The Japanese garden appears so calm, so removed from its origins as a heart-racing, chance-taking, Google-fueled labor of amateur love.
Its creators, Marlon Reynosa and Maureen Reynosa-Braak, are proof that you don’t have to know all the Latin names if you have enough enthusiasm.
“People walking by always ask, ‘Did you go to school to learn this?’ ” Reynosa-Braak said of the artful mix of greenery, textures and shapes in their front yard, riven by a white path that runs through the plants like a ray of moonlight.
Reynosa smiled and shrugged: “You don’t have to be an expert to do something you like.”
He’s not entranced by technology, but “Thank god for Google,” he added. Online searching has helped the couple research plant varieties, source materials and envision garden designs. Most crucially, it enabled Reynosa-Braak to nurse their trio of Hindu-Pan pines back to health after a tough winter took its toll.
The carefully pruned trees look like giant bonsai, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. Each appears to hover on a slight rise, yet they anchor the garden, which encompasses every inch of the yard, from front stoop to curb.
The couple moved into Minneapolis’ Longfellow neighborhood 12 years ago, loving the classic bones of their house, but knowing that the yard would be a challenge.
“The front yard was all crappy grass and this sort of ‘Blair Witch’ crabapple tree that was poorly pruned to keep squirrels off the roof,” Reynosa-Braak said.
Yet they first devoted their attention to the backyard, which was even more daunting, full of river rock that once had supported an aboveground swimming pool “and weeds to our knees.” The couple hired a friend to excavate the rock, then began doing what they had never done before: plant stuff.
“Now we’re addicted to gardening, which is a big problem,” Reynosa said, laughing.
“Marlon jokes that he can see my heart rate increase when we approach the garden center,” Reynosa-Braak said. Usually, that garden center is Gertens in Inver Grove Heights.
They learned, with the help of staffers and a willingness to experiment. A privacy hedge to disguise the chain-link fence isn’t a homogenous stretch of lilacs, but a half-dozen different shrubs, such as viburnums and willows. The mix draws attention to itself, in a good way.
Determined not to have a blade of grass in sight, Reynosa began laying a flagstone path in a tightly spaced mosaic, with each stone cut to fit. As they were more or less making this up as they went along, there were some conflicting visions.
“We’d argue in Spanish so no one would know what we were arguing about,” joked Reynosa, who grew up in Guatemala. Reynosa-Braak has roots in Iowa.
Today, the backyard is lush with shade plants, and a space is set aside for a future pond. “I close my eyes and I think I’m in Guatemala,” Reynosa said.
A potted dieffenbachia with long variegated leaves was a favorite of Reynosa’s mother, who died last year.
“What did she call it? The leaf of luck,” he said. “She said the leaves look like they are knives, so wherever there is bad luck, they will cut it out. She would put leaves on the dinner table. We bring it in over the winter, trying to keep it healthy. I see it and feel like she is here, too.”
Painting with plants
Reynosa-Braak cannot recall what inspired them to create a Japanese garden, only that she painted a watercolor depiction of what such a garden could be, and there was no looking back.
Her art education has come in handy throughout the garden design process, although she works as a marketing researcher, after “deciding that I needed a real job.” Reynosa works with a home-restoration business.
Again, a friend excavated the couple’s front yard down to bare dirt, and they boosted the soil with a 50-50 mixture of compost and manure.
Gertens delivered nine boulders — a Japanese garden always has an odd number — in various proportions to establish the garden’s shape. Reynosa spent several weekends carefully digging out from under where several were placed to settle them a little more deeply into the earth, “so they would look like they’d been here for years.”
From there, they created raised berms for the Hindu-Pan trees and played with combinations of color and texture — junipers and yews, elderberry and woolly thyme, nine-bark and false cypress.
“It feels like painting with plants,” Reynosa-Braak said. She freely confesses to not remembering the names of certain plants, although they’re probably written down somewhere.
The path of white stones is their most recent project, postponed several times as they searched for the right shade of white.
Some stones were grayish, or brownish, or too brilliantly white, or the wrong size. Finally, at Hedberg Landscape and Masonry Supplies in Plymouth, they found the right rock: Fort Dodge white limestone in ⅜-inch pieces.
In a Japanese garden, such a path is meant to simulate a river, so it curves and bends. “We have such a small lot, we’ve tried to create the illusion of space by drawing the eye back as the ‘river’ disappears around the side of the house,” Reynosa-Braak said.
To create the path, Reynosa dug a 2-foot-wide channel about 3 inches deep, then lined it with black cloth to discourage weeds. They added the white limestone, carefully creating a blurred edge.
“It would look goofy if there was a hard border,” Reynosa said, adding that additional ground cover will eventually create an even softer line.
Melding with the neighbors
A Japanese garden has a certain formality, perhaps due in part to its reverence for perfection — a quality with which Reynosa-Braak struggles.
“The idea is that the garden is in a perfect state at all times, so if a plant doesn’t look perfect, or is distressed, take it out. And that’s hard for us,” she said. Apart from cost, she believes in every plant getting a second (or third) chance. “Sometimes, I’ll just move it to a part of the garden that isn’t as visible.”
Such a garden’s distinctive look also could clash with neighbors’ yards, but the couple are fortunate in having a fellow green thumb to the north, whose lush stands of hydrangea, shrub roses, Joe-Pye weed and more provide a floral backdrop to their flowerless expanse.
Reynosa also built a rain garden for that neighbor, which helps blur the lines between the lots. The rock work echoes a low retaining wall he built to the south.
“Marlon is a natural craftsman,” his wife said. “I feel like his Mayan blood really comes out with this work.”
Last summer’s efforts were focused on adding more groundcover and planting junipers along the boulevard. Future projects include installing a water feature to run across the broad, sloping face of a large boulder. They took a class in bonsai last fall, which deepened their Eastern sensibilities.
“The garden still feels like a juvenile,” Reynosa-Braak said. “It’s a work in progress. But we have more ideas than real estate.”
“And thank God,” Reynosa chimed in, in praise of the finite nature of a city yard. “Or we’d be really poor.”