Local Couple Cultivates a Magical, Evolving Garden

by | Apr 2017

Photo: Emily J. Davis

Heidi Henderson and Doug Miller cultivate a magical, evolving green space.

Heidi Henderson’s garden has grown from small tinkering to a full-blown passion. How can she tell? For starters, lawn mowing. What used to take just under two hours to mow now takes about seven. While her mother was an avid gardener, Henderson didn’t have much of a green thumb as a kid. Now, Henderson and her husband Doug Miller’s large backyard is almost entirely garden—a creation that has evolved during years of trial and error, and a lot of fun.

“When I moved in with Doug, he had this very extensive grassy lawn that needed management and maintenance,” says Henderson. “I bought some perennials, and then we were hooked.”

The garden is a sprawling wonderland of perennials, annuals and native plants mixed with paths, spots to rest for a scenic view, and flowing water. Henderson describes their garden as wild and informal. She gravitates toward plants that are beneficial to the environment, birds and insects, and those that are artistically interesting—especially the color of a flower or the shape of a pod. However, if nature has a better idea of what she should plant, she’s OK with that.

“There’s one plant that I’ve tried in one area several times, and it’s never worked,” she says. “You need to listen to the plants; they’ll tell you. If it works, it will flourish. If it doesn’t, it’ll die on you. Sometimes you can’t force these things.”

Henderson cites the stress relief she and Miller get from working in the garden as the main reason it has expanded so rapidly. “Doug loves to move dirt and rocks around, as we change the garden,” she says with a laugh. “We didn’t expect [the garden] would take over both our front and back yard. We joke that we should just have a pile of rocks to move back and forth.”

The garden has transformed as the couple has discovered new ideas from observing other gardens or from recent travels.

“Last year, Doug created a bamboo water feature that leads to its own pool that was inspired after a trip to Ecuador,” says Henderson. This isn’t the only water feature in the garden. They also have a pond deep enough to swim in, a bog filled with native plants, and three waterfalls.

While the pond isn’t long enough to swim laps, it’s a great place to go for a dip in the summer to cool down. “Our dog loves swimming in it,” says Henderson. “When you’re in the pond, surrounded by plants, you feel like you’re in another world apart from civilization.”

And the pond is a gathering place for more than just Henderson, Miller and their pooch. “The bird life is great; we have a very active backyard,” says Henderson. “This past summer, I saw three different varieties of swallowtails and numerous bees.”

A neighborhood mink is another frequent visitor to the pond, usually looking to snack on the other creatures who swim there. Originally, Henderson had koi in the pond, but decided to downsize to goldfish after too many koi were lost to encounters with the mink. “It was very sad to see them meet their fate,” she says.

When they’re not hauling rocks or dipping in the pond, Henderson and Miller love to sit and enjoy the fruits of their labors. They’ve set up several areas to relax in the garden, from the overlook where they got married to a swing looking out on the marsh.

Watching the garden spring to life is one of Henderson’s favorite parts of the project. “I love watching everything come up in the spring and emerging from the soil,” says Henderson. “The swing by the marsh is heaven to sit in, and we love to sit out on the overlook with a glass of wine.”

Looking to the future, Henderson believes the garden will continue to be in a state of flux, changing with the seasons and their favorite plants at the time.

“We’re kind of maxing out on space right now,” says Henderson. “We mostly work on refining it and having it flow a little differently each year. One thing we want to focus on is revamping the area to make it more pollinator-friendly.”

The beauty of the garden isn’t a well-kept secret. Last year, Henderson and Miller were invited to be part of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s annual garden tour. The tour brought together 500 staff members, gardeners and tourists over four days to look at private gardens in the greater metro area.

“That was the first time we have opened up what we do to the public,” says Henderson. “Mostly it has been our families and friends, or neighbors looking for gardening advice.”

Henderson is happy to share her gardening experience to others. Her main piece of advice? “I was totally unprepared for the babies that the mature plants would produce,” she laughs. “Every year, all these little babies pop up and I have such a hard time thinking of them as weeds and pulling them.”

She also emphasizes the importance of knowing when to let plants dictate where they best grow, and when to step in. “If you listen to Mother Nature, they’ll tell you where they actually like to live. You have to follow their lead, but not allow them to take over completely. It’s a fine line of listening but reining them in.”

While the garden is a time-consuming project, Henderson loves encouraging others to join in on the fun. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s so rewarding and you can just lose yourself in it. Both the work, and sitting and enjoying it. It’s totally worth it.”

The only problem with having such a beautiful natural space?

“It interferes with our ability to get out of the house,” she says with a smile. “It’s hard to find anywhere better than here.”


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