Today, passersby stop to admire Marcy Roy’s beautiful home and garden overlooking Minnehaha Creek in Minneapolis. But a dozen years ago, observers had another reason to stare at the property.
A dilapidated old house occupied the spot, surrounded by growth so wild that it was impossible to see what was in the backyard.
Roy wasn’t intimidated. A veteran of several home renovations, she saw potential in the sloped lot and was thrilled that it was for sale.
Over the years, she transformed her home and yard to showcase her artsy, eclectic style. She worked on the garden slowly, focusing first on the house. That patience and planning resulted in a yard that feels private yet is quite public, drawing in passersby to admire a landscape created mostly with perennials salvaged from garage sales, Craigslist and end-of-season plant sales.
The garden, Roy said, “gives me peace of mind and makes me feel alive. It’s like you’re always building a piece of art. It’s about creation and learning.”
Roy, who is retired, has no landscape training. She made her living in computers and web page design and grew up in a gardening family in Slayton, Minn. Her parents taught her how to start plants from seed and how to save seed from year to year.
“It was something fun we could do together and share with each other,” she said.
First things first
Faced with the huge job of renovating or replacing the rundown house — Roy ended up saving only the basement and part of a wall — she threw tarps over much of the backyard to restrain weeds while a new house was being built. Hidden among the weeds and scrubby trees was an old shed. Roy also discovered that surrounding properties were elevated, and that drainage from those yards flowed right down the slope toward her house.
She redirected that water by creating a new channel for drainage that now runs from the backyard under a porch to a “rock pool” in the front yard that holds water until it filters underground.
Meanwhile, Roy was trying to figure out the garden. She wanted a casual landscape that felt natural, featuring lots of rock and a hardscape that would allow people to look and wander and linger without having to struggle with the yard’s dramatic slope.
She went on garden tours to get ideas and looked carefully at other yards during walks around the neighborhood. While the tarps kept weeds under control in most of her backyard, she scoured Craigslist and garage sales for interesting plants, planting them in a “holding garden” in a corner of the yard until she was ready to give them a permanent home. Ever conscious of a bargain, in May and June she would hit the pop-up satellite garden shops in supermarket parking lots as they were on the verge of closing, getting plants at sale prices.
Each year she allowed herself to buy one special plant, often an unusual tree or shrub, at a garden center.
Junk trees were removed, leaving a couple of large accent trees and some arborvitae. She kept hosta and tulips that had been hidden by weeds. Flagstone paths now wind through the backyard to the front of the house, and gray Wisconsin trap rock boulders edge raised gardens in the front yard.
Roy wanted an open front yard. The steps that lead to her front door are flanked by beds that use evergreens of varying heights, colors and shapes to create year-round interest. Dominating the front yard is a tall, narrow weeping spruce she calls her “Dr. Seuss tree.” In summer it is surrounded by masses of pink, yellow and orange Asiatic lilies and sun-loving plants like geraniums.
“I love the lilies and daylilies,” she said. “They are so showy, and they don’t require so much work.”
The sunny beds are filled with daffodils and tulips that are succeeded by coneflowers, daylilies and other sun perennials. In the side yard is one of her favorite plants, Celestial Shadow dogwood, which has white flowers in spring and leaves edged with yellow that turn reddish in fall. Roy grows zinnias in that side yard, saving the seeds every fall and scattering them in spring, resulting in a profusion of tall plants in a rainbow of colors that draw bees and even hummingbirds.
“Zinnias remind me of my mom,” she said. “They come in so many colors, and look like hats and pincushions.”
‘Docks’ and benches
Though the front yard is eye-catching, it’s the backyard where Roy spends much of her warm-weather time. A series of staggered wood “docks” — the wooden platforms remind her of lakes from her childhood, and were created partly so her mother could navigate the hilly backyard — lead visitors up from the porch, through the garden to a swing that sits on what friends call “the observation deck.”
Perched on the swing, which is under a pergola, visitors can look down on the backyard and creek. The swing is backed by a wall of old windows that Roy found at a garage sale. She added stained glass, and framed the windows with a pair of giant blue shutters from Belgium. She kept the old shed, painted it and put a new door on it, incorporating it into her garden.
Asked what her inspiration was, Roy said, “I just did it. ... I used to paint a lot when I started redoing houses. I like to change things.”
Many varieties of hosta and daylilies grow in the backyard, punctuated by the bold leaves of cannas and pots of annuals like begonias and petunias. Cannas are one of Roy’s favorites because the big leaves and the bright flowers make a statement. She digs up the bulbs and saves them from year to year.
Benches are tucked into recesses in both the front and backyard, though Roy said that until she retired, she rarely had time to actually sit down outside. Now one of her favorite things is to talk with and get to know people who walk by as she is weeding and caring for the front garden. Sometimes she invites them to sit down on a bench and chat.
“One thing I like about gardening in Minneapolis is being in the front yard and having some great conversations,” she said. “With the views here, it’s like being in the country, but I’m in the middle of the city. I’ve found a lot of friends here.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis freelance writer, a Hennepin County Master Gardener and a Minnesota Tree Care Advisor.