After years of living in the ancient farmhouse where her husband, Paul, was raised, Cyndi Maas was itching for a new home.
“I wanted to design my own house,” said Cyndi. She envisioned a one-story Craftsman-style dwelling that nestled into its site. “I’m a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright and using your topography to envelop your house,” she said.
So the couple sold the old farmhouse and had it moved across the road. Their expansive garden, so showy that it had been featured on garden tours, had to go, too.
“She said, ‘I want to tear it all out and start over,’ ” Paul recalled.
But not from scratch. The couple decided to keep their existing trees, shrubs and plants — then rearrange them to complement the new house.
“I said, ‘I will dig up all the plants and move ’em,’ ” Cyndi said. “Hundreds of plants … hostas … daylilies. Any perennial I had, I moved. The weeping crab was moved twice.”
She refused to take no for an answer. When the Maases consulted a tree service about moving their big pagoda dogwood, they were told it wasn’t possible.
“We showed the tree mover. He said, ‘Can’t do it. Can’t get the big equipment in,’ ” Paul said. But Cyndi was determined to keep the tree. She resolved to do it “the old-fashioned way” and started digging with a shovel. In the end, they found a neighbor with a skid loader to help them unearth the tree. “It’s doing great,” Paul said of the transplanted dogwood.
For more than a year, all the couple’s trees, shrubs and perennials grew in temporary beds while their new house was being built by a crew made up primarily of extended-family members. The Maases, meanwhile, took up residence in Paul’s brother’s basement.
In 2007, their new house was completed, and it was time to rebuild the garden. “We didn’t hire any help,” Paul said, despite the fact that both of them had other full-time jobs at the time (Cyndi as a graphic designer, Paul as a farmer growing corn and soybeans).
They started with the hardscape, teaming up to build their long rock wall together. “We’d get up at 5, work a couple hours, build the wall, then go to work.” Paul said.
“In the evening, we did a few more hours,” Cyndi added.
Cyndi is the self-taught plant specialist. “I read a lot,” she said. She “shopped” their temporary beds like it was her own private nursery, deciding which plants would go where, and combining them to create contrasting textures and masses of color.
“I gravitate toward Japanese influences,” she said, including design to create year-round interest. There was no written garden plan; she designed the landscape by instinct.
“She had a vision. It’s all in her head, and I can’t look in there,” Paul said.
Rocks and metal
Paul’s specialty is rocks. “Being a farmer, anytime I find a nice rock, I haul it here. I keep adding rocks. But Cyndi says, ‘Less is more.’ ”
Now that the garden is complete, he limits his contributions to only the most unusual rocks, he said, pointing out a boulder streaked with vivid striations of rust and salmon.
Paul also keeps an eye out for interesting salvaged materials that can be repurposed as garden art.
“I’m a scrounger,” he said. “You can go to the scrap yards and get hundreds of things.” He scouts Owatonna, where there are multiple manufacturing plants with rusted metal discards. “Cyndi has the final say on what makes it into the garden,” he said. “She says ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down.’ ”
Their garden showcases a massive gong made from a rusted oxygen tank, a flower-like rotary-hoe blade, and a metal planter that once was part of a rock crusher, resting on a tall rock pedestal. “It has a beautiful shape,” Paul said of the curved metal structure.
Keeping all their existing plants allowed the Maases to skip that tiny-plant phase that usually comes along with the territory when building and landscaping a new home.
Trees, shrubs and other big plants were repositioned to make the most of their new site. The row of arborvitae that used to line the driveway to the old farmhouse now forms a backdrop in their backyard, screening the view of the working farm and its equipment. “We always say Cyndi’s in farm denial. We put ’em there so you can’t see the farm,” Paul said.
In addition to the landscape that envelops their new house, the Maases added even more garden features, including a dry streambed and a big edibles bed where they grow veggies and herbs. There’s also a quaint garden shed, a miniature version of their Craftsman-style house.
A missionary from Africa once toured their garden, and when he reached the shed, he asked “Who’s living here?”
“Tools,” Paul replied. “He told us this would be the nicest house where he lives. It made me think about what we have. We’re blessed.”
Although sometimes it’s more of a blessing than they bargained for. If Cyndi had a do-over, she’d create a smaller, more manageable garden, she admitted.
“This is pretty close to what I was thinking,” she said, in terms of how the garden lines up with her original vision. “But it’s more than I want. I try to have fun. It’s meditative and therapeutic. But if I did it again, I would make less garden.”
Paul nodded and laughed. “She created a monster.”