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By Kim Palmer
Minneapolis Star-Tribune
November 12, 2003

What do you get when you cross a Japanese garden with a salvage yard?

You get Jim Handtmann's northeast Minneapolis lot, a blend of refined Asian garden elements set against a rugged hardscape of scavenged bricks, cobblestones and limestone.

Torn-up street materials, volcanic rocks salvaged from a motel, a wishing-well top discarded by a landscaping company -- all have found their way into Handtmann's garden, an arbored oasis with curving stone and brick paths over gently rolling terrain. "I think my yard weighs more than my house," he said with a smile.

Handtmann created the rising and falling topography using dirt that was excavated from around an egress window in his basement.

"A flat garden doesn't work for me," he said.

There are blooms -- zinnias, coneflowers, impatiens, balloon flowers -- but the prevailing palette is shades of green.

"I have so many junipers and evergreens that I get three extra months out of my garden," Handtmann said. "It still looks like a garden, even in snow."

And in Handtmann's garden, the hardscape is as important as the plants. "A lot of things get created because I find more materials that I don't want to pass up," he said.


His garden has an Asian flavor, "but I wouldn't call it a Japanese garden," he said. He's read some books about bonsai, the Japanese art of dwarfing and shaping plants, and has attempted "a kind of bonsai," with some of his evergreens. He also has a koi pond (although he had to stock it with goldfish after raccoons ate his koi), and he's had some success growing Japanese maples. "They're not supposed to grow in this zone," he said, but his densely planted, fenced back yard seems to create a microclimate that suits them.

"But a Japanese garden is serene, not as overly planted as mine," he said. "They [Japanese gardeners] aren't afraid to have space. Mine is too much, too busy. For the last two or three years, I've been subtracting rather than adding."

The distinctive garden covers the entire front, back and side yards of his property. ("I like it that I don't have any grass," he said.) But Handtmann's horticultural handiwork extends beyond his own lot. In fact, some in the neighborhood refer to him as "the boulevard guy" for his sidewalk garden, which has become a catalyst for others.

Handtmann's boulevard is lush with hosta, miniature evergreens, hydrangea, asters, monarda, coneflowers, Asiatic lilies and peonies. In addition to his own property, Handtmann also started boulevard gardens for some of his neighbors and continues to maintain two of them.

Next-door neighbor Jeffrey Aronen said he helped Handtmann build a stone terrace in front of their houses, after which Handtmann offered to tend the boulevard permanently. Since then, other neighbors inspired by Handtmann's example have created their own street-side gardens. And the boulevard garden, which now spans half the block, has become a destination for neighborhood walkers and garden lovers.

"It's a little Shangri-La," Aronen said. "It's nice to be able to sit outside with that kind of scenery."

To Handtmann, however, the boulevard also serves as a laboratory. "That's my farm," he said. "That's where I experiment and propagate and see what thrives."


Handtmann knew nothing about gardening when he bought his house in the Audubon Park neighborhood a dozen years ago. At that time, fishing was his hobby of choice. But the North Dakota native was used to river fishing, and he found lake fishing less than absorbing. "When I moved here, I stopped fishing and started gardening," he said.

The home didn't have much of a garden when he bought it. But he was inspired by the gardens of some of his neighbors, including Louise Johnson, who won the Public Broadcasting System's Silver Trowel award in 1994 for her terraced front yard. "I would go and look at her garden. I think she thought I was stalking her," Handtmann said.

After he introduced himself and told Johnson he admired her garden, she decided he was "a real nice fellow. . . . He's watched what I've done and done his own thing," she said.

At first, Handtmann wasn't particular about what he planted. "I used to buy plants at the end of the season. I didn't even know what they were. If it was a cheap plant, I'd buy it."

People also gave him plants and cuttings, and sometimes he helped himself. The wild grapevine that now covers his side fence originally was growing on his neighbor's side. "There were knotholes in the fence, and I pulled a few pieces through." (And this year, there was a bonus: sweet, edible grapes.) The Virgina creeper that now climbs his arbor started from a section he pulled off the side of a garage.

Handtmann's resourcefulness also is reflected in his garden accessories. The thick stalks of bamboo that he uses as decorative elements originally were tiki torches. He bought them at Big Lots ("Like Pier 1, only cheaper," he said), removed the torches and put them in metal lamps that he uses for nighttime illumination.

Night, in fact, is his favorite time in the garden. "I love being here at night. I salvaged a bunch of lights so it's well-lit. I do most of my major gardening at night. I can squint and see shapes, and nothing is washed out."

The garden, which is "still a work in progress," is fairly labor-intensive in the spring and fall, Handtmann said, although fall has gotten easier because he doesn't rake. Instead, he clears the paths, throws the leaves onto his beds and has "one big cleanup in the spring."

But it's a labor of love, and the two are related, he believes.

"People ask me to do their gardens, but I say, 'It's your garden; you've gotta do it -- that's the only way you'll care about it.' "

Jim Handtmann

Jim Handtmann's
Gardening Tips

Build it up.
If your garden is flat, use berms to add height and visual interest.

Off-season hues. Choose plantings that ensure your garden will have some color during the fall months, such as burning bush, asters and mums.

Wrong spot? Move it. "Some people think that wherever they plant something, that's the end," Handtmann said. But moving plants is "like rearranging furniture; nothing is permanent until it gets too big to move. For the first two or three years you can change your mind. Just don't transplant in July or August."

Sights to behold. Create destination spots in your garden that aren't immediately visible -- "something that you have to go around the corner to see," Handtmann said.

The wonder of weeds. Creeping charlie, the bane of many homeowners, is welcome in Handtmann's yard. "It makes a nice ground cover," he said. "It flows and blooms."

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Article reprinted from


Minneapolis Star-Tribune