Unruly trees and a primarily shaded backyard are no match for the green thumbs of Bette and Curt Fenton.
Linden trees meticulously sculpted in the shape of spades line the boulevard of their Hopkins home, where potted flowers are artfully displayed out front.
Head to the backyard and you'll find themed gardens that are such showstoppers that the Fentons' yard, named one of this year's Star Tribune Beautiful Gardens contest winners, is a regular stop when local garden tours roll around.
Bette and Curt's gardens are a culmination of the 45 years they've lived in their home and have been practicing their favorite hobby. It started with a vegetable patch with things like strawberries, asparagus, potatoes and corn.
"We would do a fish fry for the neighborhood each year," Bette said. "Curt would catch crappies and sunfish or whatever and then we would have sweet corn with it and take the potatoes and make French fries."
These days, the vegetable garden, which took up the entire south side of the yard, is no more.
"The vegetable garden was kind of practical back then but now the kids are older [and moved out]," Bette said. "I remember how the kids hated weeding it when they were little and they would complain like crazy."
Doing away with the vegetable garden has only left more space for the Fentons to practice their love for gardening in bonsai- and flower-filled ways. Bette takes the lead on the flowers, Curt the trees.
Bette learned to garden from her mom, an avid gardener whose spirit is still very much alive, especially when the cardinals visit the garden, singing as if to say hello from the other side. Bette hones her skills by experimenting as well as by comparing notes with other gardeners, including those in the Men's and Women's Garden Club of Minneapolis, of which she is a member.
"It's been a great resource," she said. "There are so many people who are truly experts and willing to share information."
Interior design outdoors
Listen to Bette talk about her garden strategy, and it brings to mind an interior design approach.
She often dreams up ways to create container combinations that add dimension, mixing various shapes, textures and heights. Before planting, she soaks plants in water to make sure the potting soil is saturated and pliable.
"Then I can shape that plant root so if it's in a round pot, I can shape it round. Or if I need a plant to drape over the side for a big sideshow, then I'll plant at an angle," she said. "Everything is put in the pot in the direction I want it to go."
To tie all those variations together, she sticks to similar hues.
"My go-to color palette is the same inside the house as it is outside," she said. "The plant that really inspires me is a hibiscus called Tequila and it's yellow, pink rose-colored, orange with kind of that deep burgundy in the middle."
The gardens are also dotted with one-of-a-kind art, each with special meaning and a story behind it.
Bette's sister, a potter, created pots by pressing lace curtains from their childhood home and their mother's wedding veil. The pots hang along fence beams and double as wall art. In the hosta-laden St. Francis garden, a towering statue of the patron saint of nature and animals is a statement piece.
"We were in New Mexico and Santa Fe and met the artist, who is from Guadalajara, Mexico," Bette said. "We paid him to carve it for us and then we didn't hear from him for like five years. And then he called one day and said, 'Your statue is ready and at the border.' "
In addition to perennials that return each year, the Fentons estimated they had filled at least 130 containers with plants this past season.
Some came from local nurseries while others, such as hostas, were a community effort.
"A lot of them are from friends and sharing. We would dig out that one plant and then split it over and over again," Bette said. "All the hostas you see lining the front of the house came from one plant and we shared it with a bunch of our neighbors who have their entire yards filled with them."
Over the years, Bette has learned which flowers thrive in shade. Ask her today, and she can rattle off a list that includes coleus, ivy, cordylines, bridal veil, dracaena and papyrus. Colorful clematis climb trellises, towering lilies sprout from garden beds and Viking begonias adorn pots.
"Caladiums do extremely well, as do all of the different impatiens, especially SunPatiens because they're so vibrant and they can take it if the sun doesn't break through," Bette said. "I like all types of elephant ears — they give me big drama."
In sections of the yard that get more sun, echinacea and monkshood mingle with bonsais.
Curt, an art lover, first took an interest in bonsai after visiting a Mother's Day show at the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory. Fascinated to learn more about the ancient Japanese art form, he became a member of the Minnesota Bonsai Society.
The 17 bonsais in the Fentons' garden include limber and ponderosa pines.
"I like these [limber pines] because they have smaller needles. They are just perfect for bonsai," Curt said. "Ponderosas are easy to take care of and more forgiving. They're really easy to water."
For anyone starting out, Curt advises soaking bonsai roots in water before potting them for a healthy start. He uses copper wires to guide branches until they are strong enough to maintain their shape because at first, they "all want to go toward the sun."
Recently, their 10-year-old grandson Owen has taken a liking to the art form, and helps his grandfather with the watering. "You can kill a bonsai really easy if you don't know how to water. You can overwater it, underwater it," Curt said.
The type of bonsai also determines how to best maintain them. Japanese maples have to go inside once it gets cold out and be placed in a more shaded area of the yard because "they can't take the Minnesota winter and they don't like much sun," Curt said. In contrast, ponderosas from the Rocky Mountains can thrive outside during the winters, and "they love the hot sun."
One time the Fentons invited a member of the local bonsai society to help them sculpt bonsais. Kevin Oshima, who trained in Japan and runs a bonsai nursery in Lakeland, showed Curt how to trim other trees in the yard as well. Now, Curt gives them regular haircuts.
"The Japanese pagoda tree is trimmed in a bonsai pattern. The magnolia tree is trimmed like a bonsai," Bette said. "And the apple tree and the lilac — Curt bonsai-d those, too."
When fall rolls around, the Fentons invite University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener volunteers to harvest the potted plants and help spread the garden joy.
"They take my pots apart and sell hundreds and hundreds of plants that can be used as indoor plants at a plant sale," Bette said. "That way it doesn't all go to waste."