Creating 'little spaces' transforms Congdon Park backyard

Dedication and hard work create garden filled with beautiful color and contrast.

Joie Acheson Lee has transformed a backyard of tall trees and clay soil covered with wood chips into a lush garden landscape with outdoor rooms connected by pathways. Steve Kuchera /
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Walk past the colorful planters along the side of Joie Acheson Lee's house in Duluth's Congdon Park neighborhood, and you'll find a true secret garden.

Unseen from the street, an enchanting garden landscape unfolds before you as you reach the backyard. Plants please with contrasting foliage, colors, heights and blooms. Brick-lined pathways take you to garden rooms with places to sit and linger. There's one presided over by a female Buddha, another with a circular garden and a cherished bench. A mini courtyard features a fountain providing the soothing sound of trickling water. Towering trees rim the yard, their leaves rustling in the wind, keeping the world at bay.

The result is a calming, peaceful setting that was a standout on last month's Duluth Garden Flower Society's annual Secret Garden Tour.

The inviting gardens Lee has created are even more remarkable considering what she started out with — a shaded backyard full of tall trees, the ground covered with wood chips and the bane of gardeners: clay soil. The transformation from wooded backyard to showcase garden occurred over the past 15 years as trees were lost to storms or were removed, opening up space and letting in sun.

"This is a very old property, so we have a lot of old trees," Lee explained.


The makeover came in increments, one section at a time as more and more sunlight streamed in. Friend and fellow gardener Scott Keenan saw the transformation and said Lee is truly talented.

"She did it right; she took time doing it," he said. "She has done a great job developing color and textures. It really blends well together. She has a tremendous variety of plants out there and a lot of dimensions. She has utilized her space perfectly. She's got a passion for it and an eye for putting it all together."

Lee never envisioned what her backyard would become. She had an idea of what she was going for with each section. But there was no grand plan. And things seldom turned out as she expected.

"I never thought it would be this big," she said. "I never pictured the entire backyard being garden. I was creating little spaces, and that led to connecting them. It was spontaneous what happened. One thing led to another."

A female Buddha presides over a garden room in Joie Acheson Lee's backyard. The Buddha statue came first, with the space created for it, Lee said. Steve Kuchera /

The transformation

After buying her home on Greysolon Place in 2001, Lee spent several years working on the front yard in her first foray into gardening. When a large fir tree came down in the shady backyard, opening up space and letting in sun, she turned her attention there.

"There was no sun in the backyard for a long time," explained Lee, 63, who retired last year as associate director of the University of Minnesota Duluth's Kirby Student Center.


Using a wheelbarrow, Lee started by hauling load after load of wood chips from the backyard, uncovering the clay soil beneath. Because clay soil is extremely dense, flowers and vegetables won't grow in it.

"If it's Lakeside and Congdon Park, it's all clay," Keenan said, referring to the city's eastern neighborhoods. "You just can't plant in clay. You have to bring more dirt in for the gardens, amending the clay with good soil or compost."

Where she wanted to plant, Lee dug up the clay soil, creating holes, and replaced it with good black dirt she had brought in. After she started a compost pile, she instead mixed compost into the clay soil.

“Whatever is there you take out, and you put in what you want," she said of her plant choices.

For years her efforts were hampered by the browsing of deer that travel the creek along the side of Lee's property. But after a fence was installed in 2011 to keep the deer out of the backyard, her gardens took off.

What would become a total backyard makeover started with the first area that opened up behind the house and deck. From there, she worked her way toward the back and sides of the yard as more trees fell or were removed because they could have fallen on the house.

"I want people who never leave the deck to see the beauty of flowers," Lee said of the picturesque view from the deck.

Early on, while removing wood chips, she uncovered an old paved gully running across her backyard near the house. It puzzled her until she realized it directs runoff from heavy rains to the adjacent creek. It is now a feature of her garden landscape, with the addition of a small wood footbridge over it, leading to a pathway into the garden.


