Visitors don't know what they're in for when they first experience Randy Ferguson's garden. And he likes it that way.

"What I enjoy most is surprising people," he said. "They walk in back, and I hear the surprise. They say things like, 'No way! In the city?' People are shocked."

What's so shocking? On a nondescript lot in a dense urban neighborhood, Ferguson has created an oasis of tranquility. There's a deep, shaded pond with a rushing waterfall, a vintage shed, a vine-draped patio, a cozy fire pit -- and lots of plants, from exotic tropical varieties to hardy natives.

It looks like the ultimate urban retreat, but Ferguson aims for personal comfort and expression rather than perfection.

"My style is wabi sabi," he said, referring to the Japanese aesthetic of seeing beauty in natural, imperfect elements. "When I started, I drove myself crazy, worrying and trying to perfect things. But it needs to be a place I enjoy. I let weeds grow here and there. It doesn't have to be perfect and manicured."

Ferguson grew up gardening with his mother in Randolph, but his garden in south Minneapolis is his first on his own.

"I never had a yard until I bought this place," he said. His mother's garden was "a country garden," a big vegetable plot and perennials. "I aspired to that."

When he bought his house 11 years ago, he was eager to start gardening again.

"I wanted to get my hands dirty," he said. The lot was narrow, bordered by alleys on two sides, with overgrown vegetation and a chain-link fence. But Ferguson saw "endless possibilities." "It was extra deep, with a good mix of sun and shade. I started to dream."

His dreams included water.

"I knew I wanted a water feature," he said. "I had never done one, but I didn't want to hire it out; I wanted to be an active participant." Luckily, he had a friend with some know-how. "He taught me about the liner, the pump, the skimmer box."

When it was time to dig, Ferguson invited a half-dozen friends to a "pool party." "They didn't know they were digging the hole for the pond," he recalled with a smile.

Next he built the waterfall, using big rocks hauled from his family's farm on dump trucks. "I smashed a few fingers along the way," he said.

Ferguson then stocked his pond with more than 100 goldfish.

"They're fun; they add movement and color, and they're hardier [than koi]," he said. "I didn't want a high-maintenance koi pond. It's more like a country swimming hole. I'm not one to have plants or fish that are persnickety. ... You'll never see a [hybrid] tea rose in my yard."

Many of his plants are salvaged, he noted. A curly willow near his pond, for example, came from cuttings he found on the street.

"There are some growing by the peace garden at Lake Harriet," he said. "I was biking by there, and the Parks Department had just trimmed them. They were lying by the road. I thought, 'These are cool.' I picked up some sticks and put them in a vase for a centerpiece. They rooted, so I made trees out of them. If it dies, I have a curly willow in waiting."

Salvaging urban, rural relics

Most of Ferguson's hardscape also is salvaged. His pavers were once part of Lake Street. The columns holding up his arbor were torn off an old apartment building he once lived in.

"I thought, 'OK, what can I do with these?'" he recalled. The pillars that frame his fire pit came from a neighbor's yard. "She was moving, and asked me if I wanted them." He also has made decorative elements out of old shutters, downed birch logs and barn wood from his family's farm.

His rustic, weathered shed came from his fraternal grandmother's home.

"She lived on a lake and had a few small outbuildings," Ferguson said. "After she had to move to assisted living, I mentioned to my father that the shed would be great in my yard. He thought I was crazy. But he had a boom truck and trailer, so we brought it in down the alley, unloaded it and lifted it in."

The shed is filled with memories.

"I remember playing in it as a kid," Ferguson said. "It's been a joy to have -- a living tribute to my dad. He passed away in 2002, and he helped me with so much. There's history and meaning to a lot of things here."

A garden, Ferguson has discovered, can soften some of the harsh realities of inner-city living. The waterfall, for example: "It cuts out so much city noise; you forget about the planes and the alley traffic," he said. "If my bedroom window is open, I can hear the sound of the pond as I sleep."

In his front yard, he uses vegetation to create some privacy and shape his view. He planted Tina crabapple trees and prunes them to form a low canopy. "I like to give definition to my yard. It gives me a visual screen and blocks out stuff I don't want to look at," he said.

But in many ways, his garden connects him to his neighbors, he said. "People can enjoy it as they walk by. I can still see my neighbor go by on her bike and wave at her. It can't be completely private and closed off, in the middle of the city. I let it be what it is."

And sometimes, a garden builds community even more directly. A few years ago, Ferguson decided he was tired of the turf grass on the boulevard so he replaced it with Karl Forster ornamental grass and added a little "bench" (a flat rock balanced on piled rocks), "so I could sit out here and wait if someone was picking me up," he said. "I was sitting here once, and the neighbor brings his lawn chair over and sits with me. 'I like what you're doing,' he said."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784