West cen­tral Edina is ram­bler coun­try, where low-slung houses sprawl across spa­cious lots, shaded by ma­ture trees. It's not the usu­al hab­i­tat of Ju­li­et bal­con­ies or front en­tran­ces flanked by classic statu­ary — ele­ments that make Brian Ellingson's home feel like it be­longs along the Medi­ter­ra­nean rather than in Minnesota.

Even more sur­pris­ing than Ellingson's state­ly vil­la is what hides behind it: a for­mal ter­raced gar­den lined with brick-pav­er and crushed-lime­stone paths, neat hedg­es and a tow­er­ing pa­vil­ion over­look­ing a lake. The grand scale and sweep­ing views re­sem­ble the grounds of a Eu­ro­pe­an es­tate. Ellingson's European-inspired garden is one of six chosen by a panel of judges from more than 175 submissions in this year's Beautiful Gardens contest.

Ellingson, an in­te­ri­or de­sign­er by trade, tends to dress with crisp flair (chunky specs, pressed ging­ham shirt, dark-wash jeans, wing­tips) and de­sign in a clas­sic style (his work has been fea­tured in Tra­di­tion­al Home). So while his land­scap­ing vi­sion mar­ries or­der­ly struc­ture with or­gan­ic de­tails, the loos­er ele­ments were just as me­tic­u­lous­ly con­sid­ered. "I hate to say it, but I'm prob­a­bly a bit of a con­trol freak," Ellingson ad­mit­ted.

The long view

Ellingson and his hus­band, Gary Domann, lived in a high-rise con­do near down­town Min­ne­ap­olis for more than two de­cades be­fore they bought their ¾-acre Edina prop­er­ty in 2003. Af­ter liv­ing 18 stor­ies up, what sold them was the back­yard vis­ta: a steep, bar­ren slope de­scend­ing to a small lake most­ly sur­round­ed by wood­ed city park­land.

The al­lure cer­tain­ly wasn't the ori­gi­nal house: a u­til­i­tar­i­an box that Ellingson and Domann com­plete­ly overhauled and topped with a se­cond sto­ry. When the home was com­plete, Ellingson, a Gabberts alum who now runs his own firm, Ellingson In­te­riors, set out to de­sign land­scap­ing suit­ed to the home's or­nate, Old World style.

Though Ellingson has traveled in Eu­rope and toured Mo­net's gar­dens in Giv­er­ny, France, most of his ideas came from a semi­nal tome on Eng­lish coun­try gardens, "Arts and Crafts Gardens," which blend struc­tured hedg­es with flow­er beds.

Ellingson de­cid­ed to save two map­les, an ever­green and an ash tree. Ev­er­y­thing else would be new.

Big­gest chal­lenge

From the front, the vil­la ap­pears nes­tled in green­er­y. It's pro­tect­ed from the street by a co­to­ne­as­ter hedge with a wave-shaped top; its fa­cade is wrapped in Bos­ton ivy.

This aes­thet­ic was no easy feat to achieve. Rab­bits munched the base of the hedge and mowed off the first 18 inch­es of the ivy, caus­ing what clung to the house to with­er and die.

Hun­gry bun­nies gir­dled a crab­ap­ple tree. They also ate the low­er branch­es of sev­er­al Degroot's Spire ar­bor­vi­tae, which Ellingson had cho­sen for their spin­dle-like re­sem­blance to Eu­rope's icon­ic cy­press trees. "I came out here one morn­ing, and I had to­pi­ar­ies," Ellingson re­called. He plant­ed daylilies around their bases to camou­flage the de­struc­tion.

Ellingson and Domann love their home's bu­col­ic set­ting: As soon as the trees leaf out, no homes are vis­i­ble across the shal­low lake. But the wild­life-friend­ly set­ting also posed the gar­den's great­est chal­lenge, of keep­ing crit­ters at bay.

"They eat ev­er­y­thing," Ellingson said of the rab­bits. "It's been a real bat­tle — an ed­u­ca­tion and an ex­pense." In ad­di­tion to those un­wel­come visi­tors, the cou­ple have spot­ted deer in their yard, and ob­served snap­ping tur­tles making an annu­al pil­grim­age to dig in the gar­den and lay their eggs.

Ellingson learn­ed to mod­i­fy his vi­sion for the gar­den in ord­er to pro­tect it. He's add­ed plants — pig squeak, lan­ta­na, per­en­ni­al ge­ra­ni­ums and "lem­on ball" se­dum a­mong them — that rab­bits tend to avoid.

