Francine Savage began dreaming of how she would expand and change the gardens at her Minneapolis house from the moment she saw them five years ago. Though she loved her new home’s Mediterranean style, some of the front gardens were heavily shaded by mature trees on the south and west sides. And the backyard was practically a blank slate.
Today, Savage describes her landscape as continually evolving “because gardeners are never really done.” Her garden might be more of a journey than most because it embraces the styles—and many of the plants—she learned to love as she lived in Virginia, Washington, D.C., Texas, and the Netherlands. “Every time I’ve moved, I’ve been influenced by different gardening styles,” Savage explains. “In Austin [Texas] I loved the secret, tropical gardens, and in the Netherlands things were very clipped and orderly.”
Though she didn’t really start gardening with a passion until she moved to Austin, where she found she could grow just about anything in the warm, humid climate, Savage figures gardening is in her genes. Growing up in rural Virginia, she planted and pulled weeds alongside her parents, both avid gardeners. Her mom still enjoys gardening, and when the two of them talk by phone these days, they share stories about plants and how their gardens are growing.
“I just waded in when I moved to Austin and started doing research on plants and really getting into it,” Savage recalls. At one point she even considered switching careers and getting a degree in landscape architecture—she still may do it after she retires.
Savage worked with a landscape designer to reimagine her Minneapolis front yard, which was mostly a vast expanse of turf grass. They began by removing a few trees and repurposing others in different spots, and planting formal English-style boxwood hedges along the stone walkway leading to the front door. Bordered by begonias and other colorful annuals, the hedges add much-needed vertical structure and winter interest to the landscape while contrasting nicely with a large existing bed that includes hostas, Annabelle hydrangeas, and other Midwest favorites.
Several new pyramidal yews and a tiered fountain add an elegant touch to the walkway as it curves around the house, connecting the front yard with the back, where the gardens have a much more tropical look and feel. “I like gardens where you discover things as you turn corners, so I want it to be a surprise when you reach the back,” Savage says. And it is.
What was once a back patio and little else is now a cozy courtyard with an umbrella-covered sitting area and the showy tropical plants that she loves, including August Beauty gardenias, Star jasmine, and elephant ears, which she saves from year to year by digging up and storing the bulbs. There’s also an enormous Abyssinian banana plant that she treats as an annual because the pot is too big to bring indoors. “I like the challenge of gardening in Minnesota because everything is upside down from what I learned in Austin,” Savage says. “What was a perennial there is an annual here, and it’s fun to see how much I can get something to grow in our short season.”
Being the sort of gardener who likes to experiment and doesn’t mind moving plants around as many times as it takes to get things “right,” Savage opted to design and plant the backyard gardens herself. Her strategy is straightforward: She generally looks through gardening magazines for inspiration and then heads to the garden center to buy plants, keeping in mind her goal of creating a space that feels comfortable and inviting. “I love to go to nurseries and pick out what I like and think will do well,” she says, “but if something doesn’t work, I’m happy to move it. That’s part of the fun.”
A few boxwoods and hostas and a second fountain in the back echo the look of the front yard, but most of the plantings here are more intriguing and underused: Royal Frost birch, Red Fox katsura, Japanese maple, climbing hydrangea, and Storm Cloud Lily of the Nile. To give the courtyard more of a sense of enclosure, Savage removed a row of aged lilac shrubs along the driveway and replaced it with Degroot’s Spire Arborvitae. Just past the sitting area, a fragrant lilac tree she planted creates shade for another small table and chairs.
And she’s not done yet. She wants to build on the outdoor-room feel she’s created in the courtyard. A few home renovations she’s got in mind may upgrade the patio area. A water feature of some kind also could be in her future. “And there’s always room for new plants,” she laughs. “Gardening is a passion for me now,” she says, “something I love and enjoy doing.”