When Lee and Rose Hallgren bought their St. Paul house 47 years ago, they could stand on the corner and see all the way down to the next corner.

The houses were solid and the front yards were immaculate: grass, a few foundation plants, maybe a sapling. But there was something wrong. "All the yards looked the same," said Lee.

The Hallgrens didn't want their small city lot to look like all the other small city lots, but they had no idea how to plant an ornamental garden.

"I grew up on a farm," explained Lee. "Gardens were functional."

So, Lee called in a designer from a now-defunct nursery. "I had some peonies in the front yard, and he kept shaking his head. He said, 'You can't have flowers in the front yard.' Back then, there were hard and fast rules about gardening."

Lee has spent close to five decades breaking them.

There's still a little grass in the Hallgrens' front yard, but so little that Rose jokes that Lee mows it with a scissors. Instead of opting for foundation plants, Lee lined the front yard with trees, then packed in a collection of conifers (including weeping Norway spruce and weeping larch) and deciduous shrubs that he trims into tidy shapes. And, yes, there are flowers -- the peonies, of course, and plenty of potted annuals.

Like the Tudor-style house, the garden boasts a classical design, though of Lee's creation. "I have a formal garden but informal plantings," he said. "They're asymmetrical." And the crowning jewel is a large, formal arbor -- a bold statement in a front yard, even in 2009.

Any restraint Lee might have used in the front is absent from the rest of the yard.

Both sides of the house are flanked by narrow raised beds that Lee built from salvaged pavers. The beds are chock-a-block with a series of tiny specialty gardens -- a rock garden, a Japanese garden, a fern garden. "One of the problems I have is that I want to plant too many things in this little lot," he admitted.

From fence to fence, the back yard is a study in exuberance. Lee packed in 20 trees -- oaks, dogwoods, ginkgos, willows, tamarisks -- that form a canopy for his shade garden. ("I really like gardening in the shade," he said. "It's comfortable. I like the feeling of it.") In addition to hostas, astilbes and dozens of potted annuals, he's managed to fit two small ponds and a bog garden complete with cattails, horsetails and marsh marigolds. Even here, there's a bit of formality. Many of the planting beds are lined, knot-garden style, by immaculately trimmed hedges of yew, boxwood and arborvitae.

Salvaged backbone

If "structures are the backbone of the garden" as Lee contends, then his garden has the backbone of a T. rex.

There are stone slab patios, paver walkways, wooden arbors and brick-lined ponds, almost all of which Lee built from salvaged materials. In fact, walking through the garden with Lee is like taking a magical history tour of the Twin Cities.

He harvested pavers when the Lake Street bridge was redone "many, many years ago." The unique curved bricks he used to line one of the small reflecting pools served time as the smokestack of the old Hennepin County poor farm. The limestone slabs are courtesy of excavation for the Ordway Center in St. Paul and some decorative iron fencing came from a decades-old makeover at the Como Conservatory. Then there's the limestone from the old Merriam Park Library. (He hasn't come up with a use for that limestone yet, he couldn't let it go to waste.)

Lee, who calls himself a "scroungy kind of guy," doesn't insist that his building materials have a pedigree. He used dumpster lumber to build the arbor in the back yard and regularly cuts pieces of metal downspouts to make plant tags. And while he knows that recycling is "in," it's clearly not a trend for the Hallgrens -- "it's a way of life," said Rose.

A lifetime experiment

Lee has no formal garden training, but that hasn't hampered him. A retired chemist with a learn-by-doing ethic, he's constantly performing what he calls "science experiments." He starts most of his annuals (impatiens, coleus, pansies) from seed every spring. He roots cuttings from his trees. (So far, he's had the best luck with willows.) He's in the process of collecting species hostas ("I'd like to find all 40," he said, "but that's about as likely as me flying to moon.") And he even tried to pollinate the apricot tree he's been growing semi-successfully for years. "We've had six apricots off that tree in 15 years," he said. "One year I was so desperate, I took a paint brush and pollinated it." The result? "It didn't like me as a bee."

But his garden is so much more than his laboratory. It's his autobiography.

He can identify every plant (sometimes with the help of his homemade tags) and there's a story behind every rock he and Rose have picked up from a roadside, every paver he set, every tree he planted, every structure he built by hand.

And on summer afternoons, summer evenings, it's where he and Rose, his "artistic director," inevitably find themselves.

"Our garden is our favorite place to be," said Lee.

Connie Nelson • 612-673-7087