Each Season Lisa Montpetit Brabbit Finds Her Creative Outlet in Her Garden

Spring break means something a little different to lifelong Woodbury resident Lisa Montpetit Brabbit. Every May, she takes vacation from her busy job to work in her garden. “It’s my stress reliever,” says Brabbit, who worked for many years as a private practice attorney in personal injury litigation. “I loved that work, but it was stressful. So having a creative outlet was really nice.”

Brabbit, who currently serves as senior assistant dean for external relations and programs at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, looks forward to her annual foray into her garden. “I take those few days off and literally the moment I get out of bed I am going. In fact, my neighbors would laugh at me because I would go out with a miner’s lamp on my head working late at night,” she says. “It’s nice to just get your hands dirty and be in the garden and not worry about anything. You just get lost in it. Before you know, it’s 5 p.m. and you wonder where your day went, and you have not stopped moving. I don’t listen to music, there’s nothing else ‘entertaining me’—I just go.”

Calling herself a “lifer,” Brabbit has lived in Woodbury since the early 1970s, attending Royal Oaks Elementary, Woodbury Junior High and Woodbury High School. She and her husband built their Wedgewood home in 1995 where they have raised two daughters. Her three other siblings also live nearby in Woodbury.

Inspired by her sister-in-law’s skills in the garden, Brabbit began to experiment with her own home, learning what she could from books, websites and asking lots of questions. “I started by saying I want the exterior of my home to look nice, but what quickly became more important was the process. I thought, wow, this is therapy. I fell in love with that,” she says.

Brabbit describes her garden style as playful, colorful and happy. Her yard has lush 100-foot garden beds which curve with a hundred varieties of perennials and annuals which have been timed to offer constant color. “The more I did the more I learned. And the more I learned, the more I could apply, and then the more creative you can be,” Brabbit says. “I learned what combinations worked and what works in my yard—what works in someone else’s yard might not work in your yard. There is no right or wrong way to do this. It’s all trial and error. That’s part of the beauty of it and part of the fun.”

Her gardens have bleeding hearts, peony, day lily, and tiers of grasses, sedum, heliopsis, salvia, phlox, hydrangea and rudbeckia. “I like to have that crescendo of the color in the summer,” she says.

Her favorite flowers are tall garden phlox. “I must have 10-20 varieties in whites, pinks and reds,” she says. “The other plant I love is the clematis. They’re growing up the back of my garage. Mine are as old as the house is. But you have to keep them happy.”

Over the years Brabbit’s yard has evolved from full sun to some shade, and so her garden has had to change with it. Every few years, she gives her gardens a huge overhaul, removing the plants to redo the soil, splitting the perennials and sharing them with others. Each year Brabbit also hand-makes a special hanging flower basket for her 96-year-old grandparents, who have been married 75 years and live in St. Paul.

“The biggest challenge for me is the rabbits,” Brabbit says. “I feel a little bit like Elmer Fudd. They make me crazy. Sometimes I feel like I am serving up Old Country Buffet for them,” she laughs. “We have done a relocation program and brought them over to Lake Elmo Park Reserve and let them go. But it’s a constant battle.”

She also loves to create unique potted containers that appear throughout her garden.

“I look around the garage and see what would I bring to the Goodwill, and think, can I plant it? My kids love horses; they love to ride, so I took the old cowboy boots that are worn and dirty and put succulents in them or put a potato vine in it. It adds some interest.  I planted a soccer cleat with a succulent one year, because my kids were in soccer. Unexpected interest is fun.”

Brabbit’s youngest daughter graduates from high school this summer. “There’s nothing like a graduation party to kick you into high gear for the garden,” she says. “When my other daughter graduated from Visitation, I took and wrote ‘VIS’ with bright red salvia in the garden and it really looked cool, so we’ll do something back there again.”

Brabbit also has a passion for photography, and she enjoys capturing the impressive sweeps of color in photos.  “Photography lends itself to the same creative process as the gardening, and I think it’s why I’ve come to appreciate both of them,” she says. “It’s the same sort of underlying concept—what can you take and see the beauty in everyday life and preserve it into a really creative memory that tells a story? What are you trying to communicate, what message do you want to send, how can you capture it in a way that speaks to someone else. I take lots of photos of my kids and my friends’ kids, and see my photography as a gift to them. I view my gardens in the same way for visitors that come over. ‘Here’s a little bit of a gift from the Brabbits.’ I hope they see it that way.”  

Q + A with Lisa Montpetit Brabbit

Where do you buy your perennials, annuals and garden supplies?
“I do my shopping all over. From May 1-June 1, I’ll have been to six to eight different garden centers each year. I like to see what everyone’s carrying. Staples include Gertens, Bachman’s, Black’s Greenhouse & Nursery in Lakeland, Whispering Gardens in Cottage Grove, Funkie Gardens in Marine on St. Croix and Hedberg Landscape in Stillwater.”

Do you have a favorite gardening website?
“Some great websites are extension.umn.edu/garden and mynortherngarden.com. I also use the image library on the Bailey Nurseries website: baileynurseries.com/imagelibrary.”

What camera and lens do you use for photographing your garden?
“I shoot Canon and the lens makes a big difference. I shoot the garden with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II UM autofocus telephoto zoom lens.”