When Chuck and Petra Meinke's two kids were in high school and going to formal dances, the garden was the place to gather for group photos.

"We had a lot of prom pictures out here," said Petra, surveying the textured tapestry of foliage that fills their Apple Valley back yard.

The little footbridge at the edge of the pond, framed by gracefully draping weeping willows, was an especially popular place to strike a pose. "It would be a great place for a wedding," Petra noted. (Not that she's hinting, mind you.)

The Meinkes' landscape wasn't always so photogenic. When they built their house in 1991, the land was marshy and choked with weeds.

"The nettles were this high," Chuck said, gesturing well above his head.

Landscaping their unruly lot was a DIY affair from start to finish. "We didn't order a service," said Petra. "We didn't have the money."

She gives Chuck most of the credit for creating their masterpiece, noting his back-breaking work hauling and placing the rocks and boulders that give their landscape its "bones."

"I look at some of these rocks and wonder, 'How the heck did I move that?'" Chuck said.

He may have done more of the heavy lifting, but Petra contributed to the aesthetics.

"She's the artsy one," he said. He seeks her advice when placing individual plants and designing mass plantings, which they lay out first with a garden hose to get the curve just right.

European entry

The Meinkes started in front, aiming for a sheltered courtyard effect with a bit of European flair.

"Here in front we keep a European look -- as best we can in Minnesota," Petra said, who grew up in Germany. Chuck was raised in a military family and traveled extensively as a child. "I got exposed to a lot of gardens all over the world," he said. "The Alhambra [in Granada, Spain] is my favorite. I also love Versailles."

The landscaping leading to their front door has a cosmopolitan air, with dwarf evergreens, arborvitae in pots, lion statuary and the Kentucky coffee tree Chuck had always wanted. The courtyard gets hot in summer, but during the cooler spring and fall months, it's where they like to congregate with neighbors over a beer.

The back yard presented a much bigger challenge -- on a much bigger canvas. Today it looks less like a suburban back yard than a well-groomed park or estate, with terraces, wide, meandering walking paths framed by foliage of every color and dozens of colorful container plantings as accents.

The spacious garden looks like it could keep a full-time groundskeeper busy, but Chuck insists it's less labor-intensive than it appears. He planned the shady garden with hardy perennials to be low-maintenance.

"I tried to pick stuff you don't have to spend a huge amount of time on," he said, including ferns, ligularia, ground covers and 110 varieties of hosta. "We needed plants that take care of themselves."

It's true that the garden is "a beast" for a couple of weeks every spring, Chuck conceded. But most of the growing season he spends only an hour or two a week working on their landscape.

A fair amount of that time is spent raking up debris from the picturesque weeping willows. "They make a mess," Chuck said. "When we planted them they were about 5 feet tall and about an inch around. Now they're ginormous."

Serenity in the city

The little footbridge that creates a focal point at the water's edge was built by Petra's father. "He used to come from Germany for four to six weeks, and we had to keep him busy," Petra said with a laugh.

The Meinkes have continued to add to their landscape, installing two smaller ponds closer to the house and, most recently, an outdoor fireplace.

"It's a great place to entertain," Petra said. "We did an Oktoberfest with a real band in lederhosen and 100 people, just like in Germany."

First-time guests are always taken aback when they see the back yard. "People don't expect it," Petra said. "They say, 'Wow! This is like an arboretum.'"

And there are plenty of first-time guests, in part because strangers often wander through the garden, just to have a look. "People say, 'You guys should charge admission,'" Petra said. "That's not what this is about."

What it's about is creating a refuge of peace and tranquility.

"We both had high-stress jobs," Petra said. She's a recently retired marketing manager; he's an even more recently retired corporate compliance security manager.

"We never wanted a cabin," she said. "This kind of took the place of a cabin. It's as serene as it can be, while being in the city. Coming home to this -- it's my haven, my little paradise."

And even though they're now retired, they have no intention of leaving. "I put all that work in." Chuck said. "I'm not going to move south or downsize."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784