As a teacher at Anoka High School, Gary Reuss taught his students to excel.
Stroll through the yard of the retired math teacher's Andover property, and it's clear he's excelled, too, particularly in his favorite hobby of gardening.
Reuss' gardens and landscaped paths, a winner in the Star Tribune Beautiful Gardens contest, span almost the entire 3 ½ acres of the property. Several themed areas and hundreds of varieties of plants are a testament to his more than 40 years of meticulous gardening.
"I grew up on a farm and my mother had a big vegetable garden and she canned what she grew," he said. "Then we moved and she had a flower garden. That's probably where I got my green thumb."
When walking up to the house, tucked on a quiet road just northwest of Kelsey Round Lake Park, an abundance of hostas greets visitors. Those were the first things Reuss planted when he moved there in 1981 and was determined to get rid of the weeds near his garage.
"I needed to do something about it, so I made multi-layers or tiers and put in 20 to 25 hostas to begin with," he said.
Planting the hostas reminded Reuss of how much he enjoyed gardening. So he decided to expand, dedicating a sizable section directly off the back of his house to hostas.
Today, a sea of hostas in an assortment of shapes, sizes and colors can be found amid plywood paths topped with roll roofing to prevent slipping (an idea Reuss got from watching a show about fishing in Alaska). At one point, Reuss had 167 registered hosta varieties with the American Hosta Society.
"I ordered different varieties each time," said the self-taught gardener. At first, "I'd get them from different places. [Eventually] I started to grow them myself from seed."
Among Reuss' favorites are the Lady Isobel Barnett hostas with large glossy green leaves and chartreuse edges. He's also fond of the Sagae with sizable blue-green foliage and cream-colored edges.
"Some hostas have strong growth, while others don't grow really well," he said. "These are really hearty, big, tall and beautiful."
He is also a fan of mini hostas for bordering garden beds, filling in smaller spaces and creating height variety. Reuss also has an affinity for the shade-tolerant plants because they offer big rewards while being low maintenance.
"Hostas don't need to be watered a whole lot. And they just like a little bit of bright light during the day," he said.
That means extra time for Reuss, who spends five to seven hours a day gardening during the season, to work on other sections of his expansive garden.
A path of moss glistening with morning dew leads to woods filled with red cedar, oak, ash, choke cherry and maple trees — and more gardens.
"The moss are all along the brick paths and grow around my plants. I like it because it's just natural," he said. "I didn't plan it or anything. You just weed it a little bit, and the moss will fill in."
In another area, a sprawling vegetable garden features family staples like broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and, Reuss' top vegetable pick, tomatoes. More than a dozen fruiting vines and trees such as raspberries, blueberries and, his daughter's favorite, apple trees, also can be found.
"Though I never get any of the fruit because the squirrels always eat them before I get there," said Reuss, who uses an underground irrigation system to water. "They eat the pears first and when they finish the pears they move on to the apples."
Dozens of varieties of shrubs and flowers — including hibiscus, dahlias and brunnera — are dotted throughout.
If he were to be graded, Reuss would get an A+ for the well-manicured moonseed vines that line 1,000 feet of an 8-foot high fence, providing walls of lush greenery around the property. As with the hostas, Reuss originally intended to grow those in a small area.
"I started out the vines beside my garage. I liked the way they looked and it just got bigger and bigger," he said. "I have to thin out areas or they'll take over."
Spreading the joy
The retired teacher's gardens are a study in what to grow in Midwest climates.
"It is a master class in color and texture with more tints and shades of green than I knew existed," wrote Ron Malcolm, also a retired Anoka High School teacher who nominated his friend and former co-worker's garden. "Contrasting the green are pops of vibrant color with blooms in red, yellow, pink and orange."
Reuss recently dug up the annuals, which included 700 impatiens, begonias, salvia, marigolds, dahlias and vincas that he started from seed. He'll store them in his basement under grow lights until next spring, when it's time to replant.
He also shares with others. "I give away a couple of hundred flowers each year. I've probably [split and] given away more than 1,000 hostas over the years," he said. "I've got hostas probably all over Minnesota."
For Reuss, it's a way to spread the joy, the joy his gardening mother shared with him.
"I planted some of her daylilies," he said. "They're probably 70, 80 years old now."