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When Cindy and Mike Colson moved into their Chanhassen home almost 25 years ago, their backyard was a clay hill covered in buckthorn and weedy trees.

The yard, which sloped away from the house toward a lake, had once been part of a maple and basswood forest. The Colsons saw potential and wanted to re-create a woodland habitat. Today the buckthorn and many of the original trees are gone, replaced by a carefully planned, shaded retreat with a garden pool, winding paths and the woodsy, peaceful feel they envisioned when the garden existed only in their imagination. The Colsons’ creation is one of six Beautiful Gardens selected last year from more than 165 nominated gardens.

Cindy said her interest in redoing the yard was rooted in memories of her father’s Roseville garden, his love of forested places and his enthusiasm for planting trees. He was an artist who worked with natural materials. Those memories also inspired Mike, who longed for a peaceful retreat in the backyard after busy workdays.

“We were trying for a natural look like the North Shore,” he said. “We wanted the serenity of natural surroundings ... but what we envisioned was a bigger job than we could do alone.”

The Colsons hired professionals to remove 20 trees, install 120 boulders to tier and shape the yard and amend the clay with 80 cubic yards of good soil. Cindy wanted to design the plantings herself and buried herself in landscape design and garden books. She visited other yards on garden tours to get ideas and took classes to become a Master Gardener.

The work on the yard has continued each year. Spring is for adding shrubs, trees and perennials, and winters are spent contemplating what to add and change the next year. Today the backyard has a series of mostly shady garden “rooms” linked by winding paths of limestone pavers.

Focus on foliage

While there are a few spots for sun-loving peonies, daylilies and sedums, most of the yard is so shady that the garden features plants chosen not for flowers but for foliage that creates interest all season long. Hostas big and small, with blue, green, lime and variegated leaves, share the borders with ferns, astilbes, bleeding hearts, ligularia and turtlehead. Perennial geraniums, or cranesbills, don’t always bloom well in deep shade, but their mounds of deeply cut leaves provide an interesting and delicate filler between bigger perennials with bolder leaves.

Cindy is especially fond of aralia “Sun King,” a shrublike perennial with bold yellow leaves that retains its startling color in shade. Another favorite is a Japanese maple with lime-colored leaves that she bought in Chicago. Though Japanese maples are not reliably hardy in Minnesota, her first tree has survived winters and she added another one last summer.

One of the giants in the border is yellow wax bells (Kirengeshoma palmata), another plant that is a zone shy of being hardy here but has thrived in a protected spot for years. The plant, which is about 3 to 4 feet high, has enormous maple-like leaves, and late in summer bears sprays of impressive yellow flowers that light up a shady area.

Though the garden has proved too dark for viburnums to flower, those large shrubs provide structure in the back of borders, and the leaves look nice all summer long, Cindy noted. To add season-long color, she plants large pots with shade-tolerant annuals like begonias, putting the pots on pedestals to make the blooming flowers pop in the border.

Some parts of the garden are hidden by vegetation, so visitors follow paths that lead from one garden room to another. Cindy, who is a retired food scientist and enjoys research, said that for design and planning purposes she and Mike divided the backyard into 27 sections. Each had a focal point, and Cindy said she tried to create unity using texture and contrast.

Nature intervenes

But as with any garden, some plans worked and others didn’t. Trees died, some perennials failed to thrive and others ran wild.

“It was wonderful to learn design principles,” Cindy said. “But things grow faster than you think. So I’m changing things now, filling holes. I want healthy plants more than a set design.”

At the north end of the yard the paths lead to a Zen garden with a tall “Zen rock” and other boulders that are placed to make visitors feel like they are in the mountains. Ginger, Solomon’s seal, ferns and hosta grow there, and Cindy is thinking about adding a native plant garden nearby.

Benches are scattered throughout the yard to allow visitors to sit and gaze at the spaces or be alone with their thoughts. At the center of the backyard is a teardrop pond with moving water. Because it is one of the only sunny areas in the garden, flowering perennials such as bee balm and Joe Pye weed grow in a bed that curves around the pond and an area with a table and chairs.

Cindy said she has never used insecticides in the garden, letting nature take its course. “As gardeners we have to let go of perfection and enjoy the beauty of what has happened,” she said. “I enjoy seeing plants thrive, but we’ve learned to love imperfection.”

Though he is now mostly retired, Mike said one of his fondest garden memories is coming home from work, dropping his briefcase, changing his clothes and going into the backyard. The pond is a good place to share a beer, he said, and perhaps watch the birds that frequent the garden. Work energy would dissipate, and he would “feel really quiet.”

The garden is “an ever-changing palette,” he said. “The light changes, plants develop and grow, some plants die. There’s a sense of having created something really beautiful.”

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

Garden secrets

Tips from Mike and Cindy Colson:

• Tackle your garden in sections to make the job less intimidating.

• Look to landscape design books for guidance and inspiration.

• In a shade garden, the textures and leaf colors of perennials are more important than flowers. Leaves will be there all summer; flowers last only a short time.

• Don’t be afraid to experiment with Zone 5 plants in the Twin Cities’ Zone 4. Gardens often have microclimates where plants may not only survive but thrive.

• Remember that nature is in charge, and plants are unpredictable. Instead of fighting nature, go with the flow.