G a r d e n  T o u r  2 0 0 4

                            BGH -- Oct 04

                         As featured in the October 2004,
                         Better Homes and Gardens.

Serene in the City

By Don Engebretson
Photographs by John Reed Forsman


An assortment of creeping Sedum acre and Sedum kamtschaticum, seem to dance along the banks as Mexican river stones flow through the heart of Jim Handtmann's tranquil Minneapolis garden.

To the list of proven techniques for creating a stunning landscape, add this one from Minnesota gardener Jim Handtmann: squinting. "I'll stand in a corner of my yard, take my glasses off, and I squint," says Jim, who over nine years has transformed a rectangular flat yard in northeast Minneapolis into an eclectic Japanese-inspired garden. "Squinting makes everything a little fuzzy, and is particularly effective at night. You're not thrown off course by small detail. All you detect is shapes."

Jim's garden bursts from the center of his city block like a lava flow of form, texture, and color. Ample use of shrubs and small trees, combined with drastic changes in elevation throughout the property, are key to the garden's flowing, soothing, shape-oriented composition.

"With smaller yards people get tricked into thinking they're stuck with flat," Jim says. "You're not. Soil can be brought in, or dug from one area and moved to another. You can add boulders and walls and raised beds. If you try to fake it with tall plants, most of that height goes away in the winter."

In 1991, when Jim purchased the 1920's one-story home, the yard was dominated by, in his words, "bad grass." Three overgrown junipers and a lone rhododendron were the extent of the front foundation planting. A large hackberry tree in the backyard had such a dense canopy that during rainstorms Jim could remain outside for 10 minutes before getting wet. His renovating priorities were in the house, however, and he felt no urgency to make outdoor upgrades.

Jim credits the rhododendron, which bloomed the next spring, with piquing his interest in plants. But it was a drive through neighboring Wisconsin in 1995 that Jim had what he now recognizes as a defining moment in his perception of landscapes. "I saw a very old, large tree, off by itself. It had a long, bare, ugly branch curving away from it, but at the end of the branch, there was this great burst of lush green. And I realized that far from being ugly, it was the sculptural quality of the branch that made the leaves beautiful. Had the whole branch been green with leaves, one would never have noticed the tree."

With a newfound appreciation of nature, Jim turned his attention to beautifying his yard. Installing a basement egress window that year left him with a hefty four yards of soil -- and no place to put it. So he created his first garden feature, a three-tiered waterfall built from scrounged railroad ties that rose from the center of the back yard. "It came out looking really stupid, but I just kept adding plants and rocks." Entirely self-taught, Jim deduced intuitively that natural stone, shrubs and small trees -- not flowers -- were essential for forming the structural bones of his fledgling landscape.

Jim's frugal nature dovetailed with the city's plan to dig up and replace blocks of neighborhood streets, unearthing thousands of 100-year-old cobblestones in the process. The stones were free for the taking and Jim took plenty, fashioning walls, raised beds, and pathways throughout his backyard. Scouring demolition sites around the neighborhood for freebies, he carted home piles of weathered red brick. Not knowing what they might become he stored them on the cracked concrete entry walk until he realized they could be laid directly on the imperfect concrete -- and through the "bad grass" areas as well.

Striking contrasts in plant form, as well as in the color and texture of foliage, create endless points of interest throughout the enclosed backyard. Jim's use of multiple hardscape materials -- recycled wood planking, cobblestones, field stones, quarried wall stone, and salvaged brick -- adds to the diversity.

A dry-stack stone wall displays a new bonsai project. True to his style, Jim is learning the art of bonsai through hands-on experimentation. "Gardening classes aren't necessary," he says. "Besides, it's more fun to simply jump in and start figuring it out for yourself."

That it is made of cast stone is perhaps how one container keeps a stiff upper lip while enduring whimsical bangs of impatiens and a bold shock of ferns.

Jim Handtmann

Hands-on experience is the source of Jim's knowledge of garden design, and he willingly shares the lessons he's learned. "Realize the importance of hardscapes as visual elements," he advises. "Things like pathways, walls and fences, outcroppings, containers, garden edgings. Work with the shapes of plants, not just height and color. More importantly, do it yourself, experiment, get in there and get your hands dirty." And after a day of progress in the garden, don't forget to step back and squint.

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