Gardeners Dan and Nancy Engebretson regarded an unfinished, weed-infested walking path as an opportunity, not an eyesore.

"We could look at a weed patch forever," said Dan, "or do something about it."

The builder of their Elysian, Minn., townhome development had gone bankrupt during the housing meltdown and never installed the promised landscaping — assorted spirea and arborvitae and a walking path for residents.

So, armed with shovels, wheelbarrows and piles of mulch, the Engebretsons cleared out buckthorn and grapevines, and planted what has become a mini-arboretum that draws people from the neighborhood.

Dan's casual, country garden design is a fusion of color, texture, shape and form with lots of repetition, as the beds flow across the spacious common grounds and down to the shore of Lake Tustin.

The couple are also environmentally conscious, thoughtfully choosing deep-rooted plants and shrubs that filter out pollutants before rainwater reaches the lake.

"They are very giving people of their time and resources," said Barb Judd, an appreciative neighbor who lives in the development and nominated the Engebretsons for the Beautiful Gardens contest. "It's gorgeous, full of life," Judd said of the gardens the Engebretsons created, "and there's always something blooming."

Dream come true

The Engbretsons never expected to take on the role of garden saviors. In 2006, they bought a townhome in the complex to be closer to Nancy's job in St. Peter, Minn.

Their unit had a screened porch and walkout lower level, but the couple were the most excited about the large yard, which had room for front and back gardens.

"It was the fulfillment of a dream," said Dan, who said if he had a career do-over, he would have become a landscape designer instead of working in the wholesale distributing business. "We've had gardens before, but never this much land."

Right after moving in, they enhanced the "builder basic" front yard by planting maple and birch trees, surrounded by pink shrub roses, purple salvia and a variety of annuals.

Next, the couple tackled the grass-only back yard by building a berm to elevate the garden beds and "give plants another dimension," said Dan. They anchored the berm with a mugo pine and an aspen, then created a maroon-and-gold color scheme (to honor Dan's alma mater) by planting Tiger Eyes sumac in contrast to wine-hued barberry and ninebark bushes. For highlights, they wove in some Limelight hydrangeas, coneflowers and other cottage-style perennials.

To create borders, they lined their garden beds with stones, which they helped haul from a retired neighbor's farm fields. "The stones' texture and color contrast nicely with the evergreens and the landscaping for a casual country-type look," said Dan. "And the big boulders are a place to sit down."

The Engebretsons were perfectly content with the lush landscape they had created until some of their water garden-loving friends insisted that they add a water feature. So Dan, who had by then retired, decided to take advantage of the natural slope on the side of the house. His design includes a waterfall that flows into a 35-foot-long stream that spills into a sizable pond.

Ron Greenwald from Greenwald's Nursery in Elysian helped him install the rubber liner and pump. Dan planted white birch and eastern pine at the top of the waterfall "for a North Woods twist," and terraced clumps of coreopsis, coneflowers and tall grasses to soften the edge of the koi-stocked pond.

"The pond is my crowning success," Dan admitted. "I fought against it because I knew it would be a lot of work — especially laying the rocks. We're not spring chickens anymore."

Gardens for all

The most rewarding gardens, however, are in the common areas of the townhome complex. The trees and plants attract birds and wildlife and the garden benches offer tranquil views of LakeTustin through the branches of staghorn sumac.

Once their gardens were done, Dan proposed that they design and plant trees, shrubs and flowers in the common area down by the lake's shoreline. "Nancy said, 'Are you insane?' " recalled Dan. "But she gave in — and it wouldn't have gotten done without her."

Dan presented a landscape design to the board of the townhome association, which enthusiastically embraced it. Then the Engbretsons dug in.

They brought in black dirt and created a backbone for the garden by planting river birch, crabapple trees and arborvitae. Next, they terraced with layers of deep-rooted plants such as coneflowers, little bluestem, rudbeckia and dogwoods.

Each summer, Dan and Nancy expanded the beds, thoughtfully choosing plants to deliver season-long color — from tulips, daffodils and forsythia in the spring to clumps of mums and grasses in the fall "We did it in different stages," said Nancy. "So it didn't feel so overwhelming."

For the last phase, they planted a triangle-shaped island garden. In the center they placed an iron bench donated as a memorial by neighbors whose son had died.

Dan and Nancy left a large grassy area open where the townhome association sets up tables for potluck dinners. "People bring their kids and company on the weekends to tour the gardens," said Dan.

Since they moved to Elysian, the Engebretsons have given much to their Lakeview Manor townhome community, including passing on their knowledge of environmentally friendly gardening. But they've also reaped their own rewards.

"My job can be intense," said Nancy, a social worker at the Community Behavioral Health Hospital in St. Peter. " I just like being outside and the physical aspect of working in the gardening. It's relaxing."

Their gardening ventures have strengthened the couple's relationship, said Dan. "It's taught me how to collaborate and communicate with my wife."

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619