One of the first garden sections developed by Joie Acheson Lee in her backyard was this central courtyard with a bench and a fountain (hidden by foliage), today connected by paths to other parts of the garden. Its creation was prompted by a large tree coming down. This is the view from Lee's back deck. Steve Kuchera /

Transforming the site was hard work. Preparing the soil for planting, she came across numerous tree roots, often resorting to a pickaxe to work around them. She was dogged, kept at it and was proud of the arm muscles she developed as a result.

Lee learned from other gardeners, including her sister, Susan, and Keenan and his wife, Carrie. She toured gardens, looked at garden books and watched gardening programs.

Over time she honed her skills, know-how and approach. That includes juxtaposing plants with different foliage, sizes and heights and incorporating shrubs and small trees. She has a mixture of plants growing among each other. She aims for color all season long with staggered bloom times. She incorporates low groundcovers that spread, including herbs and Scotch moss. She’s not afraid to move plants, and will transplant a fern from her front yard to the back to fill empty spaces. She will leave some wild plants that pop up if they are about to bloom.

"If a weed comes up, and I like the looks of it, it stays," she said.

A key element to Lee's garden landscape is her combination pots by the house, along garden paths and on the back deck. They add pops of color, interest and added dimension. Lee plants 25 to 30 containers every year. She buys numerous plants to use from area greenhouses. Then, on one of the first sunny days in the spring, she has a marathon planting day. As she goes along, she decides what plants to combine in each pot.

"I never do two pots alike," Lee said. "It's one of my most creative times."

Even the stumps left by the 15 large trees lost over the years have a role in Lee's garden. The stumps remain, a reminder of what was there. Some hold potted plants, some serve as birdbath stands.

Lee’s husband, Timothy, has supported her efforts and her passion for gardening. He has helped with the heavy work, the upkeep of the creek area along the side of their property and with the watering, which takes about an hour.

But, he said, "It's definitely Joie's garden."

Contrasting foliage paired with a colorful pot, a wooden sculpture and a slab of slate propped upright combine for an eye-catching vignette grouping along a pathway in Joie Acheson Lee's garden landscape. Steve Kuchera /

Labor of love

With the completion of each section, Lee thought she was done. But then another tree would come down, and another newly sunny area would beckon her.

At the same time, the garden is always changing.

"Every year it's different; it doesn't look the same," she said. "Some plants die. Squirrels move bulbs. Things can morph into something else. Nothing has turned into what I thought it would be."

Sometimes she doesn’t realize how big a plant will get. Some got too big, blocking sights and pathways. Sometimes plants take several years to reach their beauty. Others are beautiful right away. Some areas need plant changes as the sites became more sunny.

"I'll never be done," Lee now says of her gardens. "It's always a work in progress."

But that's OK. She enjoys gardening — hard work, changing landscape and all. On sunny days, she is out in her gardens for at least four hours. Looking at her gardens feeds her soul. But working on them takes her places.

"I love to be out here; I love to garden," she said. "Gardening is a solitary pursuit. It takes the extraneous thoughts away. Everything gets very quiet. It's a holistic, physical, meditative and spiritual experience. Gardening is something that happens in your heart that doesn't happen otherwise."

A combination plant with mandevilla for height, miniature pansies as a filler and white lobelia for a trailing effect is one of nearly 30 pots Joie Acheson Lee planted this year for her yard. Steve Kuchera /

Joie Acheson Lee’s favorites

For ground planting

  • Baby's breath
  • Catmint
  • Daisy
  • Delphinium
  • Fritillaria
  • Icelandic poppy
  • Lobelia
  • Pansies
  • Peony
  • Scotch moss
  • Siberian iris
  • Sweet alyssum
  • Tulips

For pots

  • Castor bean
  • Lobelia
  • Nasturtium
  • Ornamental cabbage
  • Pansies and other spring plants that continue to bloom
  • Plumbago
  • Sweet alyssum
  • Perennials, which she plants in the ground later, including black-eyed Susan, lilies, moonbeam coreopsis, hosta and peonies
The newest section of the Joie Acheson Lee's backyard gardens features a circular design and a green metal bench that belonged to her mother. Steve Kuchera /

Candance Renalls is a retired Duluth News Tribune reporter and freelance writer.
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