired feet on green footstools. Peine cradles their dog, Gracie, in his lap.
But you won’t find the comfy couple inside their St. Paul home. Peine and Scotillo are sitting on what appears to be a “floating deck” in the middle of a pond in their backyard.
And in place of throw pillows and artwork, they’ve decorated with nature’s accessories — textural ornamental grasses, variegated hosta and pots packed with colorful coleus in their garden-style living room.
It’s their idyllic “lake” getaway home without the long drive.
“We live out here in the summer, where we no longer can hear traffic and city noise,” said Scotillo.
“It’s our sanctuary in the middle of the city,” added Peine.
Within their compact yard, the resourceful couple have managed to create five other sitting areas — from a sunken terrace to a dry-stack stone fire pit.
Peine and Scotillo’s urban gardenscape is one of six chosen by a panel of judges from more than 175 submissions in this year’s Beautiful Gardens contest.
It took 15 summers of digging, planting and stacking stone to create the couple’s lush verdant landscape.
“We were both retired lawyers who knew nothing about gardening,” said Scotillo.
In fact, this glorious combination of stone and greenery probably would not have existed if “we could have grown a lush lawn,” joked Peine.
The couple inherited a deeply shaded backyard when they bought their 1930s Dutch Colonial in 1993. With thick maples and elms, it was impossible to grow a lush carpet of grass. Weeds and creeping Charlie flourished.
Although they were novice gardeners, Peine and Scotillo were energized by a friend who had transformed a commercial building’s gravel parking area by bringing in soil and creating a stone walkway past flowers and shrubs.
“It was magical,” said Peine. “It showed how you can turn a small piece of land into a secret garden.”
Each spring, the couple would focus on one section of their backyard and choose plantings to accent a sitting area.
When they lost an elm tree, it opened up slivers of part sun and shade for new garden beds.
“The sun moves around the yard all day long,” said Scotillo. With multiple seating areas, “you can sit in the sun or in the shade.”
Peine, who is as handy as HGTV’s “Property Brothers” combined, built all the wood decks, stone borders and walls, a fire pit, pond and flagstone paths that curve past the hosta and boxwood hedges.
He composed the hardscape using jagged-edged sandstone, limestone and shale that’s abundant in the Mississippi River Valley. “The stone gives it age and history,” he said of their gardens.
Before long, the couple became known as the block’s stone collectors, hauling neighbors’ freebies to their yard in wheelbarrows.
“Stacking stone takes patience — it’s like doing a puzzle,” said Peine, who obviously enjoys it.
In fact, after Peine stacked a low half-circle stone wall, it sparked the idea to put in the pond, and “bring the lake to the backyard,” he said.
So in 2011, the couple dug a 3,000-gallon pond by hand inside the low stone wall, which now takes up a third of the backyard.
“If you want drama, you have to go big,” said Peine.
Scotillo agreed. “If you can step across it — that’s a puddle, not a pond.” Their son Nick jokingly calls it “Lake Inferior.”
The pond is bordered by ornamental grasses, astilbe and big-balled Annabelle hydrangeas. Two pond bubblers create movement and deliver gurgling music.
“We like having the pond clear of water plants so your eye can rest,” said Scotillo.
The living-room style round deck gives the illusion of floating in the middle of the pond, but Peine actually built it on a peninsula of land. It’s a favorite spot to be warmed by the afternoon sun in the spring and fall.
Another summer, the couple turned an area of scrub trees into a dry-stacked limestone half-circle fire pit.
Scotillo had shown Peine a photo from a magazine, and asked “Can you make this?”
He built it next to the pond for a dramatic “juxtaposition of fire and water,” he said. But it wasn’t as easy as copying a photo.
“You can’t always find the perfect stones that fit together,” said Peine, who ended up tearing down his first attempt and completely rebuilding it. But it was worth it.
When plant foliage is dead and dried up, “We’re out there wrapped in a blanket in front of the roaring fire in the middle of winter,” said Scotillo.
When the couple first established their gardens, they realized shade-loving hosta were the way to go and gladly accepted divisions from neighbors.
“We don’t have enough knowledge to grow exotic plants, so we just keep it simple,” said Scotillo, who chooses the varieties and designs the beds. “Hydrangeas and hosta are my go-tos for part sun and shade.”
For the rare sunny strips, she’s infused bursts of color with wine-hued daylilies, purple coneflowers and deep pink William Baffin climbing roses.
The couple became enamored of English-style boxwood hedges during a trip to Virginia. “We wondered if we could grow them here,” said Scotillo.
They found Minnesota-hardy varieties, which are easy to prune and shape, disease- and rabbit-resistant, and a lovely complement to their collection of stone finials.
They’ve also found inspiration during wintertime sojourns to Savannah, Ga. It’s impossible to replicate a Southern garden in Minnesota, Peine admitted. “But we’ve learned from their laissez-faire attitude of going with the flow and letting nature direct you.”
And they’ve admired — and copied — the design strategies of historic district Savannah gardeners inside their tiny yards.
“We create different levels of terrain to add interest and mystery,” said Peine. Scotillo weaves a tapestry of plants with a variety of contrast, shape, texture and color, which are revealed as you walk down the path.
“Our landscape is rough-hewn and quirky, but it works for us,” said Peine. And it’s ever-evolving.
By the end of fall, Peine and Scotillo agree that their gardens are complete, and they’re content with their outdoor living rooms.
But then the next spring, “We talk about all the things we want to change,” said Scotillo. “That’s why it’s so much fun.”