See how two Minnesota neighbors transformed their unruly, shared woodland into a peaceful community garden full of top-performing shade plants.

By Writer Sara Reimer; Photographer Greg Ryan
November 06, 2012
A pond supplies water to the hand-dug creek and waterfall.

Neighbors Keith Miller and Randy Sipe had long ignored the dense quarter-acre pine forest that stretched behind their homes in the former logging town of Stillwater, Minnesota, 20 miles northeast of Saint Paul. Except for curious kids or roving animals, the dark woodland, thick with scraggly buckthorn, sat untouched for 13 years.

Gradually, the two men landscaped their immediate yards. Randy terraced his sloped backyard with rock; Keith covered his lawn with low-maintenance hostas. "I realized that a yard is a terrible thing to waste," Keith says. As both finished their individual projects (in the mid-1990s), they turned their attention to the unkempt land beyond. "Half was mine, and half was his," Keith says. "We figured it didn't make sense to develop it separately."

They quickly dreamed up something unique: an expansive, parklike garden-not just for their families but for the community."We decided it would be much more rewarding to create a garden for everyone to use," Keith says. Each focused on his talents: Randy planned the layout and hardscape; Keith chose shade-tolerant plants.

On sloped areas, they built terraces for multiple levels of hostas, ferns and grasses. Joining Wisconsin and Minnesota hosta societies allowed Keith to buy plants at bargain prices and, over time, fill the space with 1,500 hosta cultivars-his favorite perennials for their easy care and lush foliage. A hand-dug creek and concrete waterfall, accented with rocks from a nearby farm, enhance the serene atmosphere. Walking trails throughout the garden lead to its focal point: a paved seating area with a fire pit for cozy gatherings or quiet afternoons.

"It's a peaceful place to sit, listen to the water fall and decompress after a hectic day," Randy says. Both he and Keith agree: The biggest pay back is seeing their neighbors do just that.

5 Hot Hostas

American Hosta Society members voted these hostas as their most recent top picks. All are easy to find and grow well in the Midwest.

‘SAGAE' Vase-shape hosta with variegated green leaves and cream edges. "it grows upright, like it's sitting in a vase," says Gregg Peterson, president of the Minnesota Hosta Society.

‘JUNE' distinctive variegation makes this plant pop. "if given more sun, the leaves will look yellowish green," Gregg says. "if it's in deeper shade, the leaves will be dark blue or green."

‘LIBERTY' Like ‘Sagae', this dark green hosta forms an upright clump. Very wide yellow- or cream-color margins make this plant stand out when viewed from far away, Gregg says.

‘SUM AND SUBSTANCE' (Top) "this is one of the largest hostas you can grow [up to 6 feet across]," Gregg says. it's chartreuse in the shade, golden in sun.

‘BLUE ANGEL' as the name says, this large hosta has bluish leaves. Site them in the shade, Gregg recommends. they'll grow in sun, but the waxy coating that gives the plant its color will melt.

(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® May/June 2011.)