The things that Lisa Taft cherishes most in her garden don't have leaves and stems. They wear feathers or fur.

Taft loves the songbirds that arrive every spring and feed each other seeds as part of their mating ritual. She loves the ducks that paddle in her pond, and the foxes with their playful litters of kits that romp like puppies. She even loves the raccoons that occasionally gobble her goldfish, and the deer that nibble her lilies -- although she does try to deter them with a motion-detector sprinkler and Liquid Fence.

"Wildlife is really important to me," she said. "It adds this layer of richness to a garden. It's not just a collection of plants, but an ecosystem."

Her garden, and her know-how, have both grown exponentially during the decade she's lived at her home in New Brighton. But while the garden itself has gotten a lot more ambitious, Taft's mission statement remains a simple one: "I try to keep it natural, to create a little sanctuary for myself, for my family and for the animals," she said.

Taft had no gardening experience when she married her husband, John, in 1999 and moved into the house he'd built several years earlier. "I had never had my own home or land," she said. But plants were in her blood. "Growing up, I remember being strangely fascinated with seed catalogs," she recalled. Later, that interest led her to dabble with orchids and houseplants.

The New Brighton home site offered her a blank slate. It didn't have much in the way of landscaping -- just some turf grass and "industrial-looking rock," she recalled. But it had plenty of potential. There was a heavily wooded area at the back of the lot, and a path through the woods that appeared to be a wildlife corridor. "I grew up in North Oaks, and I never saw wildlife like I do here ... daily, summer and winter," she said. "There was a pretty grove of aspens. It was a perfect site."

She started with a small vegetable garden -- "an ugly, rectangular bed," she said. Then she planted some flowers. Then she created some tiered beds in the back, and an undulating bed in the front. "One thing led to another. Now all I do is expand," she said. "There's a little less grass every year."

Self-taught gardener

Lisa is a tech-savvy "plant collector" who trolls the Internet for offbeat species and introductions. "I can't resist trying new things," she said. But she's acquired most of her garden knowledge the old-fashioned way, through trial and error, she said. "I learn from my mistakes."

One example: her first, failed attempts to grow showy lady's slipper, the Minnesota state flower. "You wouldn't believe how many I killed," she said. "Finally, I've been successful." The secret is to excavate her clay soil before planting, and amend it with lighter soil and compost from one of her four piles. Now the soil where the lady's slippers are planted is mostly sand, she said. "That's made all the difference."

If a plant isn't thriving, Lisa doesn't hesitate to relocate it. "A lot of what I do is move things around 'til I get it right. I try to find groupings of plants that complement each other and look natural. And I'm really compulsive. If something is the wrong color or texture, I'll move it until I find the right spot."

As the gardens took shape, the neighbors began to take notice of her efforts. "A few years ago, we were on the pond tour, and some of the ladies in the neighborhood stopped by to introduce themselves," Lisa recalled. "One of them told me they all knew that John must have gotten married because of the way the house was so completely transformed. I had to laugh."

John is the first to admit that Lisa is the expert. "I don't garden. Too many cooks in the kitchen," he said.

But he's contributed in other ways, such as building a trellis Lisa wanted, and offering occasional suggestions. Their large back-yard water feature, which includes a waterfall and pond, was his brainstorm.

"When he first floated the idea, I thought it was crazy," Lisa said. "But it's absolutely the best thing we've ever done. The sound is so soothing. And it attracts wildlife. Birds bathe there. I see birds I would never see otherwise, like scarlet tanagers. They really don't hang out in the suburbs."

Doing what comes naturally

Lisa's garden has evolved, with the more formal and thirsty plants, including her English roses, near the house. As the back yard slopes up into the woods, the garden transitions to more informal plantings and native plants. She favors a cool color palette of blues, purples, pinks and whites. "I find it more restful" than bright, warm colors, she said.

The garden reaches its visual peak in June, when the spring flowers are in full bloom, she said, but she's added foliage and forms to add four-season interest. "Bloom is so sporadic," she said. "Evergreens are really important because they anchor a garden and add structure, even in winter."

As her garden aesthetic has evolved, she's developed an appreciation for subtle plants as well as showy ones. "Now I'm a big fan of ornamental grasses," she said. "Most gardeners, when you're first into it, you go for flashy, like roses and peonies. But grasses have an elegant, understated beauty. I try to use a large variety. One of my favorite parts is the seed heads. And the silver grass has beautiful plumes that last late in the season."

Often, she lets nature help with plant selection. "I have a lot of plants seeding themselves, in odd locations," she said, pointing out examples. "Those white flowers, over by the waterfall ... the wild elderberry and wild Canada plum ... the grapevine covering the window well. It was ugly plastic, but it [the grapevine] seeded itself, and it's perfect there."

Lisa, who works full-time in the health care industry and has two young sons, acknowledged that her garden is labor-intensive. "I have a very high-maintenance garden," she said. "But I don't mind spending time out here. Even when I'm weeding, it's very therapeutic -- kind of like an antidepressant. True gardeners don't even consider it work. I just love to be out here."

Having a beautiful garden has influenced the way her family lives, she said. "We do a lot more entertaining out here, on the patio. Sometimes I sit on the rocks, have coffee and listen to the waterfall." Her boys love to be outside, playing in the woods, digging holes and watching the animals. "They don't understand that not everybody has foxes in their yard," she said. "I tell them someday they'll appreciate it."

Lisa doesn't need to wait for someday. She appreciates it every day. "It really has changed my life," she said. "It's given me this incredible place of peace and beauty, where I can connect with nature."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784