Getaway Garden and Midnight Skies

Keith and Paula Miller’s relaxing backyard retreat features flowers and an observatory.

Driving by the Millers’ home, you would suspect that someone in the house loves colorful flowers. A large, partial-oval garden spreads from the front door toward the curb. Leafy coral bells, daisy-like coreopsis and lilies, including a large white Oriental one named Casablanca, are interspersed with glittery blue orbs and a bold blue birdbath filled with smaller flowers. These hues are echoed in a smaller strip of garden on the side of the front yard. Both gardens still show iris spears, letting us know that earlier in the season the garden was also full of color.

When Keith and Paula Miller bought their home in Maple Grove, they began remodeling immediately.  They decided to not spend summer weekends traveling to a cabin; the yard would be their retreat. At that time, the backyard was an empty pallet with grass being dominant. The only trees were in the city-owned land behind them.

 Besides beginning to plant flowers and trees, they added a deck and gazebo, so they could eat outside. It’s higher than most of the backyard so they catch a breeze from the northwest. Having an outdoor roof protects them from rain and too much sunshine. Plus, the view allows them to enjoy the multitude of flowers and plants Paula has added over the years.
“I just love flowers,” Paula says. She grew up in a family of six children. Her oldest sister loved vegetables and forced Paula to weed for many unhappy hours, so she hates vegetables, but the skills she learned as a youngster now help her create beauty with plants.

Keith was not a gardener, but had a landscape architectural background. They agreed: she would be the horticulturalist and he would design the layout of the yard. Over the years they have built and planted everything themselves with the help of three sons. The only thing hired out was construction of a walking path and removal of part of a hill, to create more level yard space. For their twenty-fifth anniversary, they added a swim-spa next to the deck and gazebo. It’s big enough to swim against a current, and great for relaxing, cooling off and children’s play.

Since their Maple Grove soil is mainly clay, over the years the Millers have added sand and compost, sometimes digging it in by hand and other times renting a rototiller. As the plants multiply, they are moved to new spots and new types are added. As the light and shady parts of the garden change, other plants are migrated in or out.

Every edge of the backyard is lined with a garden. One shady area has jack-in-the-pulpits, hosta, bleeding hearts and feathery astilbe. Another contains ferns. A long, sunny garden along a side fence features white and pink phlox, several colors of lilies, roses, peonies, iris, a gerbera daisy, white daisies, hardy hibiscus, another Casablanca lily and extremely tall joe pye weed.
“It’s lots of fun,” Paula says. “I’m at peace working in the garden.”

We Built It

Keith considers it a blessing that they have three sons who, over the years, have helped build several concrete block walls and three arbors. When the boys were seven, twelve and fourteen, they built a large retaining wall. Keith laid the first layer of concrete block so the wall would be straight. His seven-year-old laid the next two layers. The older boys finished the rest of the wall.

After the wall was built, Keith wanted a rock garden flowing down the hill behind it. Paula planted a bed of perennial flowers at the top of the wall. Behind that, Keith placed rocks of different textures and sizes that formed an implied stream which curves downhill. Larger stones defined the edges. Planted within the “stream” are herbs and other small greenery no larger than four inches high. They trail along the ground appearing as if underwater, cascading downhill with the current. Mushroom lights that shine earthward allow the Millers to enjoy the rock garden and implied stream in the evenings.

Keith remembers an incident when he was enjoying the quiet peacefulness of the backyard. A neighbor boy watched him for a long while, wondering what was going on. “Why is he sitting in that chair?” he finally asked his mom. The mother explained the contemplation that a garden can bring.

To The Moon

When a large tree fell onto one of Paula’s gardens from the land behind theirs, Keith made a childhood dream come true. The city removed the tree and an area that had been shady was now open to the sky. Keith asked Paula if they could move some of her plants from that space so he could add a domed observatory.

When he was about twelve Keith received a telescope for Christmas. Even though it was a cheap one, he loved looking at the sky.  Through the years, he acquired larger and larger telescopes.  When that tree fell, he considered it a sign that he was meant to have an observatory with an even larger scope.
Keith and his sons followed a specific pattern to build the square base that holds the domed observatory. It was finished two hours before the first snowfall in November 2010.

“I like to stay at home and be with my family,” he says. But the observatory has also opened the opportunity for Keith to share his love of the nighttime sky with groups of neighbors and friends.

“I love to share the wonders of the sky. Some people have never seen the rings of Saturn or the red of Mars,” he explains.