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.
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.”