Some women get roses or trinkets on Mother's Day. Shirley Friberg got rocks. A whole flatbed truck full of boulders from her son, who also wheel-barrowed them into her Roseville back yard and placed them for her several years ago. "It was an excellent present!" she said.

Friberg is passionate about rock gardening. "I love miniatures and alpine plants," she said. But you won't find tiny cottages and figurines tucked among the greenery. "I don't do the fairy thing," she said. "I like the English way. They concentrate on the plants."

She appreciates the diminutive size of alpines, as well as the difficulty of growing them. "It takes a lot of thought," she said. "Each one wants something different. It's a challenge."

Her husband, Dick, doesn't share her passion for rock gardening, but he does share her devotion to growing things. During the nearly five decades they've owned their home, they've converted most of their ¾-acre lot into a series of gardens worthy of an arboretum.

They have "her" gardens (rocks and alpine plants, a cactus garden and a large veggie plot), "his" gardens (lilies, peonies, dahlias and roses) and "their" gardens (perennial beds, wildflowers and a bog garden).

"We do help each other," Shirley said. "But our loves are different."

While Shirley loves her tiny, delicate alpines, Dick is drawn to conifers and plants that produce big, showy blooms. "Peonies are my favorite," he said, especially the newer intersectional varieties that combine the best features of herbaceous and tree peonies. "They have fabulous colors, and they're low-care once they're planted."

But he's come to appreciate plants with more subtle beauty as well. "I didn't use to get why some people were more turned on by foliage," he said. "But the more you garden, the more you realize that foliage is so interesting."

Better than mowing

The Fribergs' garden grew gradually, as Dick removed more grass. "He'd say, 'I don't want to mow that -- let's turn it into a garden,'" Shirley said. "He didn't know it was more work than mowing."

He definitely knows now. At the peak of their gardening, they often logged 12-hour days. "I've never worked as hard in my life," Dick said. "But now if I do that, I can't work for two days afterwards, so it's counter-productive."

After years of expanding and refining, the couple's landscape has become a popular destination. They host multiple garden tours every growing season, and their gardens attract impromptu visits from admiring neighbors, especially kids.

"Our yard is a magnet," Dick said. "Kids love walking the paths. They catch toads. Instead of banning them and having a power struggle, we've taught them to be responsible." Shirley has even taught the next-door neighbor kids how to prune the evergreens.

The Fribergs don't just share their garden; they also share their garden know-how. Both belong to multiple garden clubs (six for Shirley, three for Dick). Through her work with the Rock Garden Society, Shirley coordinates maintenance of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum's rock garden, which she also tends as a volunteer. She starts alpines from seed for the Arb, a friend and herself.

The Fribergs' two grown sons have contributed to the garden's beauty. Scott, the eldest, who works in construction, not only hauled in the rocks but also built their quaint potting shed and wisteria-draped bower. Son Ken, a photographer, designed and made their distinctive copper trellises.

Shirley also makes her own garden art: planters made from styrofoam that she roughens, then layers with paint until they're dead ringers for hollowed-out rocks, a technique she teaches in classes.

The couple love to travel to garden shows and plant society conferences. But during the growing season, their garden keeps them under virtual house arrest. Up until last summer, when they celebrated their 50th anniversary by taking an Alaskan cruise with their extended family, the Fribergs hadn't taken a full summer vacation since 1977. "Watering is a huge issue," Dick said. "It takes 18 hours with two hoses every five days."

Tending their garden is a lot of work, but it's great exercise, Dick said. "Gardening keeps you young -- all that stretching and bending. And it's a great hobby for two people. It would never have gotten this extensive without two people doing it."

He surveys the lush landscape in all its midsummer glory. "Sometimes I look at it and I can't believe we did this," Dick said, then laughed. "And I can't believe I have to take care of it."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784