Photos by Corey Gaffer
When a busy couple moved to a home in Minneapolis’ Kenwood neighborhood, they desperately wanted to bring along the backyard they were leaving behind. The landscaping at the new house was subpar, brandishing only a few trees and too many shaded areas that left the grass spotty. Considering, it’s no wonder they wished to take with them the lush aesthetic of their former property, one with an abundance of Minnesota native plants that would not only boast a subtle tonal palette, but thrive in their new yard’s
private, sheltered areas.
“[The homeowners] emphasized to us they wanted a wild, immersive yard with intimate qualities,” says Maura Rockcastle, principal and co-founder of TEN x TEN Studio in Minneapolis, who designed the couple’s landscaping and outdoor rooms with associate John Rasmussen. The previous yard, which was just a few blocks away, “really drove this project,” Rasmussen adds, as did Minnesota’s diverse landscapes and geology. All of which, Rockcastle explains, “we interpreted to mean native plants, without any grids or straight lines, but in cleanly delineated zones.”
The couple also wanted to add a double-decker porch in the back, “one that fit the house, but not in a traditional way,” says Tom Meyer, founding principal emeritus of MSR Design. They wished to enjoy the backyard not only from the main level of the home, but also from their second-level master bedroom. The 200-square-foot porch includes tables for seating and a grill area, with a light and airy aluminum-slat façade that frames the views. “The vertical linearity of the aluminum slats lent itself to the vocabulary of the original Arts and Crafts style of the home,” Meyer adds.
From the porch, TEN x TEN created a progression of outdoor rooms. “The first floor of the porch and house are a little elevated, so it feels like you’re floating above the natural plantings below,” says Rasmussen. Those plantings include the delicate fronds of cinnamon, ostrich, northern maidenhair, and “Brilliance” autumn ferns, plus the varied textures and arching blades of Pennsylvania sedge, sweet woodruff, and no-mow fescue. Whitespire birch and Canadian hemlock provide natural borders for the carefree plants.
A deck or “bridge” of black locust floats among the plantings and leads to the quarry, a sunken outdoor room with a fire pit and border of Coldspring charcoal granite. The live-edge oak slab bench—warmer than metal or other materials for winter use—includes Japanese knots and joints. “We collaborated with a woodworker so the bench would be raw, authentic, and customized,” Rockcastle adds.
The deck terminates at a granite slab. “The quality of the details becomes more raw as you move deeper into the garden,” says Rockcastle. “We worked with reclaimed stone, rejecting piece after piece, until we found the ones with the most beautiful cut variations—then we designed the steps and walls.” The team also played with grade changes, Rasmussen adds, “to distinguish spaces, and so the clients can feel immersed in the trees and stone no matter the season.” The result is a garden of privacy and intimacy in the city.
TEN x TEN also designed the front and side yards to include a black-stained cedar fence and various pine trees (like white pine and Swiss stone) that look magical under a ray of sunlight. At the height of gardening season, Dwarf European viburnum, chokeberry, and everlow yew comprise the mid-height shrub layer. Ferns and flowering perennials like low-growing wild geranium, spiderwort, wild ginger, and “Raspberry Splash” lungwort fill the space beautifully, while more no-mow fescue, Calgary carpet juniper, and turf act as ground covers.
“We enjoy structuring outdoor spaces where the wild is the focus, yet it’s controlled along the edges,” Rasmussen explains. To date, he says, 39 birch trees have been planted in the yard, providing areas in which “the plantings are allowed to be themselves.” The structures, materials, and plantings of this lush and verdant backyard may be wild for some. For these clients, however, Rockcastle says, “it’s overgrown and unkempt in a magical way.”