Creating Cocktail Gardens in Bryn Mawr
Above: Orange calibrachoa and Cordyline ‘Red Star’ adds height and color to an eclectic boulevard garden that includes Asiatic lilies and miniature cattails.
Since moving to Minneapolis’ Bryn Mawr neighborhood in 2001, Dennie Juillerat and Kevin Thompson have become known for hosting Friday afternoon gatherings in their front yard. While grownups sip gin martinis and chat, kids run down the paths and throw pebbles into a small pond filled with plants and fish. “It’s been a great way to get to know people and bring the neighborhood together,” Juillerat says, adding that for years he’s been encouraging Thompson to write a book called The Cocktail Gardeners.
It’s a funny idea, they both agree, because when they bought the house, Thompson immediately told Juillerat that there were two things he should know: “I don’t mow lawns, and I don’t garden.” That was fine with Juillerat, who grew up gardening with his family and figured he’d handle that part of homeownership. But everything changed the day Thompson decided to plant something inside the ring of concrete blocks the former owners had placed around the base of a maple tree. “I thought I’d just go get some sedum and a couple of other things to fill that space,” he recalls. “And that’s how the gardening bug bit me.”
More than a decade later, their landscape is home to three ponds, a wide assortment of artfully designed perennial beds and a vegetable garden planted primarily in galvanized metal stock tanks. The landscaping, most of which they have done themselves, began in the backyard when they were building an addition on the house in 2003. “The yard was a complete mud pit, so while the guy was still back there with a Bobcat, we just said: ‘Hey, can you go over there and make a big hole for a pond?’” Juillerat says.
He did. And five years later, they added a second pond, joining it with the first to create one large water feature complete with a waterfall that appears to flow naturally from behind a grouping of blue-hued Moonglow junipers. Dotting the water are hardy lilies, mostly white, but also red, pink, yellow, and orange. A water lotus overwinters on the bottom of the pond where it won’t freeze, along with several goldfish and koi.
Above: A river birch shades the backyard ponds and surrounding gardens.
Curving beds filled with annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees surround the ponds and connect them to a stamped concrete patio outside the back door. Overhead, a mature river birch offers dappled shade, helping turn the space into a peaceful oasis that so far has hosted four weddings, including Juillerat and Thompson’s last year.
As they have worked together on the yard, Thompson has become the primary gardener while Juillerat focuses more on growing vegetables. Among the important lessons Thompson has learned is not to be afraid to put plants in places where others might not. This is most evident in the out-of-the-ordinary plantings in front of the house: Last year, for example, the boulevard gardens included corn, Brussels sprouts, artichokes, and miniature cattails. “This is the second year we’ve had cattails, and they draw a lot of attention,” Juillerat says, explaining that they use a rubber liner to create a mini bog for the water-loving plants.
Above: A neighbor’s water feature inspired the couple’s three ponds, including one in the front yard.
Gardens flank the curving cobblestone path that leads to the front door and winds along the side of the house. Separated from the sidewalk by a low wall, the largest and most captivating front-yard garden is home to the cocktail party pond in which an urn serves as a gently burbling fountain. And though they aren’t normally seen growing in ponds, canna lilies serve as the focal point here, along with more traditional water plants like pennywort and mare’s tail. At the pond’s edge, a Tiger Eyes staghorn sumac shades assorted ferns, horsetail rush, and curly mint.
Juillerat credits Thompson with having an eye for unusual plants and designing the flowing, natural-looking groupings that make their yard so different from other urban gardens. For Thompson, though, it feels like something deeper. “It’s hard to describe, but I think I would say that I’ve fallen in love with plants and I think I feel them somehow,” he says. “When I bring home a plant, I walk around with it until it tells me where it wants to live and then I plant it there. That’s it.”
For these Bryn Mawr gardeners, the idea to grow vegetables in stock tanks arose primarily from the need to outsmart a destructive groundhog.
But Dennie Juillerat and Kevin Thompson also find it rewarding to grow much of the produce they eat during the summer in just five tanks situated in a sunny spot in the corner of the backyard. Tomatoes, cucumbers, kohlrabi, potatoes, pole beans, yellow wax beans, bush beans, and herbs are rotated into different tanks from year to year to help stave off diseases like tomato and cucumber blight.
To ensure plants have enough nutrients, the soil in each tank is revitalized each spring with compost from one of their backyard piles. To maximize growing space, trellises are used for things like cucumbers and some types of beans. And once snow peas and other early vegetables are spent, they are replaced with edibles like cutting celery and nasturtiums.
By Meleah Maynard
Photos by Tracy Walsh