Karen and Emery Koenig are both natives of the Midwest. She's a "farm girl" from Madison, Minn., while he hails from North Dakota.

But the lush setting they've created around their home in Waconia takes its cues from Europe. The couple and their four children lived in Geneva for 10 years, from 1992 to 2002, while Emery, now retired, was working as a commodities trader for Cargill.

"In Switzerland, our family spent many, many hours in our backyard simply enjoying the quiet, peaceful immersion in a natural setting," Emery said. "Coming back to Minnesota, we really wanted to continue to enjoy our backyard in a similar way." In Europe, they absorbed ideas that eventually inspired their garden, one of six chosen from more than 150 nominations received by the Star Tribune last summer.

The columnar trees that add height and structure to punctuate the colorful flowers and foliage are just one example.

"I love this view here," said Karen, pointing to a vista framed by tall, slender evergreens. "It reminds me of Italy."

Emery appreciates that their garden gives them something pleasing to look at year-round, even in the dead of winter.

"This is as close as we could get to Switzerland — in Minnesota," he said.

The couple bought their house 20 years ago during their Swiss sojourn, with plans to use it as their "cabin" when they returned to Minnesota for vacations.

At that time, the house was just six years old, built on former pastureland, and there wasn't a garden.

"It was all grass," Karen recalled — plus a lot of nasty buckthorn.

The home's setting, however, was spectacular: 3 private acres on Reitz Lake, with many mature trees, including a spreading 100-year-old maple in the front yard.

"The land was so beautiful. I did see it and go, 'Wow!' " she said.

After they moved back to Minnesota in 2002, they began transforming their landscape. They tore out the buckthorn and planted specimen trees. They added perennial beds, a hosta glen and a raised-bed kitchen garden, filled with vegetables, including a bumper crop of kohlrabi. "It's expensive to buy, and easy to grow," Karen said.

The couple restored their shoreline to its natural state, planting wildflowers and sedges to attract birds and other wildlife.

Creating a koi pond and a hill

One of the most transformative changes was the addition of a large koi pond.

"I didn't think I wanted one," Karen said — until she saw an appealing pond on a garden tour. For that project, they turned to Countryview Landscape of Dayton. "Kent Olson is an artist. He laid it out with our garden hose."

The couple used the soil excavated for the pond to build a hill, creating a rolling topography that adds to the feeling of being in a quaint alpine setting.

Karen, who became a master gardener, designed their garden so something is always in bloom, and with an eye to creating distinct framed views, like a picture. "Old gardeners gave me good advice," she said.

It's been a long, steady labor of love.

"Gradually, we made changes," she said. "It emerged into what it is."

What it is today is a garden so irresistibly photogenic that it's been the setting for a wedding, a rehearsal dinner — and countless photo shoots.

"A lot of prom pictures have been taken on the bridge," said Emery of the curved footbridge that spans one end of the pond.

The couple have been able to grow just about everything they ever wanted, with a few exceptions. "I'd like blueberries, but we don't have the right type of soil, and I don't like to putz," Karen said. "Why fight with what you have?"

'Little piece of paradise'

The outdoor environment they've created together gives them a lot of pleasure. They swim and float in their koi pond, and enjoy entertaining or just savoring a glass of wine on their deck overlooking the view.

"It's our little piece of paradise," Karen said. "Sometimes I look at it and wonder, 'How did this happen?' … We even like our cottonwood tree. There's something magical about it. It looks like snow."

The garden isn't as labor-intensive as it appears.

"The garden now is so mature, it's not as hard to keep up," she said. "Most days it's not a hardship. I like putzing in the dirt."

Still, when fall comes, she's ready to turn her attention to something else.

"By October, I'm tired," she said. "I switch to quilting."