In 1999, when Mike and Mary Kulseth built their home in Andover, Minn., all they wanted for their yard was a “carefree,” low-maintenance landscape.
“I just wanted to mow grass,” Mike says.
So the couple had a landscaper lay sod and plant spirea and barberry bushes, surrounded by tan landscape rock — the typical suburban yard. Green turf carpeted the 5-acre lot all the way to a wooded area in the back, which the couple let go wild.
“Then I decided just to do a little garden around an oak tree, even though I knew nothing about gardening,” Mary says.
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So Mike dug out a section of sod and Mary planted annuals, such as marigolds and zinnias. Over time, the garden grew, as did Mary’s confidence to try staple perennials — day lilies, coneflowers and ground cover lamium for the sunny areas, hosta in the shade.
“It was all trial and error,” she says. “If something didn’t work, I dug it out.”
By 2002, Mary was retired and had more time to research plants and strategically design her gardens according to bloom times. She planted peonies and lady’s mantle in the spring; day lilies, coneflowers and black-eyed Susans in midsummer; and purple plumes of astilbe in August.
“I was so excited when everything came back in the spring and it looked so pretty,” Mary recalls. “I thought, ‘This is really fun.’ ”
Mary’s newfound passion rubbed off on Mike. “I’ve always liked water features,” he says. “And we had plenty of room for one.”
He visited landscape-supply stores to learn how to install a pond and waterfall. It took some digging. “Ponds weren’t as popular back then,” he notes, and there weren’t as many do-it-yourself classes.
Undaunted, Mike spent many evenings and weekends, armed with just a shovel, digging a hole for the couple’s 3,000-gallon pond. The rubber liner he needed was so heavy that it broke his trailer and was nearly impossible to transport to the back yard. Mary, Mike and their son also hauled 40 tons of rocks to the hole.
Finally, the pond complete, they filled it with water and aquatic plants. They planted water lilies in plastic hanging baskets so Mike could retrieve them easily with a rake and trim the foliage before winter.
Mike was so pleased with the results that, four years later, he built a smaller second pond and a flagstone walkway to connect them. “I wanted the waterfall in that pond to be more aggressive and noisier, so it has a steeper design,” he says.
The larger pond is home to several dozen orange koi and goldfish, many of which Mary named. She was devastated when mink ate every single fish one winter.
“That year, the pond didn’t freeze and they were sitting ducks,” Mike says. Now they net their fish and overwinter them in huge tanks in the garage, where the Kulseths’ grandson loves to feed them.
Every year, the couple have improved and enhanced the tranquil setting surrounding the ponds. Waves of pink and purple phlox decorate the entrance to the water features. Mike built a deck and pergola, which is covered by trumpet vines and purple clematis on one end, with a bench on the other. Last summer, he added a pineapple-shaped fountain that attracts birds.
This spring, Mike is deep in muck, cleaning out the pond basin. “Sometimes I think I should be golfing instead,” he quips. “But after it’s done, we get to sit back and enjoy it all summer.”
Point of pride
Mike and Mary strove to create water features and bordering gardens that blended in with the surroundings. Their yard was on a pond tour in 2006, and people commented on the natural, free-flowing style, Mike says.
“The professionally designed and installed ponds can look sterile,” he says. “I’m proud of ours because we did it ourselves.”
For whimsical personal touches, Mary sprinkles the gardenscape with frog figures perched on lily pads, tiny birdhouses suspended from trees and a piece of driftwood the couple pulled out of a river in Wisconsin.
Each spring, Mary tackles a new garden project. As a respite during hot summer days, she crafted a shady woodland garden, with gnomes peeking out among ferns and hosta under a clump of maple trees.
After 13 years, the couple has created a lush suburban oasis amid the green turf, which still covers a substantial part of the large back yard. “Your eyes need a spot to rest,” Mary says. “And the green backdrop really makes the colors pop.”
Although the Kulseths didn’t achieve their initial mission of a low-maintenance yard, they wouldn’t trade their labor of love for anything. “We don’t plop in front of the TV; our gardens are our entertainment,” Mike says.
Mary agrees. “I turn on my music and start deadheading,” she adds. “It’s heaven.”