Most gardeners wouldn’t choose a patch of land that was pretty much a solid wall of buckthorn to call home. But Michaeleen Kruger and her husband Rick couldn’t pass up the secluded property they found in Minnetonka in 1987. After a long search, they’d finally found a site that met both of their must-have criteria: “He had to be able to look out of one side of the house and see nothing but woods; and I had to be within walking distance of a Dairy Queen,” Michaeleen recalls, laughing.
After the house was built, the couple headed into the woods to remove buckthorn to make room for what would be their first garden beds. Over time, doing nearly all of the work themselves, they have carved out a landscape that includes three ponds; a few patches of raspberries, gooseberries, peonies, and other sun-loving plants; and more than 20 unique garden beds filled with hundreds of primarily shade plants, including 125 varieties of hostas.
Though she started learning to garden as a kid working alongside her parents at home, Michaeleen has never stopped seeking out gardening lessons. In addition to being a University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener in Hennepin County, she (and Rick) takes courses as needed on topics like landscape design and pond construction. “Our third pond is much better than our first two because we took a course before we made that one,” she says. “It really helped us avoid problems like installing a lining that leaks.”
Mindful of the need to stick to a budget with a garden so big, Michaeleen says she primarily shops plant sales but also happily accepts plants from other gardeners who are willing to share. “I don’t just go out and pay to have a garden,” she explains. “I like to share plants, and I also split a lot of my plants and move them around the garden, so you’ll see the same thing repeated in a lot of different spots. It’s nothing elaborate, but it feels good to walk through.”
Throughout the gardens Michaeleen uses coleus and other annuals as well as a variety of tropical plants to add color and texture to beds that are largely lush with the green hues of ferns, mosses, sedum, astilbes and hostas. Many of the tropicals are planted in containers and interspersed with perennials. She overwinters the ones she likes most—‘Red King Humbert’ and ‘Pink Sunburst’ cannas and ‘Fannie Munson’ caladium—in a greenhouse above the garage.
Of all of her plants, Michaeleen’s favorites are early blooming woodland-natives such as Virginia bluebells, bloodroot, mayapple, trillium and sharp-lobed hepatica. But she also loves the dramatic structure of Angelica gigas, a Korean native and biennial that blooms in its second year. Other favorites include red barrenwort, a fast-growing perennial that flowers in spring and offers colorful fall foliage, as well as variegated Jacob’s ladder, ‘Desdemona’ and ‘Midnight Lady’ ligularia, ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ bugbane, Japanese forest grass, great blue lobelia and toad lilies. “All of the different plants in all the distinct areas of the garden are kind of a happy accident because I don’t plan that much. I just like to get out there and do it,” she says.
What’s the next project? A Japanese garden and a fourth pond. “I’ve already started clearing the area for the Japanese garden,” Michaeleen says, explaining that she lays out long lengths of rope to determine the shape of the pond. “I know I must be crazy to want to add another garden area, but this whole yard is an organic process that’s always changing and I love it.”