Mother Nature works in mysterious ways.
All gardeners know that, of course. But Sally Strand might not even be a gardener were it not for Mother Nature at her most freakish.
In 2003, a massive storm dumped 7 inches of rain on her Plymouth neighborhood. “The water was up to your waist all over our cul-de-sac,” she said. When it receded, there was a ridge in their front yard covered in clay.
Where some might see an obstacle, Sally sensed an opportunity. “I looked at it and said ‘What can I do with that?’ It looked like a crane, so I decided to do a Japanese garden. It was gardening from necessity.”
Today her Big Crane Garden is but one of many Asian-inspired plots that provide solace, serenity and more than a little beauty throughout the property tended by Sally and her husband, Jim. A Zen Garden here, a Tea Garden there, the Moon Gate Garden out back. And of course, Asiatic lilies everywhere.
The Strands’ haven is a striking dose of the Far East brought to the Midwest by accident. And it’s a far cry from that harrowing day 11 years ago, when her “front yard was a disaster and the back yard was a disaster.”
Back then, Sally had a vision. Problem was, “I didn’t know a daylily from an Asiatic lily,” she admitted. So, at age 57, she dove headfirst into a continuing-education curriculum that continues to this day. She also used Twin Cities Japanese gardens as her classroom.
“I went and studied what they do at Como, Normandale and the Arboretum,” she said.
She learned about shapes and textures, symmetry and asymmetry, evergreens and bonsai. She studied linking elements such as paths and gates. And she came to appreciate the seemingly endless hues of green that complement and contrast in Asian gardens.
Strand also tried to master the Japanese concept of “shakkei,” or “borrowed vista.”
“You need to take into consideration your surroundings and incorporate that into your perspective,” said Strand. “See how your garden looks with that backdrop. Maybe you’ll have a great borrowed vista in your neighbor’s yard, or maybe you’ll want it to be just the top of the trees because their yard is a mess.”
Playing in clay
Luckily, the Strands didn’t have to work too hard to create a borrowed vista: Their back yard drops off to a channel, which leads to Bass Lake.
The size and location of their yard allowed them to create different and elaborate series of gardens where there had been nothing but grass and a single bush. “The previous owner was a golfer,” said Jim, “and the yard was like a golf course.”
In addition to their Asian gardens, they also created woodland and native gardens, plus a fairy garden for the grandkids. For several years, Jim said, new garden plots came fast and furious. “I’d come home from work, and there would be another garden.”
For Sally, digging in the dirt was like hearkening back to her youth. “We had a cabin in northern Wisconsin with a sandbar,” Sally said, “and I loved getting ferns and making trees and roads in the sand.”
Only this time around, she was working almost entirely in clay, which meant a lot of trial and error. “A lot of times when a plant didn’t do well, I would dig it up and put in bonsai,” she said.
Still, she found plenty of plants that did well in clay: cypress and juniper, irises and lilies, magnolia and tamarisk, as well as Solomon’s seal and Jacob’s ladder for the shady areas. One of her favorite plants never fails to get a chuckle out of Jim.
“That’s a weeping white pine,” he said. “If a plant has the word ‘weeping’ in it, we have it, or we have had it, or we will have it.”
As she added gardens, Sally was getting some serious on-the-job training in the importance of textures, shapes and colors. Sometimes all in one space.
“The Big Crane Garden is actually several gardens, with Chinese shapes,” she said. “The kidney represents the soul. I have round bushes the shapes of clouds. We have a gourd shape [representing long life] in one place, and fish.
“Texture is really important — the shapes of leaves and plants, because an Asian garden is almost totally green. So I also like to intersperse dots of colors, not in masses but in spots, because [they] stand out. I use red or orange or pink or salmon, which are part of the Asian concept. It might be a flower like begonias, or iris in spring and mums in fall.”
She also has incorporated an “indoor” collectible: Chinese “mudmen” statues that she started collecting in the 1990s.
“I thought, ‘Why have them all in the house in a glass case? Why not put them in a container?’,” she said.
Naturally, lanterns pop up throughout the property, along with other Asian-themed statuary. Despite its deep symbolism, there’s room in the Strands’ garden for a touch of whimsy. Hanging over the channel is a giant fishing pole, complete with an oversized reel, with colorful fish dangling from the end of the line.
Every stroll through her yard provides a new vista, Strand said. Even in winter.
“As the snow falls,” she said, “the Big Crane Garden creates a pretty mountain-like curvature.”
Bill Ward is a Twin Cities area freelancer. Follow him on Twitter @billward4