If you’re looking for a by-the-book lesson in landscape design, you won’t find it in the gardens that surround Dean Engelmann’s home in Victoria. As soon as construction was finished on the house he and his wife Jill built in 2006, Engelmann had 21 semi loads of compacted dirt hauled away and 22 semi loads of healthy soil hauled in. Next, he picked up a shovel and started breaking just about every oft-heard design principle you can think of. “I did that on purpose to say that it’s okay to break the rules,” he says. “I want people to see that rules really should be broken for the right reasons.”
Talk with Engelmann for even five minutes, and you’ll see that this desire is driven by joy, not haughtiness. Since earning his degree in environmental horticulture from the University of Minnesota in 1996, he’s never stopped learning, and his exuberance for all things plant-related is energizing to be around.
Don’t like or see the sense in a design rule? Break it and see for yourself what you think. Take, for example, the oft-heard advice to plant in threes: “People do that because they think they have to, but almost every group of plants in my gardens is in pairs because that’s the way I like it. Gardens should reflect your personality, and in my case that’s high-intensity and high-energy. It’s fun to take even the most basic of rules and squash them.”
Above: Boulevard gardens are anchored by a ‘Cesarini Blue’ linder pine, weeping white spruce, and ‘Jade Butterflies’ gingko but are always changing thanks to annuals such as flowering tobacco red salvia, and canna lilies.
Engelmann is the co-owner of Tangletown Gardens, a Minneapolis garden center known for offering organically grown, unusual, and hard-to-find plants, as well as distinctive landscape design services. You get a glimpse of Engelmann’s unique style at the garden center as well as at Wise Acre Eatery next door, which he also owns with his friend and business partner Scott Endres.
Both men are particularly fond of the intense colors and distinctive shapes and sizes found in tropical plants such as banana trees, elephant ears, castor beans, coleus, and canna lilies. And Engelmann includes hundreds of tropicals in his home gardens each year, most of them produced on Tangletown’s 100-acre farm near Plato, Minnesota, which he runs, while both he and Endres oversee the garden center and restaurant.
Above: Engelmann designed the gardens along the front walk to be a kind of mini garden tour, including a striking weeping larch and red-leaf banana plants in containers.
Engelmann enjoyed starting his home gardens from a clean slate; he says he didn’t want to be “boxed in” by a set design. “So I didn’t draw anything, I just sort of thought of my landscape as a canvas that I got to start painting with a whole bunch of colors,” he recalls. Over time, he has created what he describes as a combination of a designer’s garden and a plant collector’s garden. “I have a lot of unusual and unique things, but I’ve also placed them in ways that invoke some high design because I want to appreciate the plants but also the ways they’re used.”
Rather than following the edict to create focal points, for example, he opted to design 44 distinctly different gardens in his front and back yards, each one contributing to the overall look of the landscape in some way. While some areas feel calming and relaxing, others are exciting and inspiring, while still others offer an unexpected combination of those approaches. And though he knows gardeners are advised to restrain themselves when it comes to tchotchkes, he enjoys incorporating metal donkeys, roosters, and goats, as well as statues and birdbaths, into garden beds to ensure there’s something fun or eye-catching around every turn.
Above: Weeping Norway spruce flank the arbor that leads to the backyard patio, which provides needed open space in the midst of the otherwise fully planted gardens.
Many of the vignettes Engelmann creates include trees, which he loves, particularly if they are uncommon and underused species such as yellowwood (Cladrastis lutea), a flowering tree with fragrant, wisteria-like blooms that grows 30- to 50-feet tall. And ‘Autumn Splendor’ Ohio buckeye (Aesculus x arnoldiana ‘Autumn Splendor’), a medium-sized tree developed by the University of Minnesota with yellow flowers and attractive gray bark.
He’s also a big fan of specialty conifers in every size and shape, including ‘Cesarini Blue’ limber pine and weeping Norway spruce (Picea abies ‘Cincinnata’), which can both be found in the backyard next to the 7-foot-deep pond stocked with Japanese koi. Other favorites include weeping white spruce and weeping larch.
Above left: Gingko trees of various types are used throughout Engelmann’s gardens, which feature many underused trees. Above right: Front-yard beds include ‘Royal Frost’ birch trees and metal goats that Engelmann likes to use as accents.
“If there ever was a touch-me plant in the world, it’s weeping larch,” he says. “I designed the path to the front door to be like a mini garden tour, and you have to walk by a weeping larch. Nine out of ten people stop to touch it.”
Above: A trough filled with succulents near the front door never needs water. Crowded plants are periodically plucked out and taken to the farm where they’re used to produce new ones.
Be Bold with Annuals
One of the most striking things about Tangletown’s garden-design sensibility is Dean Engelmann and Scott Endres’s ability to combine annuals in adventurous and dramatic ways. At home, Engelmann uses annuals differently every year to give his boulevard gardens a new and head-turning look. You can do the same thing in garden beds and containers using a few simple techniques.
For a big impact, Engelmann suggests combining big, bold annuals. You can’t go wrong with coleus, which last all season and are now available in a variety of colors and growing habits, including trailing varieties. He also likes elephant ear, red and purple salvia and Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus), an underused annual often grown as a houseplant that has bright purple and green leaves.
Also try plant showstoppers like canna lilies, particularly those with burgundy leaves such as ‘Intrigue’, ‘Tropicanna Black,’ and ‘Constitution.’ Want eye-catching, variegated cannas? Try ‘Phasion,’ ‘Bengal Tiger,’ and ‘Stuttgart’.
If you’ve got the room, get yourself some flowering tobacco plants (Nicotiana sylvestris), which grow 3- to 5-feet tall and have clusters of pretty, trumpet-shaped white blooms. Or try some of the many shorter (12- to 18-inches tall) hybrid and species varieties available. They still have the same flower shape, but blooms are a variety of colors including red, lime green, pink, yellow, and purple.
Annuals can be incorporated into garden areas to add color to blah spots or just make a statement on their own. If your soil isn’t in great shape or you don’t have much room to work with, consider putting a few plants in containers and setting them out in the garden. If you go that route, Engelmann suggests keeping arrangements to three or fewer plants so you get a lasting arrangement that won’t wind up “looking like a disco ball.”