From the street, Vani and Mike Phelps’ brick-accented rambler fits right into their Lakeville neighborhood. It looks ever the postwar suburban classic, right down to the American flag and Adirondack chairs out front.
It’s what lies behind that surprises people. I had no idea this was back here!, visitors often exclaim the first time they see the backyard. A new neighbor, who came by to take a look, said, I’ve got to bring my husband over. She returned with him, as well as a whole cadre of relatives — her father, her mother-in-law, her stepdad. Everyone wanted a peek.
Over the past decade-plus, the Phelpses have transformed the back of their half-acre lot into a crazy quilt of a garden: a free-flowing patchwork of hostas and ferns, accented with jubilant blossoms, quirky ornaments and mulch paths that stitch through a thicket of trees.
There’s a rocky waterfall and a little bridge, repurposed from the Phelpses’ old deck. There are primrose and turtlehead and monarch butterfly-attracting milkweed. Amid the lush, living tapestry are reminders of family or friends, including trees planted for the birth of each grandchild and a dearly departed relative’s ceramics.
Vani Phelps, the garden’s mastermind, has loved the smell of damp soil since she worked in a greenhouse as a teenager. She did a little gardening at the couple’s last house, but nothing suggested that she’d go on to create anything on her current backyard’s scale.
“This one kind of got away from me,” she admitted.
It started with a waterfall
Vani and Mike bought their home in 2005, and after doing a little landscaping out front, under the shady canopy of an enormous, century-old oak, they tackled the woodsy backyard.
First, they had a miniature creek installed, rushing downhill near the back of the house. The gurgling stream flows 24/7, from May until November, and reminds Mike of the waterfalls he loves seeing on canoe trips in Canada.
Amid dozens of ash trees, maples and pine, Vani planted hostas of all shapes, colors and sizes: Guacamole, with its bright, ripe-avocado hue; Golden Tiara and Montana, which both have leaves edged in yellow; Striptease with a light stripe down the middle; Humpback Whale and Woolly Mammoth, big like their namesakes.
Vani also planted a variety of ferns: Lady in Red with burgundy stems, silvery ghost fern, and “walking fern,” which quickly spread its feathery fronds.
Closer to the house, where there’s more sun, she planted a large flower bed bursting with coneflowers, daisies, Russian sage, peonies, Joe-Pye weed and phlox.
It’s difficult to track all the varieties and what’s planted where, even for Vani.
“Every once in a while I think I should take a pencil and paper and just go and start counting, but I don’t get it done,” she said.
An assortment of ornaments
Vani also tucked artifacts and ornaments into the greenery; it feels like a treasure hunt to find them.
A large wooden cutout cow, with blue, green and orange spots, was a 40th birthday gift from Vani’s sisters. An antique corn planter represents her family’s farming roots. Tucked among the leaves are various figurines, including frogs, squirrels and enough elves to inhabit a village (repurposed teapots serve as their houses). One little bearded fellow rides on a swing, another plays a violin, and one — the grandkids’ favorite — hangs off a branch, losing his trousers.
Who knows where they’ve all come from — the Minneapolis Farmers Market, Bachman’s, random garage sales, small gift shops here and there. “You see something and think, ‘I could find a spot for that,’ ” Vani explained.
The largest artifact is a wooden footbridge, accessorized with a few things Vani collected in Arizona, including a cow skull. “This literally fell together because I did not have a plan,” Vani said of the vignette.
Visiting turkeys have claimed the bridge as a roosting spot. “We could be sitting on our porch, eating dinner, and all of a sudden I’d see turkeys sitting on the railings out there,” Vani said.
They’re not the only animals the garden has attracted. In the past couple of years, a fox family living under a neighbor’s shed lurked about their yard. “She wasn’t happy,” Vani said of her neighbor. “But I was happy, because it kept my garden clean of rabbits.”
A labor of love
On any given day, there are hosta flowers to cut (“they just get so gangly and flop over,” Vani said) or paths to be mulched. And there’s the constant task of fending off buckthorn, emerald ash borer and Japanese beetles, as well as the fungus attacking the black-eyed Susans and neighborhood dogs that leave their droppings.
Since Mike retired, he’s been a big help. Even so, with a garden this large, it’s impossible to pull all the weeds — “I can’t even begin to keep them all at bay,” Vani said — or pick up all the sticks. Still, she tries.
“It’s kind of addicting,” she said. “You get out here and start pulling or picking or picking things up, and pretty soon an hour’s gone by.”
Every time she walks through the garden, Vani notices beauty (“there’s a hummingbird that just took off”), as well as chores (“I’d better water those guys”).
Though the back of the Phelpses’ home has several pleasant spots from which to simply gaze out on the garden and enjoy it, including a lofted deck and a cozy seating nook below it, Vani’s not the type to keep her distance.
“I’ll maybe take my coffee in the morning and walk out there thinking, ‘I’m just going to look, I’m not going to do anything.’ And then pretty soon you see a weed, and then pretty soon your hands are dirty.”
Mike says he enjoys the garden but doesn’t want it to become a burden for his wife. “I just hope it doesn’t get too big, so it gets too much for her,” he said.
“Well, that’s why you’re helping,” Vani quipped.
Even when every inch of earth has been planted or adorned, the Phelpses’ garden wouldn’t be “finished” — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing for someone who loves what she calls “rearranging the furniture.”
“That’s another fun thing,” Vani said. “You just move things around if you don’t like where they are.”