For The Love Of Leaves

Lush tropicals mix with winter-hardy standards in a dreamy Midwest landscape.

It’s clear that a plant lover with an artist’s eye lives here, someone who creates stunning containers and dramatic tiers of lush foliage, vibrant color and contrasting forms.

The homeowner, Scott Endres, is indeed an artist—and a pro. He’s the co-owner of Tangletown Gardens, a popular Minneapolis garden center and landscape design firm. Scott’s garden designs make Minnesota look like the best and easiest place in the country for gardening, despite its challenges with severe Zone 4 chills.

No matter how you view his home garden in St. Paul—from the street or from the deck hidden away behind his lovingly restored Victorian house—it’s joyous and resplendent. Scott doesn’t seem to follow the usual prescribed gardening rules. At work and in his own garden, he’s not afraid to mix old-fashioned annuals and perennial standards with innumerable foliage-forward tropicals, conifers, grasses, ground covers and shrubs. All add color more with their leaves than their flowers, making the plants that do bloom even more exciting.

Scott’s home and garden reside on a surprisingly small lot, 80 feet x 40 feet, just large enough to, as Scott puts it, give him something to wake up to in the morning and wind down with at the end of the day.

“When I started looking for my ideal house and garden, I thought I needed lots of space so I could garden all the time,” says Scott. “But the reality is, when you garden and work with plants and people all day, you don’t always want to come home to a huge project.”

Color leads the eye up and into the landscape in Scott's garden. Deep reds of bloodless, 'Strawberry Fields' gomphrena and heuchera in the boulevard are repeated in the coleus and croton higher up in the yard.

Rip out, build up
And yet, it started out as an enormous project 17 years ago. When Scott bought the home, the neighborhood was marginal and the garden was a disaster. He set to work, ripping out overgrown yews in the front yard and the box elder, buckthorn and green ash entangled in the wire fence along the rear of the property.

He tore off a deteriorating deck at the back of the house, built a retaining wall and slightly raised the grade of the backyard, adding a cast-iron fence that provides privacy while still allowing airflow. Along the way, he’s also added terraces, patios, a moat-like water feature that encircles the back deck and a winding path through the side garden. Most important, he improved the sandy soil with organic matter to help it retain moisture.

Just two plants remain from the original garden: a mulberry tree off the back deck and a Miss Kim lilac outside the kitchen window. The rest is unmistakably Scott—a deliberate application of scale, proportion, color and texture—along with plant selections as inspired as they are whimsical.

“I wanted plants that would be special—things I couldn’t enjoy in a neighbor’s garden or a park or a public garden or my mother’s garden,” he says. He chose plants he didn’t see elsewhere, cultivating his taste for the exotic and the unexpected.

Touch of the tropics
Scott loves tropical plants and incorporates them into both his garden and his professional work, creating a look that has become a Tangletown Gardens signature. It’s a passion very much in keeping with the Victorian era—a time when world travelers began bringing home exotic textiles, spices and plants for the first time.

Scott transferred that globetrotter exoticism from the conservatory to the garden, combining banana trees, an amazing collection of elephant ears and selections such as the striking Tree of India (Amorphophallus konjac), which produces a foul-smelling flower but beautiful foliage, with more typical Zone 4 selections—geraniums, irises, peonies and sedums.

Scott admits that banana trees are one of his favorites. “I like them because of the drama they create,” he says. “People say, ‘Oh, bananas. You can’t grow bananas in Minnesota.’ But their natural environment is a rain forest, where it’s hot and humid. What’s more hot and humid than a Minnesota summer? You plant them in the spring, and when they get sunlight, you can almost watch them grow.”

At the end of the summer, his bananas tower 6 to 7 feet, adding star power to his garden and containers. Yet he’s very judicious in his use of attention-grabbers like these. He explains: “If you have too many stars, what’s the point of casting the rest of it? The stars have their role, but the supporting cast makes them look even better. You have to be careful to not to have too many focal areas or too much going on.”

That’s one reason he’s partial to foliage. His flowers come and go over the season, but his foliage plantings carry the design.

Who needs flowers with foliage like this? High and low, tropical and hardy, glossy and rough, dark and bright. The leaves in Scott's garden provide myriad interest along a garden path.

Diversity, repetition, contrast
Though his garden celebrates diversity with perennials, woody plants, annuals, tropicals and succulents, Scott is very deliberate about using repetition so that his small space isn't overwhelmed.

For example, several mounds of bloodleaf chicken gizzard (Iresine herbstii), a bright annual, appear in the boulevard, the first layer of the front garden. Up above the stone retaining wall, the second layer, a coleus displays almost the same color, creating a sense of continuity without limiting plant varieties.

