Homeowners Jim and Liz Midtlien take pride in their backyard retreat, which features a woodland garden they have lovingly nurtured over the past 15 years. Tucked behind the busy Bielenberg Sports Center, their home is on a private road among corn and soybean fields, one of a few rare properties in Woodbury that still has acreage.
Interestingly, Liz Midtlien was born in Saint Paul and raised in Woodbury, and her parents actually built the home in 1981 where she lived for a couple years as a teenager raising horses. The home was sold to the Kuhrmeyer family who owned the home for 18 years. When Liz and Jim saw the home on the market, they made a quick decision to purchase it from the Kuhrmeyers. With it came this very impressive garden.
The garden is tucked into a grove of mature evergreen, maple and oak trees, giving the 5-acre yard a sense of intimacy. An archway of climbing clematis leads you into the backyard, and boulder-lined pathways of stamped concrete wind around hundreds of lush perennials with nuances of color and texture. The property also has a horse barn and corral, patio with fire pit and in-ground pool. There’s a four-season porch where Jim, Liz and their son, a freshman at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., can enjoy the yard year-round.
“When we inherited this garden, people started showing up with garden books and we started identifying plants by the book, literally,” says Jim Midtlien, who found his passion in gardening after becoming the caretaker of this project. “I also learned by going to Gertens. I would recognize our plants and I would take the stick and bring it home so I knew what was what.”
“We’ve got some funky stuff, which is very cool,” Jim says. “We have these turtleheads I’ve never found in any nursery, and at least 25 varieties of hosta here. We have mini hosta; I didn’t even know there was such a thing. We have blooms literally until the hard freeze which is nice. Late June, and early July is the peak.”
Jim and Liz have maintained a relationship with the home’s former owner, Diane Kuhrmeyer, who started the garden 25 years ago. Kuhrmeyer still lives in Woodbury and has visited a few times over the years and enjoys seeing how the property has been maintained.
“Jim has always been so kind and invited me over to take a piece of this or that. It has just become more and more beautiful as the strongest plants survived,” says Kuhrmeyer, who learned to garden from her mother and grew up in a garden club showing arrangements at the Minnesota State Fair. “I just loved to play in the dirt while my boys were playing outside. I learned as I went from different experiments with the soil and new and different plant material. It was a lot of work and a lot of fun.”
Kuhrmeyer says she took particular care with the soil, bringing in organic materials from Composting Concepts in Woodbury, and amending the soil using various soil recipes from gardening books. She was always seeking tips from local garden experts to achieve the perfect balance for shady and sunny areas of her yard. It was this attention to detail that allowed her to cultivate some unique plants that still bloom in the Midtliens’ yard decades later.
One of these special plants is the martagon lily, which Kuhrmeyer acquired from the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. “It blooms around May 30 and has a unique waxy flower which hangs upside down,” Kuhrmeyer says. “It’s quite special.”
She planted varieties of pulmonaria (lungworts) and turtlehead, which were quite unusual for a backyard garden at the time. “I have wonderful memories in the backyard,” Kuhrmeyer says. “From any vista in the home you can look down over the property to the barn. The garden never failed to delight.”
The Midtliens have made the property their own, doing interior and exterior remodeling, as well as expanding the gardens. “We’ve moved the plants around, and recycled and replaced the rocks and boulders,” Jim says. “We’ve rebuilt different planters, plus expanded the gardens and added a courtyard fence up front.”
Jim admits the gardens require lots of maintenance. “I walk/inspect these gardens at least once a day, every day,” he says. Liz laughs, “He’s a micromanager.”
“I’m always planning,” Jim says. “I like to grab a bucket and shovel and move things around when I need to. My worst weed is maple seedlings. But I’ve found that if you get on top of it and get it in the spring, the rest of the year is a cake walk. In the fall, we get a lot of leaves. I blow what I can off into the woods, but what is left, I don’t do anything with. I let everything die gracefully in the fall and leave it. The leaves serve as a natural protection; in the spring it’s a natural mulch and everything goes back.”
Jim and his son also mow four acres of grass in addition to garden work. “When we had horses here, I recycled the manure in the garden,” Jim says. “A lot of reading says that’s not good, but it worked well for us. We’re at the point now where we can’t seem to kill anything; we’ve turned that corner. I rarely water. I depend on natural rain. We don’t have an irrigation system. Because of the amount of shade and part sun we have, I really never have any issues.”
Liz and Jim say they’ve been able to pay it forward to many friends and family, helping cultivate entire landscape designs from their garden. “Our whole cabin is furnished with plants from here,” Liz says. Jim adds, “I took 48 plants from this garden to our cabin and there was not even a dent.”
The Midtliens enjoy entertaining in this space. “We’ve had several fundraisers and wine tastings,” Liz says. “We string lights all over and it’s really cool. It’s a great yard and great space.”