Photos by Tracy Walsh
“It’s the only place I can go to not think about anything else and really appreciate where I am and what I’m doing,” says Marsha Loewenson when asked about her passion for gardening.
Inspired by her mother, an enthusiastic gardener who was also a painter and dress designer, Loewenson already knew a fair amount about plants when she and her husband, Dan, bought their house on Minneapolis’ Diamond Lake in 1985.
But it wasn’t until she retired from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and spent 10 years working at Tangletown Gardens that she really learned what works and what doesn’t. She explains, “Working there, I learned so much about how to combine different textures and colors and bring things together. That’s when I got going on my own garden, too.”
Of course, that’s not to say that everything is a cinch for Loewenson—like all gardeners, she always has a new challenge to tackle, such as what to do with the front yard after the loss of an enormous pine tree.
And then there’s the backyard, where Loewenson has managed to create an artful sense of cohesion between different areas of the property. The English-style formality of the clipped boxwoods and perennial beds in the upper part of the yard complement the wild feel of the native and pollinator plants that bloom on the steep hillside and lead to the lake. “I think the gardens are working together pretty well now, but I went through a lot of trial and error to figure out what plants to use in the top part of the yard that would hint at what’s below on the hillside,” she says, adding that it helps to start with “the bones” of the garden first (trees and shrubs) and add more plants from there.
Another key to Loewenson’s success is her way of framing things in the garden, says her husband, who sees his role as a kind of apprentice since he helps out by digging holes, mulching, and building steps. “Look around and you’ll see there are different sections with their own character,” he explains. “Everything moves from the house to the lake, and she chooses certain plants and where they’re placed to create little surprises that connect everything together.”
One thing Loewenson plans to do next is plant a wider variety of wildflowers on the hill alongside the milkweed and butterfly weed that have started to take over. She may also add a few more small trees to the formal areas of the garden to create structure without obscuring the view. But whatever she does, she knows she’s going to love it. “My philosophy is to love what you’re doing,” she says. “If it brings you great joy, you’re doing the right thing.”
Thrillers, Fillers, and Spillers
Everyone has heard the advice: If you want to create truly stunning container gardens, you’ll need to use thrillers, fillers, and spillers—i.e. plants that add drama and a vertical element; plants that are more rounded to make the container look full; and plants that hang over the edge of the pot. But to take things to the next level, Loewenson likes to combine unusual plants that aren’t often used in containers like banana trees, elephant ears, large ferns, coleus, pineapple lilies, and ornamental oregano. Even if the combinations don’t always work, it’s fun to experiment with things you’ve never done before. “If you have good structure, texture, and color, containers can really enhance your garden, especially in areas devoid of color at certain times of the summer,” she says.