A cast-a­lu­mi­num fence around the a­bun­dant flow­er bed be­side the drive­way has kept it largely safe from fau­na, though deer have been known to crane their necks over the top to eat blos­soms. A few baby bun­nies were able to squeeze be­tween the fence pick­ets be­fore Ellingson re­in­forced the bar­ri­er with chick­en wire.

At its peak, the flow­er bed bursts with peon­ies and daylilies in a vari­ety of hues, in­clud­ing the deep bur­gun­dy Bela Lu­go­si, named af­ter the ac­tor who played Count Drac­u­la. There are dahl­ias, bee balm and Joe Pye weed, phlox, black-eyed Susans, dai­sies and zin­nias. There's also as­par­a­gus and rhu­barb. "People think I'm stu­pid to have rhu­barb in a flow­er gar­den, but it works for me," Ellingson not­ed.

Though the flow­er gar­den now looks lush every sum­mer, it, too, was brought back from the brink af­ter creep­ing Charlie waged such an ag­gres­sive at­tack that Ellingson had all the plants re­moved, treat­ed the soil, and re­plant­ed.

The grand back­yard

The first step of Ellingson's mas­ter plan for the back­yard was to have three large re­tain­ing walls built into the steep slope. This es­tab­lished the axis for a grid of paths; some are formed by herring­bone-pat­tern brick pav­ers ex­tend­ing from the pa­ti­o, while oth­ers are sim­ple crushed-lime­stone aisles.

Tucked up against the house, a tim­ber per­go­la de­fines a spa­cious out­door liv­ing room. It's pro­tect­ed by a row of ar­bor­vi­tae on one side and a large stone fire­place on the oth­er. A bur­bling cast-stone foun­tain masks the sound of near­by free­way traf­fic. "As beau­ti­ful as the gar­den is, I want­ed to have a sense of in­ti­ma­cy," Ellingson ex­plained.

Now if only na­ture would be more gen­er­ous to the cozy space, which is ren­dered un­us­able during ex­ces­sive heat or rain. The chore of sweep­ing out the leaves and wip­ing down the fur­ni­ture can also be a de­ter­rent, Ellingson ad­mit­ted. "As won­der­ful as peo­ple think these out­door rooms are, they are a ton of work."

Through­out the back­yard, vari­ous ele­ments break up the sym­me­try of the wall-and-path grid, in­clud­ing large urns plant­ed with spike, mon­ey­wort, ge­ra­ni­ums and mil­lion bells. A cen­tral veg­e­ta­ble gar­den is for­ti­fied with a con­crete foun­da­tion, stur­dy fence and wood gate, to keep wood­chucks from pil­fer­ing the cou­ple's sal­ad fix­ings.

One of the most strik­ing ele­ments of Ellingson's gar­den de­sign is its strong sight­lines; when turn­ing a cor­ner, a path of­ten leads the eye to a tiered foun­tain or a stat­ue.

But the back­yard's grand fo­cal point, which Ellingson had in­stalled af­ter four years of work, is a pa­vil­ion modeled af­ter one pic­tured in "Arts and Crafts Gardens," cre­at­ed by two steel arch­es left ­o­ver from the home ren­o­va­tion.

Tucked un­der the pa­vil­ion's ter­ra-cot­ta tile roof stands a full-size rep­li­ca of one of the fa­mous Riace bronz­es dis­cov­ered in the 1970s off the I­tal­ian coast. Ellingson picked the Greek war­ri­or up at an es­tate sale near Min­ne­ap­olis' Lake of the Isles, and it took three men to car­ry it to the pa­vil­ion. ("The thing to re­mem­ber is that it costs as much to get it de­liv­ered," he warned nov­ice statu­ary en­thu­si­asts.) The mus­cu­lar nude stands a whole head tall­er than Ellingson's 6-foot-2-inch frame, look­ing out on what is sure­ly one of the few local yards capa­ble of match­ing his maj­es­ty.

Now that the land­scap­ing is com­pleted, Ellingson stays busy mak­ing tweaks and re­place­ments as plants grow in and ma­ture. The most dra­mat­ic change was mov­ing a weep­ing cherry tree from the front yard to a spot down near the lake af­ter its span grew wider than he'd an­tic­i­pated.

Even though the cou­ple's form­er res­i­dence was close to Lor­ing Park, the small ef­forts re­quired for a stroll — find­ing one's keys, put­ting on prop­er at­tire, rid­ing down the el­e­va­tor — had be­come more of a deterrent than they re­al­ized. "Now I just open the door and go," Ellingson said.

That said, he actually pre­fers to ex­peri­ence the back­yard from his cli­mate-con­trolled perch on the hill. "Too many mos­qui­toes," he said. "Most of what I've de­signed is to be viewed from the house."

Ra­chel Hut­ton • 612-673-4569