Editor’s note: This story concludes our series showcasing last year’s Beautiful Gardens winners. We’ll select this year’s winners later this growing season. Watch for a call for entries soon.

Poor soil, scant sunlight and a small enclosed space hardly sounds like a recipe for an award-winning garden.

But that hasn’t stopped Stephanie and Fred Groth from creating one.

“We have very little to work with, but we’ve done the best we can,” said Stephanie of the secluded oasis in their Eagan backyard. “It’s our little sanctuary.”

Their garden isn’t visible from the street or the house next door. It’s their secret — a place where they can enjoy breakfast, a good book or a glass of wine, surrounded by flowers and lush foliage. It’s also where they relax with their family and friends during the outdoor season.

“After those bleak months of winter, it’s so nice to have color,” Stephanie said.

There was no backyard garden when the Groths bought their house more than 20 years ago. In fact, there was barely a backyard. “It’s small with a lot of trees, and slopes steeply up at the back and sides — like being down in a little valley,” Fred said of the site.

The sunniest spot in the backyard was a patch of lawn in the corner at the top of a hill. “It was a useless little space,” recalled Stephanie. The couple’s sons, now grown, occasionally sunbathed there when they still lived at home. “But they had to lie at a tilt,” she recalled.

Maneuvering a lawn mower up and down the steep hill was “agonizing,” she added. One day, she decided there had to be a better use for the area. “I said, ‘This is so worthless!’ So my younger son and I dug it up, and I bought some plants.”

That improvement inspired the Groths to take things further and transform the spot into a more extensive garden. “We decided, ‘Let’s make this into something we can use and actually enjoy,’ ” Fred said.

They enlisted a neighbor with a backhoe to excavate and hired another neighbor to build a curving stair up the hill and a small round patio at the top.

Then they set about adding as much vegetation and color as they could, adapting to overcome the obstacles presented by their site, starting with the soil. “We have terrible Eagan soil — red clay — I could make pottery out of it,” Stephanie said.

So they had a load of black dirt dumped in their driveway. The only way to transport it into the enclosed backyard was to hand-carry it in 5-gallon pails.

Stephanie took charge of garden design. “I had no plan. I just go to the nursery and grab. I like a lot of pink and white and blue,” she said.

Fred, who worked on a landscaping crew one summer after college, added hardscape. He built an arbor and a cedar-strip lattice at the back of the garden to support climbing plants. “I ad-libbed that, just to mask the [retaining wall],” he said. He also built a small pond to add the soothing sound of burbling water — and hand-picked Japanese beetles to control the pests without using chemicals. “I’m very concerned abut bees,” Stephanie said.

Their two dogs, both rescue Labs, help with rabbit control.

“Before we had dogs, it was a rabbit resort — the rabbits were literally lying on their backs and having a delicious salad at our expense,” said Stephanie. “The dogs make a big difference.”

A learning curve

Over the years, the Groths have learned what works in their garden through trial and error. “We had to have roses. We both love them,” Fred said.

Stephanie took a class to learn the Minnesota tip method of burying hybrid tea roses to survive the winter. “We tipped the first few years, in front,” said Fred. But they lost a lot of roses, particularly during the polar vortex winter two years ago, and have had much better luck with hardy shrub roses. “Now we try to be more zone-conscious.”

They also tried growing tomatoes, without much success. “We have such limited sun,” Stephanie said. “We got giant plants that produced no fruit.”

Over the years, Stephanie also has honed her eye for garden design. She chooses plants with the aim of having something blooming all season long.

“A lot of plants that have vibrant color don’t grow in the shade,” she said. So she gets the color she craves using hardy perennials, including hydrangeas, tree peonies, lilies and honeysuckle vines, then augments with annuals such as begonias, impatiens and nasturtiums. “I love nasturtiums! I use them in cooking,” she said, adding the peppery leaves to salads and the bright blooms as a colorful garnish.

She also combines different greens and textures to create visual interest when flowers are scant.

“Thank goodness for hosta,” said Fred of the shade-loving foliage plant. Stephanie is not a big fan, however. “My goal is no hostas — they’re kind of boring,” she said. “But they’re good for adding different greens.”

The Groths love to travel and visit gardens for inspiration. A favorite is Butchart Gardens near Vancouver, British Columbia. “You feel like you’re closed in, with little garden rooms,” said Stephanie, an ambience they’ve tried to replicate in their garden, which feels cloistered and a bit mysterious — “like an adult fairy garden.”

The Chicago Botanical Gardens and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum are other inspirations. “We have such a wealth of resources here in the Twin Cities,” said Stephanie. “I’ve taken many pictures and tried to replicate. Unfortunately, not all of what we see we can do here, because it’s so shady.”

She also borrows ideas for garden decor, such as the giant outdoor chandelier that hangs from a tree. “I made it out of a tomato cage, then wrapped it with white Christmas lights and cheesy strings of Mardi Gras beads,” said Stephanie. The Groths had seen a similar chandelier, handmade by the hostess, at a summer solstice party. “I was so enamored, I copied it.”

The Groths’ secret garden is now mature but remains, like most gardens, a work in progress. “It’s never done,” said Stephanie. “That’s the fun of it. There’s always something more to do.”

Their heavy clay soil is a continuing challenge. “Every year, we amend the soil,” said Stephanie. “We add acid, sheep manure and mushroom compost.”

Fortunately, she’s come to love garden chores. “There’s nothing more relaxing than digging in the dirt — it feels so good,” she said.

Fred shares her enthusiasm — to a point. “We can’t wait to get going in the spring,” he said. “But by the end of summer, we’re kind of tired and ready for projects indoors.”