In his designs, Scott likes to play with plants like these, which he refers to as connector plants, leading the eye from one area of the garden to the next. “Gardens don’t have to be on this flat plane,” he says. “I think all too often people are just so obsessed with what’s going on at eye level they forget about other elements.”

A ginkgo tree presides over the back terrace, where a moat-motif water feature adds interest to an outdoor sitting area and white, fragrant Nicotiana sylvestris pops in and out of the landscape.

He considers scale and proportion of the neighborhood, the house and its architecture, and the multiple vantage points from which the garden will be viewed: the street, the sidewalk, the porches, even inside the house. Red-painted deck boards, stair treads and trim on the house create continuity, too, while also providing a vibrant backdrop for lime-green, burgundy and blue leaves.

Multiple shades of coleus, heuchera and Purple Heart secretia contrast with the lush greens of Solomon’s seal, castor bean and perennial grasses. Old-fashioned favorites like nasturtium, polka-dot plant and Bonfire begonia make appearances, as does another of Scott’s favorites, Strawberry Fields gomphrena. It’s an ugly duckling in the garden center in the spring that produces cunning, small blooms in the summer. “It’s a great cut flower, dries really easily and the butterflies love it,” he says.

Not too serious, though thoughtful and certainly wow-inspiring, Scott’s garden reflects the gardener—as any good garden does. “It’s right for me, but probably not for everyone,” he says. “I start gardening in June, after everyone else’s garden is in. First I have to conquer it, and then I start enjoying it.”

Use containers to satisfy zone envy. Here, a collection of succulents lends a touch of Arizona to a concrete planter.

Scott’s favorite seasons are summer, naturally enough, and winter, the rest period he considers equally important for the garden and the gardener. “That brings balance to your life, and you can get excited and interested in new things” he says. “Gardening in the Upper Midwest is so gratifying and produces so many passionate gardeners precisely because of the fact we have winters. Once winter’s over, and the first robins come and spring arrives, people get into their gardens and put their full attention into them. It’s really pretty beautiful.”

Scott Endres’s talent for creating memorable pots—petite garden masterpieces—is on display in his own garden. His containers, more than 50 of them placed throughout the property, aren’t just pretty pops of color and interest. They connect the garden to the house. They line the stairs of the distinctive front porch, bring layers of foliage onto the back deck and create focal points throughout his yard.

“I like containers because a busy person can design, implement and enjoy them instantly,” says Scott. “Unlike a garden where you have to prepare the soil, figure out what to plant, plant it and then wait three years for it to fill in, a container can be beautiful in just a few hours.”

Containers also allow gardeners to audition plants without commitment. “You can play with plant combinations, color combinations and ideas,” he says. “You can totally let your zone envy play out.” He points to a gorgeous container of succulents in his backyard: “They look completely exotic—and they are. But you don’t have to have a winter home in Arizona to be able to have those plants.”

Containers, Scott says, are a boon to gardeners of small spaces. “When you run out of garden space, well … there’s always patio space and porch space.” When he comes across a new and interesting plant and can’t quite find a spot for it in the garden, he can always shoehorn in another container.

When planting a container, Scott suggests keeping the basics in mind. He cites his grandmother’s classic combination of red geraniums, spikes and vinca vine or asparagus fern. Though it may seem uninspired today, “the combination my grandmother put together back in 1976 was a really good one, with contrasting color, form and texture,” he says.

Of course, Scott extrapolates from there, using new and old plants in unusual ways to create fresh looks. Several large pots lining the driveway showcase Tree of India (Amorphophallus konjac), a tender corm that overwinters in his basement. It sends up one spectacular leaf that’s 3- to 4-feet across on a beautiful mottled stem that towers over other plantings like an umbrella. There’s nothing new about the plant, he says, but the way he uses it is different, sheltering bird’s nest ferns, crotons and coleus.

A pleasing container design is all about how the plants play off each other, he says. “Contrast in color, contrast in texture and form, contrast in leaf shape, sometimes. That’s the big thing: As long as there are contrasting elements, one combination can lead to the next and the next, and they seem to work.”

At a Glance

Location: St. Paul, Minnesota

Original Soil: Sandy

Soil Amendments: Good organic matter, usually dehydrated cow or chicken manure

Fertilizer: Slow-release 18-8 fertilizer in spring; Daniel’s Plant Food as needed mid-summer

Watering: By hand

Mulch: None—density of plantings provide their own

Light: Combination of sun and shade

Years in house: 17

Hours spent in garden per week: 5, for maintenance