John Elton didn’t set out to be a gardener. Back in 1990, he was just a guy with a new house and a scraggly yard, trying to spruce it up with a bit of landscaping.
He didn’t have any background or know-how. But he was resourceful, hardworking and willing to learn through trial and error. And along the way, he developed a passion for gardening.
“My parents didn’t garden. I’m still trying to figure out where that gene came from,” he said.
Three decades later, his passion for flowers and foliage has transformed his St. Cloud yard into a Crayola-bright showstopper, one of six Beautiful Gardens winners selected last year from more than 165 nominated gardens.
His self-taught horticultural expertise even sparked his encore career as landscape manager at St. John’s University after he retired as its longtime wrestling coach.
But back to the beginning. Elton and his wife, Joan, had just bought their two-story house after spotting it on the Parade of Homes. The Eltons’ house was one of the first on the block, and its ½-acre lot hadn’t been landscaped.
“We didn’t even have grass,” John said. “It was all farm field.”
As a coach, John had summers off. So he worked on their yard, putting in a lawn, and then planting a strip of tulips and daffodils to separate the new grass from the farm field beyond it.
The following spring, there were daffodils but no tulips.
“Gophers had eaten the bulbs,” John said. So instead of relying on bulbs to fill in his landscape, he started adding perennials and trees — sugar maples that he dug out of the nearby woods.
Soon he was hooked on gardening, spending hours each day outdoors, creating new beds of blooms and tending them.
“It’s like playtime,” he said. “I was always planning the next garden.”
Lawn-mowing is not John’s favorite chore. He planted beds around the bases of his trees so that he wouldn’t have to mow around them. But grass clippings make great mulch for his gardens. “It does a very good job of keeping the weeds down and adds nutrients to the soil,” he said.
Joan appreciates his efforts to beautify their yard, but doesn’t share his interest in hands-on gardening.
“He’s a perfectionist. I let him do it,” she said. “I just enjoy it. I love cutting calla lilies and putting them in vases.”
John’s garden keeps vases full all summer long. “We have a lot of bouquets all the time,” he said.
That’s because there’s always something blooming, from June through September. He researches plants carefully, then chooses and places them with the aim of providing all-season color.
“I like things with long bloom times — like clematis — they keep coming,” he said. And he uses mass plantings so the blooms have strong visual impact. “I try to plant in swaths of color. I want enough of something to hold the show in that area.”
He uses color to create different moods. “To me, it’s about what colors play together,” he said. “Red and orange add a feeling of heat, versus the pastels, the pinks and purples.”
Because their property is flat and open, he used trellises to frame the backyard, then planted honeysuckle and clematis to climb them, creating vertical splashes of color. Because the honeysuckles attract birds, “I don’t need to put a feeder up,” he said. “Hummingbirds love honeysuckle.”
John focuses on hardy plants that can thrive in his growing conditions. “The harder you push the zone, the more work you’ve got to do,” he said. “I used to have more roses.” He liked the “one-two punch” they created with his peonies and lilies. But he’s converted more of the garden — about 70% — to low-maintenance perennials.
His garden does include some unusual plants, such as lady slipper, a rare wild native orchid that is protected under Minnesota law. It’s illegal to pick or uproot the plants, but John got them legally, he said. The state was redoing a road and moved some lady slippers to a ditch.
“The DNR said if you want to dig them out, you can.” So he kept five for his own garden and planted 10 at St. John’s.
And he has a touch of the Southwest on one side of his house — a prickly pear cactus bed that he started with one cutting from a friend.
“In spring, it looks dead,” he said. “It dehydrates so the freeze doesn’t kill it.” But it perks up by summer. “It blooms a mass of yellow.”
One of John’s most ambitious garden projects was creating a 1,200-gallon koi pond with a waterfall.
He dug the pond by hand with a shovel, and placed it just outside the kitchen window so that Joan can see and appreciate it when she’s working in the kitchen.
He loves relaxing by the pond on summer evenings when it’s lit up. “I really enjoy the sound of water,” he said.
But not everything about the pond has been relaxing. Keeping critters at bay is an ongoing challenge.
“Otters came through a few years back and ate all my koi,” he said. ‘I lost $1,000 worth of fish that day.”
To project his fish from the blue herons that visit his garden, he uses fishing line, crisscrossed over the pond to form a delicate, barely visible web. “It’s like a trip wire. It catches their legs and spooks them.”
Hungry herons aren’t the only critters that invade his garden.
“The rabbits have gotten so smart,” he said. “I try live-trapping them but it doesn’t work.”
He’s resigned himself to making up for losses with volume. “If you grow enough stuff, they can’t eat it all.”
Playhouse to garden shed
He tackled another DIY project when he built a quaint little shed in one corner of the garden. Originally it was a playhouse for their daughter, now a young adult.
“It became a shrine to Leonardo DiCaprio,” he recalled of the “Titanic” star’s heyday as a teen idol. “I knew eventually it would become my garden shed.”
John’s most ambitious horticultural feat was taking on the job as landscape manager for St. John’s after 25 years as the university’s wrestling coach.
“It was a 180-degree change,” he said. “They created a new position, I applied and got it.”
Once again, he started from scratch.
“They had no gardens on campus,” he said. But they did have a greenhouse. He collected cuttings from friends and started installing gardens — 30 in all, plus a garden pond. “As my fish got too big, I moved ’em out to St. John’s.”
By September 2018, he retired in full, which freed up more time for his own garden.
“Now every day is Saturday,” he said.
During the offseason he researches plants and designs beds. When spring returns, he’s back in the garden.
“Playing in the garden is my relaxation,” he said. “Gardening is not really work for me. I never worked a day in my life. I loved coaching, and I love gardening. I’m a very lucky man.”