Aside from being well tended, the sparse planting in Curtis and Diane Dutcher's front yard gives no indication of what lies behind their Brooklyn Park home:

Swaths of burgeoning phlox and prehensile ferns, tidy rows of shrub roses and astilbes, birdbaths galore, a Victorian chair here and a perpetual fountain there.

It's the very picture of order, clearly the execution of a meticulous game plan. Except ...

"The planning is always backwards," said Curtis Dutcher. "We'll see something we like at Dundee or Tangletown [garden centers] and go, 'OK, where are we gonna put it?' and she'll say, 'OK, I'll find a place.'"

There are scant few places available in the Dutchers' 8,000-square-foot back yard, where they have concocted a multilayered cottage garden over 15 years. Still, if that was the master plan, they definitely picked the wrong property.

"This is just terrible soil here, heavy clay," said Curtis Dutcher, 72. "You can make a lot of pots with clay, but you can't grow flowers in it."

They needed a Bobcat to dig out their first two plots, and "we kept finding chunks of old tires back there," he said. Added Diane, 65: "I never thought about anybody having anything other than black, rich soil."

Undaunted, or maybe only slightly daunted, they kept at the digging and planting. But it's telling that one year Curtis came up with a rather unusual birthday gift for his wife: a truckload of dirt.

"My girlfriend gave me a hard time the next year," the recipient recalled. "She said, 'Diane, are you getting dirt for your birthday again?'"

Four gardens in one

But, of course, transforming crummy soil into a garden that looks as though it could have been airlifted from the Cotswolds cannot be accomplished without at least some planning and organization.

The Dutchers, who soon will celebrate their 38th anniversary, divvy up some duties -- "I'm the dirt guy," Curtis said, "and she's the brains" -- and collaborate on others. They plant trees together, and when it came time to lay a path with round stones, "he dug, I put them in, and we both stomped on them," Diane said.

The result is part of a series of paths that divide the yard into four gardens: a three-tiered slope with oceans of purple and pink phlox, coneflowers, delphinium and roses; a sun/shade space with irises, shrub roses, peonies, Russian sage, daisies and other flowers; a smaller plot with a raft of daffodils in the spring and daylilies throughout the summer (deadheaded for renewed blooms), and a large shade area festooned with ferns, hostas and hydrangeas.

That's not counting 45 pots near the patio, or several plants hanging from the deck, or the clematis-smothered arbor, or the five birdbaths, or the arborvitae and trees that, as Diane put it, "make a wonderful backdrop for a cottage garden."

The wide-ranging array even includes orphans -- droopy hydrangea bushes discarded by a disappointed friend "that are just fine way in the back," Diane said -- and the occasional straggler, like a hosta with brilliant purple flowers that remains unidentified. "It came in the pot with a Stella d'Oro," she said with a chuckle.

Plants on the move

Except for one ash and two oak trees, the Dutchers planted everything in the yard themselves, starting with three peonies.

Countless trips to Tangletown and mail orders from White Flower Farms later, they have everything where they want it, thanks to a fair share of transplanting.

"If you make a mistake, you can change it," Curtis said. "It's not like investing with Bernie Madoff. If something doesn't work, you can move it."

Besides their own enjoyment, the goal all along was for the yard to be a haven for the birds and the bees.

On a sultry August afternoon, the bee balm was more than doing its nominal job, and sundry birds flitted about. Over the course of a summer, the Dutchers welcome more than 30 varieties of feathered friends, including pheasants, owls, indigo buntings, cedar waxwings and four types of woodpeckers.

Plus some permanent residents: A family of robins nests under their raised deck, and a nearby log-cabin birdhouse "was supposed to be a decoration," Diane said, "but the wrens got it."

Which fits right in with what every gardener learns about those best-laid plans.

"I actually had a plan," she said. "But the garden has kind of done its own thing."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643