Glorious and Gay: Gardens of Our Community

Joanne Grobe, Kate Pabst, and Teeg. Photos by Mike Hnida
Joanne Grobe, Kate Pabst, and Teeg. Photos by Mike Hnida

Check out the Photo Gallery of each garden at the end of the article.

We love our gardens—those lush little oases of heaven in an urban setting that remind us of the beauty of nature, growth, and life. Each garden has its own personality and vibe, but they all provide immense pleasure to all who work in gardens or simply observe them. The following four private gardens, owned by GLBT families, will be sharing their beauty with the public during the FamilyMeans St. Croix Garden Tour and Tangletown Garden’s Garden and Art Tour this July. These unique outdoor spaces show that there are countless ways to create a little patch of paradise in your backyard; all you need is a shovel, a spade, and a lot of soul.

Tom DeGree and Dean Schlaak
FamilyMeans St. Croix Garden Tour
Lake Elmo, MN

When Tom and Dean bought their home six years ago, the gardens were completely non-existent. With a parking pad for a front yard, the couple knew they needed to completely renovate their outdoor spaces to reflect the beauty of nature. Sitting on two acres of land, the historic 1915 house was begging to be surrounded with beautiful spaces. Restoring a historic rock garden on the side of their home, creating a garden space in the front yard, and building a deck they have dubbed the “Deck Mahal,” the duo have created a variety of unique spaces in which to enjoy their time.

The best part of Tom and Dean’s gardens is the “mix of old and new…the things that are historic and mean something and the modern landscaping design,” according to Tom. With many old historic trees, a glider from the 1940s, a Frank Lloyd Wright sprite statue, a cupola recovered from an old church, and eye-popping flower gardens with chartreuse and burgundy highlights, the gardens are the perfect combination of history and modernity. The “Deck Mahal” is a perfect example of the balance between old and new; Tom says the deck feels “almost like a tree-house, where the deck is built around a 150-year-old oak tree.” One particularly beautiful feature of the garden is a five-foot-tall stone bird-bath, which the couple inherited when they bought the home. “It’s one of our favorite features,” Tom notes.

While many people would find such a huge garden restoration process daunting, Tom and Dean did nearly all the work themselves. But, unlike their previous home’s garden in Minneapolis (which they created in a weekend), their new garden spaces have taken several years to complete. Tom says, “It’s a process. We never plant something down and that’s where it is forever if it doesn’t look right…If something looks better somewhere else, I’ll pick it up and move it. That’s the difference between gardening versus landscaping. Landscaping has someone else come in and plant everything for you, and you basically just enjoy it. Gardening is being out there daily, watering the different areas by hand so you can see what’s going on.”

Tom also notes that their gardens are perfect for building relationships with the community. He says, “Almost every day, someone in the neighborhood that I don’t know will introduce themselves, and I’ll give them a tour of the garden.” He’ll point out the rare ginkgo bush, the large patches of chartreuse spiderwort, and the variety of unique grasses that grace the area.
For people who want to start a gardening project, Tom suggests to begin by designing the edges of the garden spaces with the help of a design or landscaping team. He also recommends that people closely observe the space and not assume that things have to be permanent. “There can be movement in the garden; it doesn’t have to be a static job.” By allowing the garden to ebb and flow, you’ll be able to continue having a unique space that truly reflects you.

Michael Wente and Gary Germain
FamilyMeans St. Croix Garden Tour
Stillwater, MN

An old saying goes, “When you plant a seed, you have to believe in tomorrow.” This hope is what inspires Michael and Gary to create and maintain their beautiful gardens. Though the home’s previous owner loved to work in the yard (maintaining pine trees, willow trees, lilacs, and hydrangeas), Michael and Gary have made significant changes to create their own magical place.

Now, the garden space has overtaken the whole yard. A pond is visible from the front window, and a waterfall graces the backyard, next to a fire pit and a large gazebo. The couple has also incorporated a variety of plants into their space, such as European Weeping Larches, pine trees, trees that form an archway, ten different magnolia trees, a large rhododendron, and an astilboides tabularis plant with gigantic leaves. Michael says, “It’s just amazing how big the leaves are because they’re about the size of an umbrella.”

A wooded hillside provides a great deal of privacy for the couple, who did all the work themselves to create their private oasis. Michael says that gardening is a therapeutic hobby. “It helped keep my mind off of things in the 80’s when our friends were sitting around dying from AIDS. I’ve always been a gardener, and it was the love of the flowers and that he’s [Gary] here, and I’m still alive.”

Michael suggests to future gardeners that they form a plan and consider what the space needs. Keep in mind whether the areas are sunny or shady, and find plants to match that. Though the couple’s gardens are truly spectacular, Michael suggests to “start small. Don’t go overboard.  Just enjoy it; it’s a relaxing hobby.” The couple spends most of their time at home, and with a garden like this, there’s no need to travel anywhere else in search of beauty. It’s quiet and serene—a perfect place to kick back with loved ones.

Though the couple particularly enjoys the fire pit area, the whole area is, as Gary describes it, “someplace magical.” Gary recalls that a friend told his girlfriend that he “wanted to take her someplace magical. And that was the best I’ve ever heard anyone describe it. I thought it was very fitting.” With lush, green spaces and flowing water features, the garden is truly magical and reflects the hope we can have in the future and in nature.

