When they want to enjoy fall color, Michael Olafson and Gary Bennett don’t have to hit the road — or even step outside. It’s on glorious display right in their living room, thanks to the atrium garden in the middle of their house.
In fall, they can watch the foliage on their Japanese maples turn brilliant shades of red and orange. “It’s stunning,” said Bennett.
In winter, the garden is a white wonderland. “It’s like a snow globe,” he added.
And in spring and summer, their atrium garden is a subtly layered tapestry of hues and textures.
“It’s such a treat to enjoy all four seasons from inside the house,” said Bennett.
The 18- by 18-foot atrium was one of the draws when the couple bought their 1964 contemporary house in Minneapolis about eight years ago. Open to the sky and entirely surrounded by the house, with walls of glass, the atrium design is popular in California but unusual in Minnesota.
“It’s like a classic Roman villa, walled around an open courtyard,” said Bennett.
The previous owner had created a Zen garden in the atrium, with a granite birdbath and a lot of gravel. It was mostly hardscape, with few plants.
Olafson, who didn’t like all the gray gravel, took on the job of redesigning the atrium garden, which had rich soil, a good drainage system and a lot of potential.
“I started playing around with plants,” he said. “I wanted to create a more traditional Japanese tea garden.”
Their home, built on former parkland, is surrounded by trees, and Olafson envisioned echoing that aesthetic in the atrium. “The lot is very wooded. I wanted to bring the woods in here,” he said.
His vision included Japanese maples, a coveted small tree that can be challenging to grow in Minnesota. (Most species are hardy only to Zone 5, and most of the Twin Cities is Zone 4.) He started researching growers, seeking out distinctive varieties and dwarf species that wouldn’t outgrow the confined space of the atrium. “That’s the trick with this thing,” he said.
He found the trees he wanted, but the grower didn’t want to sell them to someone in Zone 4. But Olafson insisted — and eventually got his trees. They have thrived, with a few exceptions. (One was lost to frost; another was shredded by hail.)
While they cover the Japanese maples with blankets on the coldest nights, Olafson attributes their longevity to the atrium. “It’s protected,” he said, “a microclimate.”
Redesigning the atrium garden has been a process of trial and error for Olafson. He kept the granite birdbath but modified just about everything else.
“My big problem was the middle,” he said. “I tried a water feature but it was a disaster. It looked silly.”
Besides, water attracts birds, which is a problem inside an atrium. “They get trapped in here and freak out,” Bennett said.
In place of water, the atrium has a dry streambed that evokes a winding stream. To complement the Japanese maples, Olafson has planted ferns, Japanese forest grass, coralbells, hosta, stonecrop, moneywort, cypress and juniper.
“The combo of what we have is working for me,” he said.
Now that the plants are mature, the garden is relatively low-maintenance, aside from pruning the Japanese maples at least once a year.
“I had a guy come who was a bonsai expert. He showed me how he’d cut.”
And because the garden is part of the house, Olafson strives to keep it tidy. That means picking up leaves, brushing away spider webs and using a ShopVac to clean up the cottonwood debris that settles into the atrium from trees in the neighborhood.
Their secluded garden is a serene oasis — a mini-retreat whenever they need a dose of calm.
“When I have a hard business deal going on, I sit there,” said Bennett, pointing to the bench in the atrium.
Olafson takes satisfaction in a garden composition that now lives up to his vision for the unusual space.
“We finally got it right.”