A garden is always a reflection of the gardener, but Judy Alm's garden is a closer likeness than most.

When you first encounter Alm and her garden, you see their vibrant, free-spirited side. For a late-summer photo shoot, she donned a floral sarong, posed like the professional model she was for many years, and then, with infectious enthusiasm, led a tour of the garden she's tended for more than 40 years.

"Rub the leaves," she said, pointing to a popcorn plant. "Now smell your hands. Smells just like popcorn, doesn't it? Isn't that a hoot?"

The garden was ornamented with mirrors and silver serving trays and twinkle lights and wine bottles, a bubble machine and even a hockey stick, in honor of her husband, Larry, a former Gophers player. Not to mention all her garden sculptures, the kind you buy in stores (butterflies and peacocks), and the kind you salvage (an old lawnmower and their kids' rusty Radio Flyer wagon).

"It's cluttered, but I like it," she said of her English-style country garden.

She has seen and admired other people's gardens -- "with air around everything" -- but that's not her style.

Nor is going monochromatic. "I love color, color, color," she said. While she's partial to blues, purples and whites, she doesn't limit herself to those hues.

"I think you can put every color together," she said. Her palette shifts with the seasons. "In the spring, the buttercups are solid yellow. In the summer, it's more lavender from the phlox. In fall, the sedums take over. My favorite time is June -- when everything is blooming."

Careful arrangement

That's not to say it's a free-for-all. Alm's whimsical side is grounded by a discerning, disciplined eye. She pays close attention to proportion, scale, texture and form, she said. "Arranging by height is so important. I love elevating pots. Makes 'em more showy."

She masses colors for impact, and anchors her rainbow-bright plant palette with cobalt blue, the color she chooses for many of her containers and the color paint she sprays on many structural elements, including a birdbath, an old clothesline pole, a "big ugly basket that I got at a garage sale," and even a vintage tricycle. The repeated color helps unify her garden visually and create a mood. "Blue makes it romantic," she said.

The Alms, who met on a blind date and celebrated their 50th anniversary last year, were relative newlyweds when they bought the house in Richfield. "This was my first house and my first garden," Judy said. "I taught myself. I did all the brick walk. I did everything. I've never used any professionals, although my husband cuts the grass." He also built her potting shed, she noted.

Year after year, her garden has grown, until it now covers their front, back and side yards -- and beyond. "I garden into the neighbor's yard," she said. "They don't care."

Alm makes the most of what's at hand. The three big circular beds in her back yard were born after a home-remodeling project. "When we did our addition, we had big piles of sand," she said. "Instead of hauling it away, I said, 'How about I make gardens and put dirt on top?'" The island-like berms surrounded by lawn now are a profusion of textures and colors.

She hangs bird feeders on her kids' old swing set and planters on the old clothesline pole that was there when they bought the house. "A lot of people would have ripped those out, but they came in kind of handy," she said.

'Created a monster'

Her garden has kept them rooted to their first home. "We didn't move because of my garden. My husband says, 'You've created a monster,'" she said with a laugh.

Ask Alm how she's evolved as a gardener, and she says, "I've gotten better." In addition to honing her horticultural skills, she's also fine-tuned her artistic eye. "My brother Harlan Zieska is a wildlife artist; maybe I got a little artistic talent," she said. Her garden has been featured on two tours and recently won a landscape award from the city of Richfield.

She's always striving to improve her garden, taking photos of other people's gardens to get ideas, and photos of her own to study and learn from. She's also a copious note-taker. "I write down year to year what I want to do differently," she said.

Last year, for example, she resolved to plant more dragon-wing begonias this year. "I love them. I'm going to do tons more," she said. "I think it's my favorite flower. Bugs don't bother 'em. There's no upkeep. You fertilize them, and that's it."

While Alm isn't a zone-pusher and sticks mostly to Zone 3 and 4 perennials, she does augment them liberally with tropical plants. She loves elephant ear. "Dramatic!" And mandevilla. "They're the best." And some tropical foliage plant she chose for its big magenta leaves. "I don't know what it is, but I love it!" And ferns. "Ferns galore," she said. "They make it look like Hawaii." Not that she's been there. "We've been a lot of places, but not Hawaii," she said.

She treats her tropicals like annuals, enjoying them for the summer, then saying goodbye. "I've wintered elephant ears and hibiscus but it's too much work," she said.

Her expansive garden is work enough, especially in the spring. Sometimes she gardens for seven hours straight. "Gardening is great exercise," said Alm, who golfs in the summer, downhill ski races in the winter and works out three times a week year-round. "Got to get my legs in shape for skiing," she said.

Even more important, a garden is great therapy, she said. "If you feel a little down, which I hardly ever do, you come out in the morning and think, 'Isn't this beautiful!' Our world's kind of a mess. Why not keep the things around you beautiful?"

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784