Joanne Grobe, Kate Pabst, and Teeg. Photos by Mike Hnida

Joanne Grobe and Kate Pabst
Tangletown Gardens’ Garden and Art Tour
Minneapolis, MN

Though Joanne and Kate (and all their neighbors) loved their “organic, free-flowing garden,” the couple longed for more structure in the “small, urban yard” of their Arts and Crafts home. After a great deal of planning (and with the help of landscape architect Mark Foreman from Loco Design, Tangletown Gardens, and Minnesota Green), Joanne and Kate decided they wanted to create a “modern and refined structure” that was still an “enchanted, cozy garden.”

Under the direction of the design team, the entire yard was excavated, keeping only one huge evergreen, a pergola, and two birch trees. Joanne and Kate, who are both designers, chose the colors and style of the garden, while Mark Foreman created structured spaces, or what Joanne refers to as “separate rooms.” Tangletown Gardens then assisted in choosing the plants, Motion Workshop did all the original woodwork, and Minnesota Green assisted with the installation.

Joanne’s favorite part of the design is the “amazing economy of space because we essentially have five different living spaces. They all have their own function, but it doesn’t feel busy. It’s what good design really looks like. It’s high-functioning. It’s almost like organized chaos; you have all these enchanted plants, but it’s within a really refined structure, so it feels calming. It’s wonderful when you’re inside of it.”

The garden features a pergola area with built-in booth seating, which Joanne says feels like a lounge area. The couple’s toddler, Teeg, has a rock area where he plays. Also present is a raised veggie garden, which Joanne and Kate tend.  A square, metal water feature provides a calming, bubbling soundtrack to the garden. Finally, there is an outdoor dining area with built-in seating, where the family can enjoy dinner on warm Minnesota evenings. Soon to be installed is a fire-pit, perfect for having a campfire in the urban jungle. Joanne notes, “It’s a very social, entertaining backyard. We have a lot of bigger parties, so it’s fun to see a lot of people in all areas of the yard and utilizing those functions.”

For Joanne and Kate, creating structure within the garden was vital. Though the couple originally had a beautiful garden that they were able to manage themselves, the addition of architectural structures allows them to fully enjoy their garden. For people who are re-envisioning a space, Joanne suggests having a design team in order to help plan the space. “Bringing in someone else, a landscape architect, was essential. He created spaces in that yard that we never could have even envisioned to that degree.”

When looking for a design team, Joanne notes the importance of “finding people who align with your objective. It’s always about figuring out who can translate your objective into something real.” By connecting with their design team, this family was able to create functional spaces where they can enjoy their time together in their enchanted gardens.

Dale Vanden Houten and Rick Scott
Tangletown Gardens’ Garden and Art Tour
Minneapolis, MN

Tucked away behind a fence and gate in a quiet neighborhood, Dale and Rick’s “Secret Garden” truly earns the name. An extremely private space that most people don’t even know exists, the couple’s Japanese-influenced garden is a perfect place for Dale to meditate and relax.

Originally, the yard was all grass and provided no privacy. Dale jokes, “Rick and I are not ones for mowing lawns much, so that was quickly removed after we moved in 25 years ago.” The couple also added the fence and the gate to create a more private, intimate space. Dale, who notes that he’s the one with the “green thumb,” installed a variety of interesting and unique tree specimens.  “My favorite one was a Weeping Larch, but now it has been replaced by a Weeping Norway Spruce, which is doing very nicely.”

According to Dale, the “garden is more about the space than it is about the plants, though they are a part of the equation. It’s tucked away behind the house and is a very private, peaceful space.” The entrance to Dale’s art studio is in the garden, which provides him with the opportunity to reflect and be inspired by nature. Some of Dale’s original sculpture is featured in the garden, adding a personal touch to the space.

Dale’s “nature-based and semi-abstract” artwork, which is heavily influenced by patterns, textures, and colors found in nature, will also be featured on Tangletown’s tour. (After all, it is also an ART tour.) He also uses Japanese textiles and ceramics as inspiration for his work, which he defines as “artwork on paper” (primarily printmaking, but including unique ink washes). “I’ll search and take note of patterns and textures that I see there, and then based off of that, I’ll create my own patterns that I use in my artwork.” Dale has now started to wrap three-dimensional objects with his prints which makes the art “more of an object than a framed artwork behind a piece of glass on the wall.”

The connection between art and gardens is “just beautiful,” according to Dale. “It’s such a natural fit. There needs to be a connection between more natural-themed art and the garden, although abstract, edgy art can work if it is in the right garden.”

Dale suggests that people “Watch and live with the space for a growing season. Learn what it wants. For example, our garden is largely dictated by a lot of shade, so I had to learn to work with that by studying the nature of the garden itself.” He also suggests that gardeners focus on the natural elements already present in the space and work with what is present.

Dale loves the calming and meditative quality of the Japanese garden elements, such as water features and stone statues. “I meditate, and I love being in here.” The absolute serenity of the garden provides a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.


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