When she was young, Sheila Aadland couldn’t understand why her sister loved gardening so much. Picking up a shovel and getting her hands dirty were the last things Aadland wanted to do.

That changed when she became the mother of two active boys. Gardening became her at-home project while her sons were at play. “The kids were outside on the swings, and I had something to do,” she said.

That urge to do something culminated in the creation of a garden in a St. Bonifacius backyard that stops first-time visitors in their tracks. Stretching 200 feet along a hillside, the garden is a lush retreat, with a waterfall that tumbles under a bridge through the garden toward a little pond.

The garden is a passion and an anchor for a family that until 1998 was accustomed to moving every few years. Sheila, a physical trainer, and her husband, David, a social worker, had built and sold three houses before they moved to St. Bonifacius. Their practice was to live in a new home, do the finishing work and landscaping themselves and then sell and move on to the next project. Then, attracted by the rolling hills around St. Bonifacius, they found the site for their long-term dream home and garden.

“I never thought we’d still be here after 21 years,” Sheila said. “But now I can’t imagine leaving.”

The St. Bonifacius lot was unusual from the start. Located on a cul-de-sac and naked of trees but covered in weeds, the property was shaped like a pie slice, narrow at the street and widening to a hilly backyard. David had always wanted a pond or water feature, his wife said, and this was the first lot where that made sense.

“We took to it right away — we loved how it banked up at the back,” Sheila said.

Months of planning

The house was built in 1998. Sheila spent the next winter planning, studying books on garden design and plotting out where edging, the waterfall and decks at the back of the house would go. In the spring, even before sod was laid, the Aadlands hauled in 30 yards of wood mulch and spread it where the gardens would go.

Privet, lilacs, amur maples, arborvitae and other evergreens were planted to screen in the backyard and provide a background for the garden. “I am the queen of screen!” Sheila joked. As more homes were built around them, construction crews that unearthed boulders were happy to let her and the boys load their wheelbarrow and carry the rocks away.

Sheila used the rocks to edge the stream that tumbled down the hill and to add some hardscape to the new garden. When she planted, the plants were small — so tiny that in the first year or two, some visitors burst out laughing when they saw a vast sea of mulch pocked by petite shrubs and perennials.

But Sheila had done her homework and knew how perennials multiplied and shrubs grew. The garden soon filled in.

Her plan was to create a garden that was balanced on either side of the stream, so that the plantings mirrored each other. Arborvitae, with their yearlong evergreen interest, provide background in some areas and accents in others. The bright green, fine-textured Holmstrup arborvitae is a screen, while two flashy Sunkist, with layered foliage that turns lemon and chartreuse, draw the eye on both sides of the garden. Smaller evergreens in different colors make the garden interesting even in winter. A favorite is the hardy and slow-growing bird’s nest spruce.

“They are so beautiful with their horizontal branching, and I love the texture,” Sheila said. “The bunnies like to hang out there.”

Tall plants like miscanthus grasses, hydrangeas, heliopsis and liatris are featured near the top of the slope, leading down to shorter perennials like sedums, coral bells and bergenia. Sheila said she adores a tough coral bells called Obsidian, with dark plum leaves that are almost black. The plants have thrived despite being near rock in full sun. But her favorite perennial in a garden that emphasizes texture and yearlong interest is bergenia, a decidedly unfashionable plant whose virtues many gardeners ignore. One of the common names for bergenia is “pigsqueak,” for the sound the leathery leaves make when rubbed together.

Sheila bought her first bergenia at a farmers market for $1.50. Now she has two masses of the perennial that are 3 or 4 feet across. The plant’s large, shiny green leaves and toughness delight her.

“They’re like an evergreen; as the snow is melting, they’re there,” she said. “They’re such a great rock garden plant, just amazing. The leaves are chartreuse, sometimes with pink or purple. It looks like one big salad out there. And when the flowers come up, it’s like, whoa! What a surprise!”

Pots of color

To ensure season-long color in the summer garden, Sheila puts pots of geraniums and coleus amid the evergreens and shrubs. “I love the texture and color of coleus,” she said. “When the bunnies come and eat all the flowers, what can you do? I have a system; plants with texture and leaves are still there.”

As the years have passed, nature has foiled her goal of having a garden that mirrors itself. Parts of the garden have grown shadier, and one side now flowers before the other. But Sheila said she appreciates that, because it extends the bloom time of perennials.

“I think I love the garden because it evolves, it grows, and it’s renewal,” she said. “It’s beauty and nature, and it provides habitat for birds and mice and squirrels and rabbits. It’s life. It’s where we raised our kids.”

Both boys are adults now, and one grew up to be a professional organic gardener who has worked at farms around the world. A few years ago, the Aadlands converted one of their decks into a sunroom that overlooks the garden so it can be enjoyed year-round.

Sheila expects the garden to continue to be a focus as she and David, who built all the decks and patios and did much of the heavy work in the yard, approach retirement.

“This is where we have our conversation,” she said. “It is the center of our lives.”

Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer, a Master Gardener and a Minnesota Tree Care Advisor.