An Annual Redesign Transforms Minneapolis Garden

Like an artist who paints over a finished canvas to start anew, Chad Smude reinvents the gardens that surround the Minneapolis home he shares with Ron Sterbenz every season. It’s not that he has anything against perennials and shrubs: Smude just prefers the complete transformation he achieves by relying on annuals, most of which he starts himself in a stunning hilltop greenhouse on the lot next door.

The front yard features  frothy cascades of color and texture. (Alex Steinberg)

The 20-by-30-foot Nexus greenhouse holds thousands of annuals and a pond for overwintering koi fish.  (Alex Steinberg)

You don’t often see a 20-by-30-foot greenhouse on a city lot. But shortly after the couple bought their home in 2003, they purchased the adjacent lot from a builder who had torn down the existing house and never built another. The two built the greenhouse in 2009 and since then have put it to good use. Every season, Smude starts 2,000 to 2,500 annuals in the greenhouse, which also houses a large indoor pond filled with koi that are primarily cared for by Sterbenz.

The koi pond is swathed in assorted bright coleus. (Alex Steinberg)

“Ron is responsible for the fish, and I’m responsible for the plants,” Smude explains, before telling the story of how the two free koi they got years ago for their backyard pond sparked Sterbenz’s interest in the specially bred carp. And those fish became the impetus for the greenhouse. “We joke that those fish were the most expensive free thing we’ve ever gotten,” he says.

Hostas add serene resting places for the eye. (Alex Steinberg)

Before turning the yard over to annuals, Smude and Sterbenz first removed overgrown shrubs and several old arborvitae. The change let in more light and revealed the existing retaining walls,  giving the landscape a terraced, layered look.

Smude fills garden beds on both lots with annuals every summer. With input from Sterbenz, he always comes up with a different design using mostly favorite annuals: numerous varieties of coleus, lantana, Argyranthemum, salvia, geraniums, moss roses, marigolds, and New Guinea impatiens. Dahlias of different heights and types also play a starring role, as does Persian shield, an annual with striking purple foliage and violet blooms.

Bright annuals, from impatiens to marigolds to coleus, outline the driveway. (Alex Steinberg)

To add texture and resting places for the eye among the bursts of color, he uses accent plants such as cat mint vine, licorice vine, iboza vine, and iresine as well as winter-hardy varieties of mint and thyme. And there are a few perennials and shrubs around, particularly in the front yard and on the greenhouse lot where beds include hostas, phlox, Asiatic lilies, sedum, peonies, bearded iris, and ‘Savannah Debutante’ daylily. “I especially like that daylily because it blooms late in the season and its blooms are a warm, almost peach color,” Smude says.

A favorite daylily: the lovely ‘Savannah Debutante.’ (Alex Steinberg)

In the fall, the garden’s life begins again when Smude takes cuttings from annuals, roots them for spring planting, cleans up the beds, and plants 1,500 tulips. “I love doing that because when the tulips come up, you get this burst of color after we’ve been starved for color for months,” he says. He buys varieties that bloom early so the flowers will be finished bythe time he needs to start planting seedlings.

It’s a lot of work, he admits—30 hours per week during peak growing season. But he enjoys it—and so do others. “Probably the best compliment I’ve ever gotten was from an elderly man who told me that he drives past every day to visit his wife at a nursing home. He said, ‘Seeing this lifts me up every time.’ And it made me feel good to know that I was making someone’s life a little better.”

(Alex Steinberg)

Ask Before You Buy

It’s easy to  fall in love with plants when they’re in bloom. But if you want your yard to look great all year long, consider the appearance of plants throughout the season. “We get so excited in the spring in Minnesota, we buy things based on how they look in the moment. Then we find out they don’t look so nice two months later,” says gardener Chad Smude.

He suggests asking a lot of questions before you buy. How long do the blooms typically last before they fade? Will it re-bloom later in the season? Does the plant have a nice shape or interesting texture or foliage color? “You really want to understand what a plant is going to look like once the flowers are gone,” he says.

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