Creative Neighboring Leads to a Public Piazza

A St. Paul couple opens their Italian-inspired yard to the neighborhood

Photos by Tracy Walsh

Between hastas and hydrangeas, three concrete chickens perch nearby.

The pig is the first thing people notice when they walk by Vince and Kathy DiGiorno’s yard in St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park neighborhood. “Everybody asks about it,” Vince says. “Kids love it.”

Weighing nearly one ton, the stained concrete pig sits near the spiral-designed vegetable garden that anchors the front lot.

The fact that a stained concrete sculpture has become the focal point of their corner lot is a bit ironic, as the DiGiornos purchased it on a whim when they saw it at a garden store one evening. It struck them as appropriate since they already had three concrete chickens (in honor of the hens they keep with neighbors), and they lived near the University of Minnesota’s agriculture-focused campus. Moreover, they wanted something that couldn’t be stolen. “The pig weighs 1,800 pounds or some crazy amount,” Kathy explains. “He’s not going anywhere.” But unlike the sculpture, other aspects of their landscaping are the result of much deliberation.

The DiGiornos turned their attention to their yard about 10 years ago after Vince, an architect, designed a screen porch addition off the back of the house. Until then, they had focused mostly on the interior of their two-story, with not nearly as much attention dedicated to the outside. “Every year, we’d buy some annuals, but we didn’t have any kind of a plan,” Kathy notes.

The only thing they knew for sure: The pea shrubs planted along the sidewalk needed to go. They had never liked the 9-foot-high hedge, and in fact, Vince and his father-in-law had once cut it to the ground. “It just grew right back up—like a weed,” he says.

A shallow stream, greenery, and perennials create a calm, serene outdoor space for neighbors to enjoy.

The new porch inspired new ideas. They envisioned sitting in it and watching the goings-on in their neighborhood, like students walking to class, parishioners going into the church across the street, and kids playing nearby. “Part of living in the city is being part of the community that’s around you and having people by here all the time,” Kathy says. “It’s just constant activity. It’s fun to be able to see that.”

They realized they wanted their yard to be an extension of their home, which had ultimately become a gathering place. Over the years, they had filled their six bedrooms with their own four children, but also a string of au pairs, students, cousins, and other guests. Why not open up their yard to visitors as they’d opened their house? Why not make it a “public piazza” of sorts?

Design Thinking

Lush ivy and an inviting patio add warmth and charm to this St. Paul garden home.

With that as the goal, Vince set to work on a plan and approached the project by drawing inspiration from his time spent living in Rome during college, and the family’s European travels. If anything, he’s a believer in the tried-and-true when it comes to design. The porch, for example, is a “golden rectangle.” Its dimensions are 14-by-24 feet and yield a proportion that is said to have pleased the ancients, while the shape is found in the facades of Roman temples.

For the yard, Vince turned to Fibonacci. The Italian mathematician is famous for a number sequence that, when plotted, yields a spiral shape commonly seen in nature (think snail shells). So, Vince began drawing arcing instead of straight lines as he laid out the gardens, and as a result, the plot for vegetables in the corner of the front yard is a complete spiral. “Once we used it, I started playing with it and chopped it up,” he says, noting the sidewalk intersects some of the gardens.

He also added a rain garden and stream that runs from the porch to the garage. And for the side yard, which now is open to the street, he designed a large bluestone patio with a fire pit and built-in grilling area. Then the couple called on garden designer Kathy Fryxell and her nephew David Fryxell of Sharp Landscaping to design and install the plant selections—a mixture of hastas and other shade-loving perennials, Asian grasses, and shrubs including hydrangea and a weeping hemlock made the cut.

Throughout, the DiGiornos stayed focused on their idea of the yard becoming a public place. The stream had to be shallow, so it wouldn’t put children wandering by at risk. The patio had to be big enough to accommodate large groups. Barriers (like those pea shrubs) between them and the street were a no-go.

Conversation Pieces

The spiral-designed vegetable garden near the front of the home was inspired by the Fibonacci sequence.

Now, the result can be enjoyed from above, beside, and even in the yard. For example, Kathy likes looking down on the stream from the porch, especially when the birds are bathing. Adults walking by on the sidewalk admire the bridge over the stream, and kids like splashing in the water. “If we’re out there, we always say [to parents], ‘It’s fine with us if it’s fine with you.’” Vince says.

The patio has indeed become a gathering place, just like they envisioned. With a stone bench and other seating around the fire pit and table, they can accommodate 17 guests in their screened porch and up to 20 more on the patio. The capacity allows them to host office, church, graduation, and even their neighborhood’s National Night Out parties.

Their yard has truly become one more way the DiGiornos connect with their neighbors. “Having the garden and being out working in it, you meet so many more of your neighbors and get to know people in a way you didn’t before,” Kathy says.

Vince is especially pleased when someone asks about the thinking behind the couple’s choices. He recalls one woman who asked about the shape of the gardens: “I started telling her about the Fibonacci spiral, and she said, ‘I told my husband it wasn’t just some random curve. There’s a reason why they did that.’”

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