When Susie Phill was a homesick teenage bride in a new country, she imagined the garden she would have someday. It would resemble the gardens in her native Greece, with rustic stone paths and an abundance of fragrant roses.
Her dream was deferred while she and her husband, Tommy, raised three daughters. For years, the garden bloomed only in her mind. One day she drew a picture and showed it to Tommy.
"He was laughing," Susie recalled. "He thought I'd never do it for real."
But over the years, with Tommy's help, Susie's dream has blossomed into reality.
"I see now what was in my head," Susie said, gesturing to the lush, Mediterranean-influenced garden that fills their Edina, Minn., back yard.
The story of the Phills' garden begins in Delphi, Minn., where both grew up. Tommy came to the United States in 1951, staying with an uncle living in Rochester, Minn. In 1957, Tommy returned to Delphi for a visit. There he noticed a beautiful brown-eyed girl. It was Susie.
"He was always looking at me," she recalled. He asked her parents' permission to court her. They sent him to ask her grandfather.
The two talked, Tommy recalled, after which Susie's grandfather gave his blessing. They married that year and Tommy brought Susie back to Minnesota. At first she longed for home. "Then I started having babies," she said, too busy to be homesick.
When the Phills bought their Edina house, in 1965, the large back yard was just an expanse of grass. Gradually, they transformed it. They planted bushes, flowering annuals and a maple sapling that is now a huge spreading tree, shading the large, circular patio that Tommy later built.
By the mid-1990s, the Phills were empty nesters. They poured more time and energy into their garden. They planted roses: hybrid teas, shrub roses, carpet roses, tree roses and moss roses.
Their garden boasts more than 100 rose varieties, including 'French Perfume,' 'Love & Peace,' 'Sonia,' 'Paradise,' 'Taboo,' 'Queen Elizabeth' and 'Party Time.' Susie can identify most of the roses by name, but not all. "I don't pay attention to names," she said. "If I like it and it blooms all the time, I buy it."
Roses are the dominant theme but there's a profusion of other plants, including daylilies, coneflowers, hydrangea, mums, bleeding hearts, snapdragons, butterfly bush and bitter bush ("pikrothafni" in Greek).
Susie's memories of Greece have shaped every aspect of the garden. In Delphi, a city famous for its ruins, gardening is an archaeological experience. "You find a lot of old stuff when you dig." She wanted that ancient feeling in her garden, so they added salvaged architectural relics and rustic brick-and-stone paths. "I wanted it to look like it was here 100 years."
Other elements that contribute to the garden's classic Grecian look include statuary, stone planters, a fountain, a pond and a grapevine-covered arbor. And Susie plants ground covers, such as sedum, in Grecian urns "because I like the way it looks," she said.
The Phills' 20-year gardening partnership reflects a clear division of labor. "I do the heavy work," Tommy said, such as building walls, laying paths and installing benches.
"I'm the creator; I plan in my head," Susie said. "I do the little fancy things, like placing and pruning. He doesn't have the patience for that."
Sometimes they compromise their different visions for what should come next. Tommy, for example, isn't keen to remove parts of his carefully laid walls or paths to make way for more plants. "I have to fight every time I want a piece of ground," Susie said. "He puts up a fight over the stones."
Their garden is time-consuming, Susie said, "but I don't think of it as work. It's a joy for me. I'm always doing something. I'll come out first thing in the morning and start pulling things, and soon it's 11 and I'll still have my nightgown on."
Susie Phill's rose tips
Keep digging. "Plant a little deeper than recommended. That will save a lot of roses dying over the winter."
Peel meal. "Never throw banana peels away. After you eat a banana, bury the peel at the root of the plant for beautiful (bloom) color."
A dung deal. Use a lot of cow manure (available by the bag at many garden-supply stores). "If you do that, you don't need a lot of chemicals to get large roses and vivid colors. I mix it with my homemade compost."
Hold the clippers. "Don't cut them back in the fall. When we cover them, they still have roses on them."
Brrrrr. The Phills prepare their roses for the winter by covering them with a 15-inch-deep blanket of dirt and leaves, collected by the bag from their neighbors. "It's also important to protect them from the frozen wind," Phill said. The Phills use burlap bags.