For 34 years, science educator Deb Dunn-Silis taught her high school students about thermodynamics, constellations and earthquakes. Still, many of them came to know her as “the flower teacher.” That’s because Dunn-Silis decorated her desk with vases of fresh-cut blooms and showed photos of her diverse garden beds to generate questions about soil composition and identifying different kinds of plants.
Her students at Lakeville South High School even offered ideas on ways to lighten her landscaping chores. When one found out that her back was sore from lifting and moving rolls of sod, he suggested using a plastic sled to move the sod and then roll it off. “Now I use it all the time when I lay sod,” said Dunn-Silis, who retired from teaching last spring.
Her picture-perfect composition of cone-shaped arborvitae amid hosta, flowering hydrangeas and shrub roses went from classroom discussion to a real-world setting. Many of her students posed for their graduation, prom and homecoming photos in her Lakeville yard and a former student got married under the arbor in her lush end-of-summer landscape.
The chatty gardener loves to share her multilayered garden scapes — all designed and planted by her over the past 25 years — with her students as well as neighbors who gawk at the flora and ask for a tour.
“Lots of kids aren’t exposed to the outdoors and don’t have a connection to nature like I had when I was growing up,” she said.
One of six kids from Waseca, Minn., as a 12-year-old she bought some marigolds and planted a tiny garden because that’s what the neighbor lady had.
“I discovered that gardening was fulfilling because you get a return for your labor right away,” she said. “And I loved to be outside.”
Euro-style in Lakeville
Dunn-Silis was up for the challenge when she and her husband, Ainars Silis, built a new home in 1989. It sat on a barren half-acre lot, with soil composed of hard clay and stones, that sloped down to a wooded area. “I was so excited,” said Dunn-Silis. “I had so much to play with — woods, a natural stream and a front and back yard.”
Her design theme is influenced by the look of more formal European gardens, with conical arborvitae playing a starring role. “I had a book of landscapes from Italy that I wanted to try to re-create,” she said. The symmetrical rows of the tall evergreens create structure, visually pleasing shapes and a backdrop to her thoughtfully composed beds, which are edged with stones.
The first summer, she dug out the clay and amended the soil with peat moss and milorganite in the front yard. She planted an aspen and placed a birdbath to anchor a curvy garden bed bordered by stones, which she scavenged from her own lot. “The hardscape draws your eye to the bed,” she said. “And it adds character and makes it look like it was always there.”
Over time, Dunn-Silis expanded the sun and shade gardens, filling them with hosta and the Knock Out series of pink and red shrub roses. She spreads colorful vinca along bed borders. But for many summers, impatiens were her first choice, until downy mildew attacked the foliage. “It was a big heartbreak. Masses of vinca just aren’t as full,” she said.
Dunn-Silis works hard to keep the landscape sumptuous — including 30 hanging baskets she suspends from trees, tucks between beds and sets inside urns. She buys the bargain-priced baskets at Cub and Kmart and adds a weekly dose of Schultz Bloom Builder.
She’s constantly searching for ways to add age-old character and interest to her design scheme — while keeping within a budget. Decorative garden art peeks out from among the plants, such as an Old World metal lion fountain that sprays water from its mouth, and cherubs grasping grapes. She finds statuary and urns at places like Sam’s Club and T.J. Maxx and spray paints them black or bronze to continue the same color scheme throughout the gardens.
“When I come home with another statue, my husband jokes that he thought gardening was about plants,” she said. He supports her addiction and often helps with heavy hauling and building.
Dunn-Silis loved the look of stone pillars that she saw in front of 100-year-old homes along St. Paul’s Summit Avenue, so she stacked some leftover pavers to create bases for light posts. “I dug down 6 inches, and laid one big paver, then stacked smaller ones on top,” she said. ”I left a hollow space inside to put in the wiring.”
One summer, Dunn-Silis took advantage of the natural steep slope by building a waterfall and pond in the back yard. “I went on a garden tour and saw a water feature,” she said, “I had to have one.”
The pond novice learned by trial and error. When the plastic preformed liner cracked over the winter, she installed a durable vinyl liner, stacked stones around a 3-foot waterfall and added a second pump. Today an Austrian pine graces the top of the waterfall, which flows into the tranquil pond. “I wanted to pretend it’s a mountain with a stream coming down the hill in Sweden,” she said.
Dunn-Silis said she’s most proud of how the front and back-yard gardens flow together, even though they were created section by section during summer break over a long period.
“I repeated a lot of the plants for cohesion and continuity and it makes it look like it was all planned out from the start,” she said.
Now that her Lakeville landscape is pretty much complete, she is focusing on a different challenge. The couple are tackling a new venture — growing grapes. They bought 5 acres near Morris, Minn., and are planting more than 600 cold-hardy bare-root Marquette grape plants. In three years, they will harvest and sell the grapes to nearby wineries.
Once the vineyard is established, Dunn-Silis plans to design a garden setting with a gazebo to hold weddings.
“It will be big-scale country gardening,” she said. “I just want to see if I can do this.”