They tried condo living. It didn’t agree with them. Something was missing. Was it neighbors they could say hello to over the fence? Dining al fresco? Snipping herbs from their own garden?
It was all of the above. And more. For Kate and Chris Crosby, there’s just something about living in a house that’s been home to generations of families and still looks a lot like it did when it was built. They found a saltbox Colonial that resembled something from a Norman Rockwell painting. Its corner lot atop a gentle slope made it look bigger than it actually was, and it was on one of the prettiest streets in St. Paul. Perfect for just the two of them now that the kids were grown.
Not that they were averse to making the house their own. When they finished remodeling—among the upgrades was a lovely pergola connecting the house to the garage—they turned their attention to the yard.
Tangletown Gardens sent designer Olivia Spyra to help them out. The house was surrounded by grass on three sides; turf carpeted the shady front slope as well as the large backyard. The Crosbys wanted a welcoming entry in front and a kitchen garden. Beyond that, Spyra was pretty much given carte blanche. “The clients’ objective was basically to remove the lawn,” she remembers.
She saved a few patches of grass, notably a broad section running along the upper elevation of the front yard. The slope was partially terraced with a high sandstone retaining wall.
A broad brick walk descends from the front stoop, makes a right-hand turn, and eventually passes beneath a new birch grove. On the steepest sections at either end of the retaining wall, Spyra planted alternating rows of caramel- and golden-colored coralbells, clumps of Japanese forest grass, and huge blue-leaved hostas.
While the shady front gardens supplied instant impact through a simple, orderly plan, the back was more complicated. The plantings along the side of the house would evolve in fits and starts. “It’s a work in progress,” Spyra says. Hardscaping came first; it created an overall structure that would tie the spaces together as the trial-and-error process of plant selection ran its course.
The back gate opens into the main garden. A formal brick walkway curves around the garage between tidy rows of lamium ‘White Nancy’ and boxwood on one side, and allium, Russian sage, Baptisia ‘Carolina Moon’, peonies, and sedum on the other. In the center of the garage wall is a lovely espaliered apple called ‘Hat Trick’; the plant produces not one but three different apple species. Around the corner, between the garage and the house, Spyra tucked in a gravel garden with a diminutive seating area. The brick walk ends in a semi-circular terrace overlooking the perennial garden. From this slightly elevated perch, brick steps lead to the garden.
Now the design switches gears. An informal path meanders among sun-loving plants, while creeping Jenny ‘Aurea’ (a lime-green groundcover) fills the cracks between bluestone flags. In the sunniest corner, four grade-level beds are home to herbs and vegetables.
Beneath mature shade trees, Spyra created an understory of ornamental trees and shrubs. These include three apple trees, a stunning Japanese white pine, a Japanese ‘Emperor’ Maple, and a Korean Maple. In the dappled shade of a honey locust, ‘Summer Beauty’ allium thrives.
In the first year, the plants were too small to achieve coherence, but the following summer they grew like crazy and the garden suddenly seemed, to Spyra’s trained eye, “too busy.” Some plants were booted out to make room for more of what worked.
“Getting it right was a bit of a struggle,” Spyra admits, sounding almost apologetic. But then gardens always are a bit of a struggle. What fun would it be if they weren’t? Meanwhile, the Crosbys have a new hobby: They’ve discovered gardening.